Differentiating from a Distance

This article supports the following characteristics from The Successful Middle School: This We Believe:

Educators respect and value young adolescents.
The school environment is welcoming, inclusive, and affirming to all.
Educators are specifically prepared to teach young adolescents and possess a depth of understanding in the content areas they teach
Instruction fosters learning that is active, purposeful, and democratic.

I was recently speaking with a colleague who mentioned the best way to promote equity in the classroom is to have an equity conversation at the beginning of the year. You might start this conversation by using metaphors like “You know how two people do not wear the same size shoes because one might have big feet and the other might have small feet, so it would not make any sense for every learner to have the exact same learning activity as everyone else.”

The premise is simple. If teachers go ahead and move the big elephant of differentiation out of the room, it will not come up as unfair later. As we know, equity and differentiation are connected to one another.

The author of How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson (ASCD, 2001), described differentiated instruction as “Providing different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively” (p. 1).

Differentiation is what every teacher wants: a classroom devoted to meeting the individual needs of each student. So why, after 20 years of her research, are teachers still not fully invested in differentiation? Well, it is difficult to do. The idea of differentiation is that there is no one-size-fits-all fix, so while we want quick fixes to our problems, differentiation is easily left in the dark.

COVID-19 has brought about a new era of teaching with the use of virtual learning. As many classrooms transition to online instruction, there has never been a better time to consider adding components of differentiation. Online teaching makes differentiation significantly easier and less awkward for teachers.

