Can Differentiation Be Looked at Differently?




When we first started with Response to Intervention (RtI) implementation in our school, the topic of differentiation was a big one. As a school staff we spent a lot of time trying to come up with a working definition for differentiation. If you do any research on the topic, you can come up with diverse examples of what we call differentiation. As we read about differentiation, we discovered that when implementing differentiation in an RtI model, we had to go much deeper than some current theory regarding the topic to implement it in a manner that provided impact.

Differentiation is grounded in the creation of learning opportunities that address the multiple learning differences of students found in a typical classroom. Teachers in a differentiated classroom work hard to align instruction with the unique learning needs of their students to address their specific needs around content, process, or product.   Differentiation addresses student needs around learning styles, multiple intelligences, brain-based learning, learner profiles, formative assessments, classroom performance, and student interest. Differentiation is a powerful way to address and provide multiple learning opportunities for students. As teachers create highly engaging lessons based on student learning preferences, the students find the learning meaningful, become highly engaged, and experience an increase in achievement. Ultimately, differentiation provides the relevancy sometimes missed in some classrooms.

There is no question—differentiation can be a powerful tool to promote student learning. In an RtI model, differentiation creates a strong connection between the teacher, the learner characteristics, and the content through strong academic assessment. Through screening, progress monitoring, and diagnostic assessments, instructional differentiation becomes strongly based on the strengths and needs of students. While the learner characteristics in an RtI Model may be developed and created through inventories, classroom performance, and formative assessments, differentiation in an RtI model is predominantly supported through assessment data, which promotes differentiated decision making. The instructionally linked assessment data informs teachers about how well instructional strategies are working and how well students are responding to instruction.

Outside of an RtI model, teachers may be making decisions for differentiation primarily in the classroom with their own students. When differentiating in an RtI model, teachers come out of their classrooms and group students according to specific students needs based on the relevant assessment data. The assessment data drive differentiation, and the assessment data provide feedback to the teachers as they provide instruction through screening and progress-monitoring results. Through collaboration, teachers create flexible learning groups and provide direct instruction as they plan for meaningful instruction. 

The true power of differentiation in an RtI model is that the systematic assessment structure, aligned with a solid agreed upon core curriculum, and based on instructional best practice, creates a feedback loop that ensures student success. The assessment system provides feedback about student achievement, but it also provides feedback to teachers about their instructional effectiveness. Feedback comes in a few different ways. First, fidelity of instruction can be measured. As teachers deliver instruction through the research-based methodology used, they can monitor and be evaluated on how well they are implementing instruction. Student data, as well as a fidelity checklist, will help demonstrate and measure their teaching effectiveness. Second, the student assessment will provide feedback as to how well the instructional strategy aligns to the curriculum, and how well individual students or groups of students are responding to the learning through progress monitoring. If too many students are not responding to instruction, the instructional methodology needs to be evaluated for effectiveness.

Differentiation is a powerful tool for planning for instruction in an RtI model. I would caution you to not get so caught up in differentiation as a “catch-all,” however. I raise this caution for one very important reason: Research on differentiation is, at present, very thin. To study differentiation effectiveness, one has to ask, “How do we measure the effectiveness?” Because of the multitude of potential instructional strategies and methodologies within the theory of differentiation, it is very difficult to determine a cause-and-effect relationship between instruction and learning. Qualitative studies are available, and there are some quantitative studies with some limited variables, but there is no definitive research on the effect of differentiation practices in a classroom.

In an RtI model, the cause and effect, while still elusive, can be measured to some degree. The beauty of RtI is that when we differentiate instruction in the RtI model, there is constant feedback through the assessment data. If you are differentiating instruction within your RtI Model, be sure to constantly watch the data. The data are the only way to know the impact of instruction and student learning.
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