"In a differentiated classroom, students are not learning different things--they are learning the same things differently.” -Janice Skowron
In the world of educational buzzwords, “differentiation” has left an indelible mark, particularly within the last decade. From pre-service training to professional development, the notion of teachers beginning the year “where students are, not the front of a curriculum guide…and build[ing] upon the premise that learners differ in important ways” (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 5) is being discussed and encouraged, a far cry from the one-size-fits-all model that has dominated the American educational system for many years. What is differentiation, and how is it happening in today’s classrooms? How does a teacher go about managing a differentiated math program when faced with the challenges of educating a diverse group of students? I examined these questions in depth through an action research project entitled, “What happens when student choice is used to differentiate elementary math learning stations?” By sharing the results of this research, one of my goals is to help other teachers address the differences among their students, specifically in the area of elementary mathematics.
Since my action research focused primarily on how to differentiate a particular teaching strategy, it is important to begin by addressing at least a few of the questions about differentiation posed above, particularly “what is differentiation?” According to Carol Ann Tomlinson (2008), author of several texts on the topic, “differentiated instruction is student-aware teaching. It is guided by the premise that schools should maximize student potential, not simply bring students to an externally established norm on a test" (p. 26). From an instructional perspective, this means that “armed with assessment information and other knowledge about a student- the teacher should adapt teaching plans to attend to learner readiness, interest, and preferred modes of learning" (p. 27). In a differentiated classroom, one-size-fits-all models of instruction are replaced by or supplemented with learning activities that are modified to address the abilities, skills, learning styles, and interests of each individual student.
The rationale for this type of instruction is supported by research in the areas of motivation, brain development, and student achievement. In Differentiated Instruction: Making it Work, author Patti Drapeau (2004) discusses four prominent researchers whose work has informed the discussion about differentiation. First, she looks at Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who coined the phrase Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). ZPD refers to "the difference between what students can do independently and what they can do with adult assistance" (p. 12). According to Vygotsky, asking students to do work too far outside their ZPD (either too easy or too difficult), does not allow meaningful learning to occur. Since each student's ZPD is different, they will not all reach their ZPD through the same learning activities, which supports the idea of differentiation. The other researchers Drapeau discusses include Eric Jensen, Robert Sternberg, and Howard Gardner (pp. 14-17). Jensen looks at the effect of challenge on the brain. Both Sternberg and Gardner investigate the different types of human intelligence, and their work has been put to practical use in classrooms all over the United States. All four of the researchers mentioned in Drapeau's text have had a profound influence on teaching and learning in recent years, and their ideas have inspired a variety of methods for differentiation.
In addition to offering a description of and rationale for differentiation, Tomlinson (2008) outlines three distinct areas in which one can differentiate instruction: differentiation of content, differentiation of process, and differentiation of product. The content is what students are to learn, such as any number of topics or skills in math, history, science, and so on. Direct instruction, small group instruction, pair work, and lecture are some examples of process, or how the students learn the content. The products are created by students to demonstrate what they have learned, and come in many forms including reports, presentations, videos, and posters. Other works by Tomlinson (2000) also discuss learning environment (e.g. classroom routines, structures, and physical arrangements used to manage the activities going on in the classroom) as a fourth area through which to differentiate. By differentiating instruction in any of these four areas, learning activities can be tailored to each student to maximize motivation, and as a result, student learning.
In mathematics, the subject in which I conducted my research, differentiation of content means designing instruction that takes into account a student’s prior knowledge of foundational concepts and their readiness for a more abstract mathematical ideas. For example, some students may need to work on measuring in one dimension (such as length or width), while others are ready to apply the same skills to a study of perimeter and area. Differentiation of content allows for students to work on what they need, not just work toward meeting a pre-established learning goal that is the same for all students. The process by which the learning occurs can also vary greatly; many teachers use math games, stations, and projects in addition to direct instruction. Naturally, this leads to a greater assortment of products as well, from a score card, to a worksheet, to a math-related picture book, and everything in between. Designing the learning environment to accommodate individual, small group, and whole group work, and ensuring access to appropriate tools and materials, is also critical to the success of any mathematics program or strategy.
Learning stations as a vehicle for differentiation
Clearly there are many important considerations when differentiating instruction, including the selection of appropriate instructional strategies through which to differentiate content, process, and products. As mentioned previously, my research was focused on the use of a specific strategy, mathematics learning stations. In its simplest definition, “Stations are different spots in the classroom where students work on various tasks simultaneously” (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 62). Unlike its popular classroom cousin, learning centers, learning stations “work in concert with one another,” linked by the same topic or subject, while centers are distinct from each other and “students won’t need to move to all of [the centers] to achieve proficiency with a topic or set of skills.” For example, a classroom might have a science center, a writing center, and an art center, but also has a series of interrelated math stations (Tomlinson, 1999).