  1. Compacting. Tomlinson (2001) described compacting as “A three-step process that (1) assesses what a student knows about the material to be studied and what the student still needs to master, (2) plans for learning what is not known and excuses the student from what is known, and (3) plans for freed-up time to be spent in enriched or accelerated study.” In a virtual classroom, consider assigning a pre-test to establish each student’s baseline understanding of an upcoming unit of study. If a single student or small group have demonstrated mastery of 80 percent or more of the assessment, consider a compacted unit of study. Provide the student or the small group a framework for independent study on the topic, and only call them back to lessons they failed to master on the pre-assessment.Google Classroom makes this easy because you could quickly establish a learning plan for these students and open a separate Google Classroom for them to complete their study. At the same time, the remainder of the class works with your pace.For a group of students, Google Meet makes this easy too. Perhaps you have already established the Google Classroom learning plan, and you want them to work together through the compacted unit. Set them up with a Google Meet so they can converse and learn from each other.The argument could be made that it will take time to set up, and yes, it will take time to set up. However, the benefit of doing this in a virtual classroom is once you have the compacted learning plan set up, you can re-use it and refine it any time.
  2. Independent Study. According to Tomlinson (2001), independent study is “A process through which student and teacher identify problems or topics of interest to the student. Both student and teacher plan a method of investigating the problem or topic and identifying the type of product the student will develop. This product should address the problem and demonstrate the student’s ability to apply skills and knowledge to the problem or topic.” In essence, independent study and compacting are similar in nature with one key difference. Compacting develops through a teacher-created curriculum and independent study develops through a teacher and student co-created curriculum. To consider starting an independent study, the teacher will need to see an 80 percent mastery on a pre-assessment. From there the teacher can address the gap remaining in the student’s understanding of the topic.Again, a virtual classroom makes this a cinch! If you have identified a student for independent study, consider having a conversation with them about your expectations for their independent exploration and what a final product of learning would look like. With technology, their ability to explore is endless.Also consider having them set up the platform where they will share their learning and work with you. What will a progress update look like? What could be a mid-point assessment? Would Google Slides offer you the opportunity to check in periodically to see their progress. Would a journal on Google Docs offer them the opportunity to reflect and share their learning with you?
  3. Interest Centers/Interest Groups. While this title speaks for itself. Consider Tomlinson’s discussion of this strategy, “These centers/groups can be differentiated by level of complexity and independence required, as well as by student interest, to make them accessible and appropriately challenging for all learners” (2001). Again, perhaps students have demonstrated mastery on a small topic rather than a whole entire unit of study, you can design an interest station or group for the particular time you will be teaching the already mastered topic to the other students.When teaching virtually, consider sending the identified students a Google Form interest survey to see what they may like to learn about related to the topic or content you are studying. With their responses, you can pair them or group them with other students of similar interests.After you have established a common grouping, look for high leverage videos, articles, simulations, short stories, or complex math problems to complete together. So how will you do this virtually? Again, I see the students having discussions on Google Meet about the “challenge” you have given them. You may also consider creating the assignment in Google Classroom and using the feature that allows you to only assign the task to the specific students you identified for the interest group.
  4. Tiered Assignments. A teacher uses varied levels of activities to ensure that students explore ideas at a level that builds on their prior knowledge and prompts continued growth” (Tomlinson, 2001). As you think about the introduction to this post, having tiered assignments in an in-person class can sometimes lend itself to a fairness discussion, but virtually, it is completely ambiguous and none of the other students know some students receive a differently tiered assignment.Google Classroom makes this extremely simple. Maybe you want your advanced students to make their own graphic organizer or solve a word problem, you can specifically assign this only to those students. For the students that may need a pre-developed graphic organizer or model for their work, you can specifically assign this to them. The same goes for articles or stories. You can specifically assign different stories or articles to different students.Perhaps during a synchronous Google Meet, you want to cluster groups by ability. This is incredibly simple. Group the students like you would in a face-to-face classroom and then put them in the same breakout room. In those private rooms, you can provide different discussion or activity tasks to each group.
  5. Flexible Grouping. Picking up where tiered assignments left off, flexible grouping is a method where you promote heterogeneously assigned groups to discuss, work, or read a common topic. A flexible group should ideally contain an above-average student, an average student, a slightly below-average student, and an emerging student. This type of grouping provides an opportunity for diverse perspectives to take root and diversity to be celebrated.In virtual teaching, you may consider using flexible grouping when you assign students to breakout rooms. This will allow for all learners to have a seat at the table.When it comes to Google Classroom Assignments, you may consider adding a discussion question as an assignment. Then, you can specifically assign the question to only the flexible group. To do this, you will create the question then assign it only to one flexible group. Then, reuse the post and assign it to another flexible group until you have included only the flexible groups. Doing this will keep all the high-level students from only replying to high-level students and low-level students from feeling lost.
  6. Varying Questions. According to Tomlinson (2001), “In class discussions and on tests, teachers vary the sorts of questions posed to learners based on their readiness, interests, and learning styles” (p. 104). Yes, this means that during class you can specifically target a student for a question you are asking. It also means that not all students need to answer the exact same assessment questions. A correct answer on a simple assessment for a superior student means nothing. A correct answer for an emerging student on a challenging assessment means a great deal.Virtually, this is made easier by allowing teachers to assign specific assignments, test questions, etc. to students based on ability level. The other option a teacher has is to develop back-pocket questions for their Google Meet live instruction to differentiate between who has it and who does not.
  7. Mentorships/Apprenticeships. Students work with a resource teacher, media specialist, parent volunteer, older student, or community member who can guide their growth in a particular area (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 105). Think back to independent study and compacting. This strategy is similar in principle. The difference is that the role of instruction moves from you as the teacher to another qualified expert who can guide the student to think like a person in the field.While this would be difficult to do in a traditional school, virtual learning allows students to connect with individuals far away. Students are able to have video conferencing, phone calls, and email communication with experts in the field. For example, during an ecology unit, a student that would benefit from a mentorship might be set up to contact the local conservation officer. Perhaps part of their assignment would be to develop interview questions to ask the officer and then reflect on what they learned from the interview. Maybe a math student contacts the city engineer to find out how they determine the structural soundness of the city bridge.When a student is not confined to a desk, notes, and worksheets, they have the opportunity to connect with local professionals and learn about real-life situations they may encounter at some point in their life.
  8. Contracts. “Take a number of forms that begin with an agreement between student and teacher: The teacher grants certain freedoms and choices about how a student will complete tasks, and the student agrees to use the freedoms appropriately in designing and completing work according to specifications” (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 106). Contracts might be the least labor-intensive of all differentiation strategies. Perhaps you notice a student that does not do particularly well with multiple choice practices, but if they could create a poster of their understanding they would do significantly better.Think about those students who might not be turning in their assignments. Call them and ask some questions to get a pulse if they are just trying to avoid the work or if they are unmotivated. For the unmotivated students, ask them if they would be more comfortable using a web 2.0 tool to turn in their work.An example of this might be the student who would not answer the two questions on the DocHub worksheet, but they might enjoy discussing their thinking on FlipGrid. When you give students a contract, you still give them the opportunity to showcase their thinking, but they understand what the expectations are.

These strategies should serve as a launching point for you to think about how you can meet a student’s individual needs in a virtual classroom. Yes, it is possible to make a difference from a distance. You may even find that virtual learning makes differentiation easier than it ever was before.

Dr. Jacob Bryant iis GAP coordinator/interventionist, athletic director, and a gifted and talented teacher leader in Daviess County Public Schools, Owensboro, Kentucky. He has recently published two books: Middle School Teaching Matters: A Commonsense Approach to Succeeding with Adolescents and Teaching Kids Online is NOT Virtually Impossible.

Published in AMLE Focus on the Middle, January 2021.