Understanding Differentiation in Special Education

Differentiation is an over used buzz word, but at its core is an approach to education that works really well for meeting the needs of students with disabilities. This post goes past the buzz words into what differentiation is and how to use it in special education.

Teaching Tips: Differentiation

The buzz word

In 2007, Beth Rubin interviewed the teacher of a multi-level classroom, one with students working at a really advanced and a not so advanced level. She asked about differentiation and making it work. Here is what the teacher had to say: “Differentiation, to me.. .seems like ‘do all that, and make sure you get to every kid in your class.’ And it just seems to me like I’m being asked to do a lot and it seems hard” (p.82). Too often teachers are told to just make it work, to figure it out– like the administrator in another study who told the researchers,  “There is nobody in the district that can say this is what it [differentiation] is. This is what it looks like, here is what we are doing, here is how you structure your time and here is why” (Wilcox et al., 2015, p.20). In districts where differentiation actually works though, administrators and teachers actually get those type of guidelines (Wilcox et al., 2015). In case you are not in one of those amazing districts, today’s post is on what exactly differentiation is and what it means for your special education supports. 

So what does differentiation mean in education?

Like all good buzz words, differentiation has lost most of its meaning. In the articles I mean, differentiation can mean anything from offering lots of different levels of courses to what Carol Tomlinson, the guru behind differentiation and also one of the nicest people I have ever met, meant. She wrote that differentiation is “an approach to teaching in which teachers proactively modify curricula, teaching methods, resources, learning activities, and student products to address the diverse needs of individual students and small groups of students to maximize the learning opportunity for each student in a classroom” (Tomlinson et al., 2003, p.21). Basically, according to her, differentiation means knowing your students and finding ways to push each of your students to reach ambitious goals. I feel like this should also just be known as the ideal for inclusive classrooms, period– or maybe just for education.  Unfortunately though, for most of us that definition comes with a lot of lofty goals and few details on how to pull it off without burning out. Note that differentiation is different from UDL. I will talk more about UDL in another post, but the basics are that both are really useful for supporting inclusion, but focus on slightly different things (differentiation focuses more on the knowledge of individual students and UDL on broad access points from technology– massive over generalization but we will go with it for now).



Why does differentiation matter for special education?

Before we hit the whats of differentiation, here’s a quick pit stop on the whys. Differentiation is key to making inclusion work (Villa & Thousand, 2005). Differentiation takes away the assumption that all students are the same, that they learn the same and think the same and have the same lived experiences. When you take away that assumption, you make it easier for teachers to see, know, and meet the needs of all students in their rooms, including those with disabilities. Unfortunately, when researchers observe cotaught, inclusive classes, there is little evidence that differentiation is going on (Scruggs et al., 2007). Furthermore, administrators often worry about whether differentiation will interfere with the coverage of state standards (Steinbercher et al., 2015). Combined with the fact that even few special education teachers are prepared to do differentiation, we have a situation where everyone kind of knows that differentiation is needed to make inclusion work but no one really knows how to do it or  even if they really should do it (Allday et al., 2013).

So how do you differentiate?

The answer to this question is… buy Tomlinson’s books. Seriously though, she writes crazy well and the books make a lot of sense and like I am soooo not an expert on how to pull off differentiated instruction. My two favorites are Differentiated Classroom and How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms. Both are on Amazon and sold directly from the publisher… and also you can find segments of them online pretty easily. 

Caveats done! Here we go. I am included every helpful graphic I could find in the books and also from the  Twitter feed of Mr. G, who is a talented artist and has crazy cool graphics for a lot of things. 