When designed with student variance in mind, stations support the idea of differentiating content, process, and product. A set of math stations on the topic of money, for example, can address content at varying levels of difficulty, from identifying coins and making combinations of coins in different amounts, to calculating cost per unit. In addition, the processes in which students engage can differ from station to station, with one station focused on direct instruction, another on problem-solving, a third station on project work, and so on. The products of such work could include exit cards, journal entries, drawings, and myriad other items that students use to demonstrate mathematical understanding and proficiency. As a mobile, interactive, learning experience, stations also support the notion that constructing mathematical knowledge is not a passive endeavor, and that mathematical activity is in fact “both mental and physical. It requires the use of tools, such as physical materials and oral and written languages that are used to think about mathematics” (Harkness & Portwood, 2007, p. 15). When the tools and tasks are modified to address each individual learner’s interests, readiness, and learning profile, using stations to differentiate instruction can have many positive outcomes for students. According to Tomlinson (1999), “essential understandings and skills about math operations are more accessible to students when presented at their readiness levels. Motivation is high because of the variety of approaches to learning math, varied materials and product options, and the opportunity to work with a variety of students. Further, both teaching and learning are more efficient through the targeted use of stations than would be the case in either whole-class instruction or by having all students remain the same amount of time at each station to complete the same work in each station” (p. 65).
The structure of stations: more on what they are (and are not)
As mentioned above, stations differ from centers in that they are designed to work together to promote student understanding of a particular topic or concept. However, cohesiveness of topic does not ensure that stations are a successful instructional strategy. As Bizar and Daniels (1998) warn in Methods that Matter: Six Structures for Best Practice Classrooms, designing high-quality centers and stations can be time-and-resource-consuming, which sometimes leads to the creation of stations that offer little more than poorly constructed, “ambulatory seatwork” and diminish the potential for meaningful learning (pp. 91-92). Bizar and Daniels go on to state that worthwhile stations are characterized by three elements. First, stations must provide an opportunity for students to “learn or discover…to have an ‘aha’ experience.” The stations can be “applications or extensions of previously taught concepts, ones that illustrate topics currently being studied during other parts of the school day, or stations that preview upcoming topics,” but the authors specify that the stations “are not for review or assessment.” Second, the stations should offer “some kind of interaction,” preferably opportunities for students to engage in group exploration and conversation. The last facet, “a tangible outcome,” suggests that students should come away with (or leave behind) evidence of their experience at the station, such as a journal entry or a message to the next group of students arriving there. In addition, allocating a generous amount of time (days or weeks as opposed to minutes) for students “to experiment, to engage in ‘off-task’ speculation and tomfoolery” with station materials is an important part of setting the stage for discovery (Ohanian, 1992, p. 126). Clearly, active participation is encouraged when stations are set up in this manner, in sharp contrast to the silent, stationary, seatwork that still dominates many traditional classroom settings.
In a discussion of what stations are not, it is also important to point out that stations are intended to be used by all students, not just a select few. As Drapeau (2004) states, “To many teachers [stations] are essentially ‘free-time’ centers where students go when they finish their work (p. 77). In terms of practicality and educational equity, this approach is problematic, as Drapeau observes: “If the activities are too challenging, students typically complain about the work and don’t want to go there. If the activities are ‘easy and fun,’ then I feel they should be for all students, not just for the ones who finish early.” If the stations are set-up as the high-quality learning experiences described above, then we as educators have an ethical obligation to ensure equal access for all students.
Why student choice?
In many elementary classrooms, students experience few opportunities to make meaningful choices about their learning throughout the school day. As Alfie Kohn (1993) states, students are “compelled to follow someone else's rules, study someone else's curriculum, and submit continually to someone else's evaluation” (p. 1). In some cases, a student’s school experience can amount to little more than completing a series of prescribed actions. This deprives students of the positive effects on general well-being, behavior and values, student achievement, and other areas, that are known to follow from a sense of self-determination (Kohn, 1993, pp. 3-7). In How the Brain Learns Mathematics, David Sousa (2008) also explains the importance of shifting the classroom from a teacher-centered environment to a student-centered environment in order to improve student motivation. “In student-centered classrooms,” he writes, “students are allowed some choice and decision making through differentiated instruction. Studies [by Pekrun, Maier, & Elliot (2006)] reveal that student-centered classrooms have higher-achieving students, higher standardized test scores, fewer classroom management problems, more on-task behavior, and fewer dropouts” (as cited in Sousa, 2008, p. 144). Diane Heacox (2009) also identifies choice as one of twelve “critical elements for success in a differentiated classroom.” She states, “Choice provides students the opportunity and power to act on their interests; and the key to motivation is interest. Not only does choice motivate students to learn but also to actively engage in their learning” (p. 71).
But simply offering a variety of options is not enough. According to Heacox, “Well-designed, controlled choice opportunities: increase the motivation of students to engage in and do the work, reach more students by presenting a variety of ways to learn and demonstrate learning, offer multiple levels and types of challenge to students, engage students by clearly identifying the tasks and determining how the students make choices” (p. 84). In other words, student choice should function as a mechanism of differentiation, not just as a menu of options from which students can randomly select.
So what types of meaningful choice can we offer to students in our classrooms? Kohn (1993) suggests that “students can make academic decisions [about] what, how, how well, and why they learn,” (p. 7) a statement which encompasses Tomlinson’s four domains of differentiation (content, process, product, and learning environment). Not all of these elements of choice need to be offered for every learning activity, but the potential benefits of delegating at least some of the decision-making responsibilities to the students are worth taking into account. As Sousa (2008) puts it, “Choice transforms a classroom instantly. Choice suddenly turns unmotivated students into motivated ones, ensures students’ attention, and gives students the perception of control. Choice is the centerpiece to student-centered, differentiated classrooms” (p. 144). I made it a point to look for all of these outcomes during my action research study, and as I describe later on, they are just some of the positive benefits that came from integrating student choice into my elementary mathematics learning stations.