To understand the word "differentiation" and what it means to a teacher’s work, as well as a student’s classroom experience, is to equally understand what differentiation is not. First and foremost, differentiation is a best practice that is expected to be in every classroom, in every district, available to every student. It is this practice that enables the formation of a path to learning for each child in a classroom. The catalyst for making this happen is not necessarily identifying a student’s abilities and limitations, but instead evaluating their interests, balanced with needs, and then meeting those needs through the avenue that high-interest, authentic learning can provide. The ultimate goal is that each student learns and accesses that learning at a point that is true to their own needs and interests. Facilitating this in the classroom requires exceptional skill, practice, intuition, and resource.
Carol Ann Tomlinson, author and renowned educator, has dedicated much of her research to the practice of differentiation. She describes the goal of teaching each individual student at their “point of entry into the curriculum and perspective as a learner [as] more than difficult. It [can be] a goal beyond the grasp of even the most expert teacher. The outcome for students who are outliers, however, is likely to be vastly different when a teacher pursues that elusive goal than when the teacher—by intent or default—abandons it.”
It is with that goal in mind, that we as Winnetka educators dedicate ourselves to the successes of each of our students, while recognizing the diversity of need, interest, and strength within a classroom of learners. The Winnetka Public Schools has a long and rich history of using this practice in progressive education. As such, our classrooms are not leveled or tracked in any way until our students reach seventh grade. Differentiation can be typically misunderstood as a way of ability grouping students to meet their needs in a homogeneous environment where need and ability are matched. Ability grouping is a form of leveling or tracking, which is a practice not synonymous with differentiation.
Until Grade 7, District 36 classrooms are heterogeneously composed; thus, differentiation is a key component of our practice in meeting the needs of all students at their given access point for learning, while simultaneously providing them with the authentic experience of learning alongside peers with diverse needs. Educational research proves that students benefit from the gift of a learning environment in which they are both challenged and affirmed by a breadth of opinions, ability levels, skill sets, and natural talents.
The way in which a teacher accomplishes this is through a combination of professional development and support, access to multiple resources, and consistent assessment of growth and progress as a means to evaluate the changing needs of a student body.
Tomlinson, C. A. (January 01, 2003). Teaching All Students - Deciding to Teach Them All - How -- And why -- We must differentiate instruction in a mixed-ability classroom. Educational Leadership : Journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.e.a, 61, 2, 6.