A Wakeup Call for Differentiation

By David Nurenberg

Even if a course is designated “honors” or “remedial,” anyone who has taught real children knows that there is no such thing as a homogenous class—unless it has just one student. Forty years of research tells us that just because two dozen students share a classroom, it doesn’t mean a one-size-fits-all approach will serve them.

Thanks to the pandemic, those students don’t even share a physical classroom anymore. Students are in so many different situations vis a vis their ability to engage with class, and the amount of support they have available at home, that we can no longer harbor any illusions that “teaching to the middle” will suffice.

Fortunately, technology has made differentiating instruction more feasible than ever. For all its disadvantages, remote schooling has been a boon for personalizing learning for our students.

Platforms like Google Classroom make it simple and straightforward to provide repositories of different lessons, activities and resources for students at different readiness levels (I employ the rhetoric of “readiness” because “ability” implies a fixed intellectual capacity, while “readiness” better reflects how our ability changes with time, new learning and practice). We can make available, send out or share different activities for different students, so struggling learners aren’t overwhelmed, and high-readiness ones aren’t bored.

Such differentiation must involve type, and not just volume, of work. Differentiation isn’t when a math teacher assigns Enrique one page of word problems, while higher-achieving Jamila is “rewarded” with three pages to do. Instead, each student gets one page of problems, but Enrique is working with simpler material—say, single-variable algebra, perhaps with additional scaffolds and aids. Jamila also has one page, but she’s tackling two variable equations. If Enrique is the higher-readiness learner in his ELA class, this doesn’t mean he reads two books while Jamila, at a lower readiness level here, reads one. Instead we engage Enrique with complex analytical questions regarding themes and motifs, while Jamila’s assignments focus on basic plot comprehension and characterization—at least to begin with.

Successfully differentiating instruction requires constant formative assessment to keep track of the ever- changing nature of every student’s needs and preferences. Zoom and its ilk provide built-in polling functions, and there’s always Quizlet and Kahoot. Some of the high-end platforms like NoRedInk and Learnzillion are now offering their robust paid features for free during the crisis; these include sophisticated analytics for tracking student progress, and in some cases automatically adapting lessons accordingly for different students.

Through fancy software packages or manually, we can also differentially engage students by catering to their learning preference (or, conversely, challenging them with something out of their comfort zone). We could offer or designate different options for students: Khan Academy videos for independent learners, peer-assisted instruction for more social learners (either synchronously via private chat or virtual breakout rooms, or asynchronously through shared Google docs). We can also still do synchronous teacher-led lessons for students who learn best that way.

Come final assessment time, differentiating by product gives students the choice of multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge: test, essay, visual collage, video or something else that matches their learning preferences and interests. The key is using clear and consistent rubrics to look for mastery of the same content or skill, whatever product they create. That way, there are no “easy A” options, or dilemmas about awarding points for artistry (unless, perhaps, you’re an art teacher!)

The hardest thing for me about differentiation has always been classroom management. It’s difficult to stay on top of everyone, keeping all my students in their various activities on-task. I had to build in anchor activities and do-nows for students who finished early, extra time for kids finishing later, and the moment my back was turned someone inevitably tried to cause trouble. I couldn’t simultaneously be everywhere the kids needed me to be.

Online teaching actually solves that problem. Students can access what they need on demand and take the time they need to do it, without my constant attention. If I need to provide extra help to someone, it’s not directly taking time away from other students who need me. Best of all, no one’s making distracting animal noises (although sometimes I do have to disable chat…).

Among those students privileged enough to have reliable internet access, and the time and health with which to use it, remote learning tools open up unprecedented avenues for equity. It might have taken a pandemic to enable true differentiation, but that’s hardly a requirement; these tools will still be around once we all eventually return to the classroom.


David Nurenberg, PhD is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 20 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?, was published by Rowman and Littlefield this year.

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