  1. Principles: The key principles underpinning differentiation have shifted a bit over time, so I am going to hit the ones I think are the most relevant. They are:
    1. Assessment is good and should be used to inform instruction. Note that I don’t mean state tests, I mean all of the other stuff like exit slips, thumbs up if you get it/thumbs flat if you are so so, spot checks of students’ works, the dazed looks on students’ faces when they are lost and the noise of a light bulb when a student gets it. All of these are assessments that can and should inform your instruction along with the results of more traditional assessments.
    2. Groups in the classroom are kept flexible. Here is how Tomlinson explains this: “There are times in a differentiated classroom when students need to work with peers of a similar readiness level on tasks designed for their particular needs. There should also be frequent days when students work with tasks tailored to their interests and with peers who share those interests, regardless of readiness needs. There should be days when students work with tasks and peers that target similar learning preferences. On the other hand, there should be days when tasks are designed to bring together students of unlike readiness levels, dissimilar interests, or varied learning preferences” (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2011, p.16).
    3. Tasks are created to be respectful of students. Again, here is what Tomlinson says on this, “, every student should have work that looks equally interesting and inviting. Every student’s work should be understanding-focused. Every student should be expected to think (and be supported in thinking) at high levels”  (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2011, p.15).
    4. Finally, the biggest one for me is teaching up. This is about to be a crazy long quote from her, but this concept is why I love differentiation. Here is what she says on this: “Teaching up” raises the ceiling for all students. The most promising differentiation occurs in classrooms where the teacher first plans for his/her most advanced students and then asks, ‘Now, how can I support other learners in achieving those complex goals?’ Differentiation will inevitably yield the best results when teachers pay students the compliment of expecting more of them than they themselves believe they can achieve—simultaneously providing scaffolding, encouragement, and partnership necessary for students to accomplish what they once believed was beyond their reach. All students, of course, will have some days when they simply need to practice a new skill or work with new information. No student, however, should be seen as only capable of drill and practice”  (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2011, p.15). For me that paragraph is a mic drop– it’s the students with disabilities who too often get the drill and kill and they deserve sooooo much more.
  2. Things teachers can differentiate. Teachers can differentiate:
    1. The content: Each of the three diagrams describes the content a bit differently. Mr G describes it as what the student needs to learn or how they will acquire new information. It’s both what students learn and how they learn it. The one thing that Tomlinson doesn’t want you to differentiate are the concepts– the big understandings– behind the lesson. Maybe some students need calculators and some are walking calculators– there are going to be differences in their memorization of multiplication facts (and even if they should memorize them) but both should be given the chance to understand the whats and whys of multiplication. For me, at the heart of this, is what Wiggins and McTighe call essential questions. These are the big ideas that you want students to learn– what actually matters in a lesson. Knowing that I goes before e except… and all of the exceptions is not a  big idea even if you have to teach it. Knowing that English is based both on patterns and exceptions to those patterns– and that understanding those patterns can help you in reading and writing– that’s the big idea. So differentiating content might look like:
      1. Giving students books in their native language
      2. Using Newsela to give students articles on the same content but written at different levels
      3. Pre-teaching the content to a student or re-teaching it to them after the lesson
      4. Letting students who to study in a biography unit
    2. The process: One of the diagrams here describes the process as “how students take in and make sense of the content.” I don’t love a lot of examples of this that I have found so here is how I thought about it for my students. One of my favorite fourth grade math teachers, Mrs. M., would start each lesson with a cute animated video on the content. Then she would orally explain it, with visuals to support it. Then she would have students try to make sense of it with a partner as they tried to understand it in context. Then she would have them read the textbook or, if they had extra supports, try to learn it with an aide or support teacher. To me, that is what it looks like to differentiate the process– you let students hear, see, and experience the information in different ways because, most likely the one that resonates the most with them is not going to be the one that resonates the most with you! She did this process differentiation whole group– but you could let students choose at least one technique that they think might help them learn the content.
    3. The products: Also known as the summative assessments, the products are, “how students show what they know, understand, and can do.” How do you figure out what a student knows? When I am doing annual IEP assessments, I might read a passage to a student rather than have them read it to me if I think that it would help them show how much they understand of the text. That is differentiating the product. Sometimes I let students dictate their stories if my goal is to learn how well they understand narrative elements, not how well they can get ideas down. Any of those type of accommodations or modifications that you make in assessments fall into this products bucket. What Tomlinson is arguing though is that we should think more broadly about how to assess what kids know. Do they have to take a test to show understanding? Could they write a paper instead? Do a presentation? I am so annoyed right now because I can’t find it, but I had a super cool example of a comprehension and understanding rubric that was designed to be format agnostic– like you could use it for a paper or a presentation.
    4. The environment: This is “the climate and structure of the classroom.” For folks in the special education land, this includes pretty much all of the accommodations we put on an IEP. Does a student do better working with a best friend, someone they don’t know well, or on their own? Do they work better lying on the floor, standing at a desk, or sitting in a chair? Anytime you let a student take a lap because they need it, to stand up in class, or shift their seating to help them learn you are already doing this! Special education teachers pretty much always get a shiny star in this box– you got this one!
  3. Tomlinson recommends doing this differentiation based on your in-depth knowledge of your students– or, specifically, based on:
    1. Their readiness
    2. Their interests
    3. Their learning profile
    4. I am not going to go into these in detail because, for special education teachers, this means to differentiate based on their strengths, interests, and learning needs. This is one of those things that I kind of think that special education teachers just get. 

