Differentiation: What Students Needs to Know

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. -Dr. Seuss


Differentiation (diff-er-EN-she-AISH-en) is something every student should understand. It’s a powerful concept. In short it is about treating students differently. As Rebecca Alberg explains, “Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need.” Students have different prior knowledge, strengths, and interests.

Let your teachers get to know you
To do this, your teachers need to know you well. The better they know you the better they can modify things to suit you. Your test performance and how you act in class gives us some insights. But you can also advocate for yourself. Make sure your teacher knows your needs. If you had a teacher who did something that helped you learn, tell us. If something isn’t working for you (i.e. a common homework assignment) make it known (and suggest an alternative).

Here are a few common things teachers can do to differentiate to suit students’ needs:

Providing different textbooks (or handouts) for different students. Yesterday a teacher told me a great idea; he tries to find science textbooks in other languages for his students who have a different first language.

Different types of assessment. You’re probably stuck with your major tests. But you might be able to do a poster presentation instead of an essay. Or your teacher could change the length of your assignments, or give some students more help (or more chances for feedback on drafts) than others. Again, the idea is that fairness means treated students differently.

Scaffolding or reducing workloads. During a lecture your teacher could give some students a handout with the notes on it, but with some blanks in it while other students are expected to take their own notes.

Enrichment. This can be a controversial one. Do you want to be asked to do more work simply because you’ve shown you CAN do more work? Well, maybe yes if you can see that it helps you reach a goal that’s important to you. Sometimes when students finish early I might have them work on their exam revision materials, producing mnemonics and mindmaps. So they are synthesizing, evaluating and making judgements about the material. It helps them the most, but also the rest of the class. Alternatively though, if you can think of an enrichment activity that you think would benefit you more, suggest it.

Acceleration. This is my personal favourite. If you can pick up the pace and get ahead of the rest of the class you definitely should. The faster you can get through the core material the more time you’ll have for revision and consolidation of your understanding.

Those are just a few.

Play your part
Now you might be tempted to start asking for a lot of modifications (i.e. maybe different assignments and more support) from your teacher. Certainly, if you think you would benefit, it’s worth discussing it with your teacher. Some will be more open to it than others. Personally, I absolutely love it when my students can tell me what works for them and I love to change things up to suit my students. As long as it’s about helping them to learn more, rather than just to avoid work.

What I think is most important is that you are always learning about how you learn best. What motivates you? What skills do you most need to work on? This is the most valuable knowledge you’ll get in High School.

(For more information on differentiation, this is a great article, written for teachers by Edna Sackson.)

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