Differentiation…from the Curriculum Coordinator’s Perspective

Below is the response to last week’s posting from Kathleen.  It is a response that I wanted everyone to take some time to access…so here it is this week!  Thanks to Kathleen for this thinking.  

After reading, Nicki’s blog post last week, the part that stuck out to me was the wondering from the educator around how to possibly meet the needs of every learner…and seeing that as the need to plan for every student, and then just this past weekend the following article “Differentiation Doesn’t Work” was posted to Facebook by a teacher friend, and it made me wonder about the meaning or connotation that may have developed around that word. The article can be found at:

The article references ‘differentiation’ as a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students. The author notes that is shouldn’t be complicating teacher’s work (and that I do agree with). When the author references differentiation being harder than juggling with one arm, it makes me wonder again if that is because of what we believe the notion of differentiation to be. I think the author is on to something near the end when he talks about understanding what/how we are differentiating – the curriculum or instructional methods or both…

Over the last two days I have been fortunate to participate in Early Learning sessions, and we had great conversation around the notion of learning TO do something and learning ABOUT something….and the need for both of them to be merged together, and it helped be to further reflect on the article and wonder if maybe that balance has been missing when it comes to understanding the notion of differentiation? We know that the work being done in the Early Years is helping us to redefine ‘school’ with the belief that kids are more capable then we first understood.

We know that here are many ways to differentiate – by task, which involves setting different tasks for pupils of different abilities; differentiation by support, which means giving more help to certain pupils within the group; and differentiation by outcome, which involves setting more ‘open’ tasks and allowing pupil response at different levels; be resources, allowing pupils to access information at their own level, by questioning, to allow you to target purposeful questions at specific pupils…and I’m sure there is many more…

I’m not sure how the author sees differentiation as working only if we return to the days when similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own…as what would then be differentiated??

It brought me back around to the importance of our Conditions for Learning and the work we are doing around mindset and the viewpoints of our students around their sense of belonging, and how maybe one of the reasons why educators struggle with differentiation is because they are still ‘teaching to’ students instead of ‘learning with them’?

During my travel I often listen to podcasts, and the two I listened to (will mention below) on my trips this week helped me to reflect even further on the article….(I find that reading and hearing things that create tension help me to reflect on things and try to make connections).

After listening to the podcasts, it became even more clearer, that one of the reasons differentiation may be difficult is because it relies on the need for us to understand ‘who’ our learners are and what their strengths are, as well as the trajectory of learning they are to be on. A lot of it comes back to planning, and understanding what our long term goals are for the students and helping them to understand the goals and see the purpose/relevance to them, and then to understand where they are and working with them to set smaller goals, helping them to see that they are capable of success and believing in them that they can and will be able to obtain the larger goal….that differentiation is just ‘student-centred leadership’.

The podcasts are from ASCD and the first was titled: Believing in Students So They Believe in Themselves and can be found at:

In it educators shared responses to “what is the difference you are trying to make?” and “how do you know you’ve made a difference?” Themes emerged around creating environments so that all kids would want to be in school and enjoy learning,helping students discover their strengths/passions and who they are as learners getting students to believe in themselves – their ability and believing that is ok to fail meeting students where they are – not as a challenge but as an opportunity for growth…having students realize their own potential

They talk about giving up control in the classroom, one of the speakers makes a good comparison to coaching, comparing it to what a practice looks like, and how to teach in the classroom they same way that you coach – that it is at times a very noisy, collaborative, chaotic environment, where the learners are doing different things but working towards the same goal; that when you give up the control and invite a little chaos in, that’s where learning begins.

They reference how student focused learning environments can make a difference; that it’s the content and the process – the relationships…. and the importance of interpersonal skills and how they are all interrelated; the importance of a healthy environment, putting the onus on the student, that they are part of the environment/part of the community. And the importance of having every student believe in themselves and have high expectations, and that expectancy begins with having relationships… the need to help them establish short term goals so that they can see their success over time, so they can believe that they can get to the long term goal.

The second podcast (also from ASCD): Is Resilience the Secret to Student Success
(http://www.wholechildeducation.org/podcast/is-resilience-the-secret-to-student-success )
is also relevant here, especially after hearing George speak to us last week. It also notes the importance of our belief system and how it should reflect that all students are capable and competent, hence we should be able to differentiate and “create, provide, support and sustain environments that nurture the development of children”. That it all starts with a ‘mindset’ approach, the importance for all to believe in the capacity of all individuals.

They also state that resilience is a philosophy… a process that should be integrated across all content areas, ..it’s not what we do, but the manner in which we do it… They note that it is tied to the sense of belonging one has and how that sense of belonging becomes the underpinning of resilience, and how the classroom becomes one of the most powerful sources of belonging in a child’s life….

They reference Bonnie Benard….that all individuals have needs…………..love, power, belonging… and identify her three protective factors: caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation and contribution. That when these factors are found together in an environment it leads to the development of personal strengths, which led to life success and outcomes…and that it all begins with the adult having positive beliefs in the child.

So (to make a long post short…..) it all made me think about how does differentiation link to students’ sense of belonging and to resiliency…and to growth mindset?…all are a process and are very closely related to each other, as are our conditions for learning and more importantly the need for conversations around these topics so that we are being responsive and meeting the needs of our learners so that we can help them to move forward. It also made me think about the following quotes:
“If children are given the chance to believe they’re worth something—if they truly believe that—they will insist upon it” (Maya Angelou).

“Every child is gifted – they just unpack their packages at different times.”