What instructional strategies can you use to make differentiation work?

Two of the diagrams here come from Tomlinson’s work and list specific strategies you can use to pull differentiation off. I am going in to a few that I have seen and thought were pretty cool.

  • Stations: Stations are rotations that students can go to within a classroom. Each station has different activities. You can differentiate these easily by changing up how often students go to stations, which stations they go to, and what materials you have in them each day.
  • Agendas: Tomlinson describes them like this: “An agenda is a personalized list of tasks that a particular student must complete in a specified time. Student agendas throughout a class will have similar and dissimilar elements on them. A teacher usually creates an agenda that will last a student two to three weeks. The teacher develops a new agenda when the previous one is completed” (Tomlinson, 2014, p.66). I stole this picture from her books because I thought it was super helpful at making that description complete– she has lots more examples in the book!
  • Tiered activities: One of my favorite teachers is a master at this. She teaches a multi-level high school English class. She pulls it off with tiered activities. For example, all students need to read nightly. The students taking the course for honors credit have to read books from an approved list. Other students can choose freely– or read a book from the honors list. For a creative writing assignment, she had three tiers. In tier 1, students can write about anything. In tier 2, they have to write a fiction story about a real person. For tier 3, they have to write from the perspective of their object. Students can pick their tiers– but students going for honors credit have to be at the high end of tiers. 
  • Jigsaws: If  you haven’t run into a jigsaw before, students are assigned a number from 1 to 4 or so. Then all of the ones get together and learn something and all of the twos and so on. Then students assemble into groups of 1, 2, 3, and 4 and each student is responsible for teaching the others what their number group learned. I used this a lot with college students. I wanted them to read a really long article on reparations and so I assigned each number a small section of the article or a background reading… and then made them teach is to each other. It was fun for them and meant they actually read it– which, with college students and long readings, is rarely a given. To differentiate, you can be thoughtful about what type of contents the 1s, 2s and so on are responsible for teaching– and who is in each group. Like if you have a mini-teacher in your class, you might throw them in with a group that is a bit… less of mini teachers so they all get the content. Or you can work with the 1s and lets the other groups learn on their own. 

For more ideas, check out the diagrams! Each strategy on them is searchable with great examples. Or you know, buy her book. I don’t plug many products (besides my own because hello bills), but I really do love her books!

  • Allday, R. A., Neilsen-Gatti, S., & Hudson, T. M. (2013). Preparation for inclusion in teacher education pre-service curricula. Teacher Education and Special Education, 36(4), 298-311.
  • Rubin, B. (2007). “Laboratories of democracy”: A situated perspective on learning social studies in detracked classrooms. Theory & Research in Social Education, 35(1), 62-95. 
  • Scruggs, T., Mastropieri, M., & McDuffie, K. (2007). Co-teaching in inclusive classrooms: A metasynthesis of qualitative research. Exceptional Children, 73(4), 392-416. 
  • Steinbrecher, T., Fix, R., Mahal, S., Serna, L., McKeown, D. (2015). All you need is patience and flexibility: Administrators’ perspectives on special education knowledge and skills. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 28(2), 89-102. 
  • Tomlinson, C. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 
  • Tomlinson, C. A., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C. M., Moon, T. R., Brimijoin, K., … & Reynolds, T. (2003). Differentiating instruction in response to student readiness, interest, and learning profile in academically diverse classrooms: A review of literature. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 27(2-3), 119-145.
  • Villa, R. & Thousand, J. (2005). Creating an inclusive school, 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Wilcox, K., Lawson, H., & Angelis, J. (2015). Classroom, school, and district impacts on diverse student achievement. Teachers College Record, 117, 1-39.