Differentiation is a global term that is cherished by many educators, however, it overwhelms others. Many times, I ask teachers how they differentiate instruction and a common reply is “We don’t have time to apply it,” or they perceive it as only levelled worksheets.
A common misconception about differentiation is that it is time consuming and that it needs a lot of preparation. It is not realistic or fair to ask a teacher to prepare a task for each student to meet his interest or ability, nonetheless differentiation is still applicable. Actually, in some cases differentiation is taking place but the teacher might not be aware of it. When teachers re-explain a concept, provide another strategy or simplify steps, or use tools that are suitable for all learners, they are differentiating instruction.
Teachers use different tools while planning the learning experiences and some of those tools are naturally differentiated.
The placemat method
One of the useful tools that promotes differentiation is the Placemat. A Placemat is used within a group of 4 students, either by posting a prompt in the middle box and each student responds to it in his own part, or the teacher writes the prompt on the board and each student responds in his part and then as a group they agree on one or more responses to be written in the central box. For instance, the teacher asks the students to define risk-taking, each individual will write his own definition, then the group will discuss their definitions and agree on one definition to be written in the centre.
Not only does this tool develop the students’ communication skills through the discussions and reflections, but it also promotes peer learning and each student responds according to his own ability. The students spend time, brainstorming, sharing ideas, reflecting then presenting, and in each stage their understanding grows.
A placemat can be used in different stages of the lesson or unit. Teachers can use it in the beginning of the lesson to check for prior knowledge, or in the middle to check for understanding and to help the students make conclusions or in the end to assess their level of understanding. Of course, in each stage a placemat will have a different objective.
The jigsaw method
Another tool that develops the students’ interest in the learning and is also differentiated, is the Jigsaw. In the Jigsaw, the students are divided into groups to inquire into a part of a task and become the expert of it to teach it to the other groups. Then, either each group can teach their part to the rest of the class or we can form new groups including members from the different groups and each student will then explain his part to his peers within the new group.
The teacher has a great opportunity because she can assign the tasks according to the students’ levels, interests and readiness. It also helps the students learn in different ways; through the provided materials that can be differentiated and the peer teaching that is usually an effective approach.
These differentiated tools are effective because the students are given a sense of ownership and freedom as they are the ones who are doing the effort. Also, such tools don’t require extra preparations from the teacher. However, the teacher should know how to use each tool, to fully benefit from them. One important prerequisite to the effectiveness of these tools is the proper allocation of student with different levels and abilities within the different groups. Differentiation when applied properly, would actually save the teacher a lot of precious time.
Accordingly, differentiation is easier when we know our students and use the appropriate tools and strategies.