And then when Wiggins posted a response to the rant in the blog Differentiation Doesn’t Work, Kathleen added to her response (and if you follow Twitter, you will not only see the response from Wiggins, but from MANY who refuse the “rant” blog…

I just have to add on the following link…. I apologize for making it even longer – or for giving you yet one more link to check out…but Mr. Grant Wiggins (if you don’t yet follow his blogs…you should 🙂 posted tonight a reply to and a rant to the article: Differentiation Doesn’t Work… click on the link to access his ‘rant’ 🙂


…my gut told me from the beginning that Mr. DeLisle’s viewpoint didn’t have much merit… but I wasn’t aware of the names or had yet taken the time to check out his references…I am so grateful to see that Mr. Wiggins has taken it on and am sooo looking forward to his next posts where he plans to pursue some of the questions at the end…and I’d love to see if Education Week posts or responds to his post 🙂



Until next week…thanks for replying! 


8 responses

  1. I thank you Kathleen for directing me to the Wiggins blog and providing an indepth rebuttal to the content. I too saw the facebook posting and immediately went to the source of the article. When I saw that the author of the article is the president of a corporation that works with gifted youths I took note. I decided that the article did not warrant a reply and dismissed the post from my mind. In retrospect perhaps I needed to take a more indepth approach given the way the psoting seems to have made its rounds of social media, even in our board. A case in point, a day or so later a staff member and I were chatting and she brought up the article as she too had seen it on social media and we actually discussed the reference for the article instead of the article itself.
    I see this as a great opportunity and reminder as we move to a time in education where evidence and research based practice are emphasized that we all need to remember to check the references.


  2. |I too read the post and the rebuttal and in the end what I was able to take away are great resources for differentiation. It is a journey in our learning with our students but one that is worth the time. It is what is best for the kids and if we honour the strengths based approach, then it only makes sense that we would take the time to see what ways students can best articulate their learning!!!!


  3. Thanks for Sharing Kathleen….got me thinking:)

    Kathleen said…… “all made me think about how does differentiation link to students’ sense of belonging and to resiliency…and to growth mindset?”
    Kathleen’s comments got me thinking about the connection between Differentiated Instruction, focusing on learning goals, and growth mindset.
    In Carol Tomlinson’s latest book, Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd Edition (May, 2014), she talks about how classroom “teachers ensure that students compete against themselves as they grow and develop more than they compete against one another, always moving toward—and often beyond—designated content goals.” In today’s world, competitiveness can be a healthy push for some; but do our learners understand that it is more important for them to embrace that growth mindset and push themselves based on their own accomplishments, their own growth?
    We often talk about learning goals and success criteria, and although the end goal may be the same for our learners, the path they take to get to those goals likely looks very different for all of them. With a growth mindset and a focus on the end goal (a goal orientated approach), they are more likely to experience pride and satisfaction in their accomplishments. Encouraging a learning goal focus and providing students with opportunities through DI, gives them an appreciation for the skills they have developed and it is reflected in their work.
    In our differentiated classrooms there is a logical flow of thought: an encouraging environment that supports learning, compelling learning goals that engage students’, formative assessments that guide the educator and student toward important goals and carefully aligned instruction that address the strengths and needs indicated by assessment. In chapter 1, Carol states that “Although this sequence of logic is more or less common sense, nonetheless it can be difficult to achieve—as common sense often is. In part, it can be difficult to implement and plan for effectively differentiated classrooms because we see few examples of good ones.” This chapter goes on to describe and provides concrete examples of what effective practices are in place for DI.
    Kathleen says: “one of the reasons differentiation may be difficult is because it relies on the need for us to understand ‘who’ our learners are and what their strengths are, as well as the trajectory of learning they are to be on.” The process of coming to know our students as learners often means more than merely acquiring social or administrative information- names, ages, a bit about their families, maybe something about their social circles. To ensure their learning is maximized, as educators we need to go well beyond the superficial, and dig deeper. In building positive school climate and trusting relationships we are able to “dig deeper” in getting to know our learners and then develop efficient and effective strategies for DI.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that notion of competing against ourselves ! That is something that makes a lot of sense. It is not an easy process but it helps for the learner to focus on their strengths and move their learning to that next level !


  4. When we plan with a big idea or essential question, what is the impact on our ability to differentiate? When the question is large enough to allow for multiple entry points based upon the pre-assessment/diagnostic information that we obtain from our students (thus also allowing us to compact the curriculum), are we able to differentiate to a greater degree? Does obtaining information that allows us to figure out what a student needs at the beginning of a period of instruction (based upon solid planning as Kathleen indicated) ensure that we plan purposefully for groups of students (as we know that flexible groupings are key to differentiated instruction)? Does it ensure that we make the learning more manageable and relevant for students? These are theoretical questions…looking for the practical experiences!


  5. Chapter 3 from Ricci really outlines the whole process of the pre-assessment, curriculum compacting, flexible grouping, ……what I appreciated from this chapter was how it stressed the importance of finding out whole your learners are and what do they already know. She also talked about anchor activities – not EXTRA work but something that would “enrich the learning of the content being studied.” I also think that this spoke how we support our level 3 and 4 learners. Enriching their learning and not boring them with work that they already know. I also liked the fact that we should be showing students what it is that we are assessing and activate prior knowledge with students before the pre-assessment. What we are hearing in the research is that we need to honour learners time and if students already have an understanding of concepts/skills/etc. then we need to be responsive to their needs.


  6. The discussion leads one to question what is teachers’ understanding of DI. It reminds me of the article “Jonny can’t fail” that showed up in the OSSTF magazine after the student success initiatives were implemented. Both show misconceptions and use examples of poor practice to make their point. Good instructional practice must have differentiation even in streamed classrooms.


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