What is Differentiation?

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Heacox, D. (2002). What is Differentiation?  In Differentiation Instruction in the Regular Classroom: How to Reach and Teach All Learners, Grades 3-12. (pgs. 5-20). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Heacox begins this chapter with a definition of what differentiation is, commenting on the idea that it is, among other things, rigorous, relevant, flexible and varied, and complex.  She then brings these ideas to life by detailing examples of four different approaches to teaching—two elementary and two secondary teachers.  This was helpful early in the chapter to illustrate her meaning.  One of the interesting things that she touched on immediately was the fact that differentiation is based on pre-assessment, followed by a high level of organization.

Heacox then launches into the ways that our students are different, listing and describing nine key ideas:

  • Cognitive Abilities—comparing traditional ideas of intelligence with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.
  • Learning Styles—It was good to see that Heacox differentiates between multiple intelligences and learning styles, which she defines as a host of theories related to sensory learning and environmental and emotional factors.
  • Socioeconomic and Family Factors—Obviously, families and financial realities are varied for our students.
  • Readiness—Some Students are more or less ready for the content and skills we are teaching on.
  • Learning Pace—The amount of time it takes students to master a new skill or concept
  • Gender Influences—Interesting that she cites Michael Gurian in this section as a “brain researcher.”  I’ve read him and he’s not.  He’s a psychiatrist and family counselor who has reported on gender issues.  Anyway girls and boys learn differently.
  • Cultural/Ethnic Influences—These influence attitudes and ideas about learning.
  • How Students Value Learning—A brief discussion about motivation, commitment, enthusiasm and family attitudes toward learning.
  • Confidence in Learning—This idea reminded me about some of my research related ARCS model of motivation.  Particularly the “C” component—confidence.

After discussing ways students are different, she discusses what we can differentiate for them.  She lists three things: the content, the process, and the product.  The content is basically what we are teaching—the topics, concepts or themes.  The process is how we go about teaching it—how complex or simple our approach, or the variety of ways that we attempt to engage students.  And finally the product is the end result of the learning.  “Products reflect what students have understood and been able to apply,” she says.

Finally, Heacox rounds out her presentation here with a discussion about the role of the teacher in differentiation, reminding us that we are facilitators and collaborators in the learning process of the student.

Heacox then concludes this chapter with a lengthy discussion she entitles: “Questions and Answers About Differentiation.”  But really it is a very well written and tactful section that deals with objections that teachers in the trenches will have with her  previous content.  This section is meant to deal with the people saying to themselves, “Yeah, this all sounds really nice and all, but I operate in the real world.”  Each answer to each question or objection begins with Heacox using a bit of detail to explain the reality the objection is based in.  She doesn’t deny the realities or the challenges and she doesn’t sugar coat or belittle them.  She acknowledges them and deals with them head on.

In all, this was a helpful chapter in providing a base of understanding about the reasons, the benefits, and some practical approaches to differentiation.

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