Saturday, January 24, 2015

The 19th Friday: A "We Will" Differentiation Mindset

…Today’s teachers still contend with the essential challenge of the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse: how to reach out effectively to students who span the spectrum of learning readiness, personal interests, and culturally shaped ways of seeing, speaking about, and experiencing the world.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I am methodically perusing Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroom and will share her good thoughts on this important topic in my next few posts. As she suggests in the quote above, one 21st Century challenge educators face is no different than a key challenge facing teachers centuries ago: meeting the unique individual learning needs of every student in our classrooms while still ensuring that each of these young learners meets or exceeds his/her grade level standards. 

Recently, I read a piece suggesting that "Differentiation Doesn't Work." Before I had a chance to respond to the contrary, Savanna Flakes came along and did so for me--and much more eloquently than I can ever hope to--in this powerful post. Flakes rightly points out that saying "differentiation has failed" is to suggest that, "teaching has failed," since the purpose of teaching is to facilitate learning and that does not happen (in a classroom with more than one student, anyway) without differentiation. Flakes wisely points out that differentiation is not a specific series of teaching strategies, nor is it a methodology in which all students need to be engaged in different activities at all times. Instead, it is largely a mindset that effective educators adopt, a mindset that believes--sincerely believes--all children can learn and it is their job to ensure that they do so. Such educators instill this confidence within their students as well, knowing that a key determining factor in whether a student believes s/he will succeed is the teacher's belief in that student's ability to succeed. 

Tomlinson, too, devotes a significant portion of her book not to specific strategies for differentiating instruction, but to the mindset we must have as educators and the mindset we must cultivate within our students, a mindset that believes all students can learn if they put forth the necessary effort and we, as educators, respond to their needs, interests, and strengths as learners. According to Tomlinson, teachers in differentiated classrooms accept, embrace, and plan for the fact that the learners in their classrooms bring to school both many commonalities and the essential differences that make them individuals. Early in the book, she lists six key characteristics of differentiated classrooms. I share her six keys herein along with my own rephrasing of the characteristics into an action step/commitment we can take, each of which begins with two powerful words: We Will. When entire schools/districts engage in conversations about such essential teaching topics as differentiation and collectively adhere to commonly-shared instructional non-negotiables, powerful learning occurs--for all learners. In differentiated classrooms, teachers:

  • Let students know that they are welcomed and valued as they are. (We Will make a concerted effort to know as much as we can about each one of our students).
  • Are confident of their students' capacity to learn what they need to learn and will support them vigorously as they do so. (We Will recognize that our belief in our students’ ability to learn at high levels impacts their own belief in their ability to do so and will, as a result, give our students a most important gift: the gift of confidence).
  • Create a culture in which students work together to enhance one another’s growth. (We Will partner with our students in setting both group and individual learning goals and invest all students in shaping the classroom experience).
  • Realize that both successes and failures are inevitable in the learning process, and this classroom is a safe place for both. (We Will celebrate our students’ many successes and help them anticipate and respond appropriately to their  setbacks).
  • Know and communicate that hard work will result in observable growth. (We Will share stories of ourselves and others succeeding due to concentrated effort).
  • Establish routines and processes in the classroom designed to give all students access to whatever they need for success. (We Will establish non-negotiable learning destinations that all students must reach, yet create a multitude of pathways for students to take in arriving there).

Some hear the word “differentiation” and worry that it cannot be done effectively, particularly in classrooms, schools, and districts populated with students who come to us with ever-increasing "differences" themselves. Truthfully, attending to these widely varying needs, interests, abilities, and personalities of all students in any classroom is no simple undertaking. For me, it helps to understand that a starting point for establishing differentiated classrooms is to simply establish a “differentiated” mindset--one that is based on the six key characteristics shared by Tomlinson and one that we commit to as a school community by adopting a "We Will" mindset to make it happen. By committing to these six attitudes/practices we increase the likelihood that all students achieve to their highest potential; doing so is yet another way we Teach with Passion!


  1. Jeff, I appreciate your taking a look at the important work great teachers do to differentiate. I am a huge fan of the work of Tomlinson, and struggle to accept the argument made against it. I'd argue that, even in a gifted setting, learners will benefit from having a teacher who can skillfully differentiate and/of scaffold material. It's what good teachers do.

    When I want to be reminded of what highly effective differentiation looks like, I visit my music department. There, I will find one teacher, working with nearly 100 students, at varying levels of experience, who are playing one of over 20 instruments. The teacher employs prescribed methods for different sections to practice different sections, sometimes in groups and other times, individually. Grouping is at times, heterogeneous and at times, homogeneous, but it remains flexible. The learning environment is controlled in such a way that, remarkably, each student is getting precisely what he/she needs to be successful. How do I know? When I go to a concert and sit among hundreds of audience members, together we appreciate how well effectively implemented differentiation strategies have worked.

    Great stuff Jeff! Thank you for getting me thinking about this, and how to bring this critical discussion to every classroom.


    1. Dennis,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Completely agree that the fine arts is an area in which we excel at this. I often see the same in PE, too; in both areas, effective teachers are so good at having students perform the task, then stopping to provide immediate feedback, then having them perform it again. Good stuff; thanks again!