How to Survive Differentiation in a Classroom

Differentiation is a popular word in and around schools these days. Although you work with around 25 children all day, they each need and deserve their individual attention.

How to Survive Differentiation in a Classroom

Look at it as a team of soccer players. They each have their own place in the field. As a teacher it is your job to determine what position in the field every child plays best or worst.

A lot of teachers don’t like the differentiation part of teaching as that indicates a lot more preparation and evaluation needs to get done. But it doesn’t always have to mean more work. On the opposite, children can help each other usually better than an adult can.

Divide them into level groups

Unless you are an octopus with 8 hands and 8 heads, it is impossible to assist every individual student simultaneously in every lesson. You usually get the same questions over and over anyway. So make it easy and divide your class in levelled groups. I usually work with 2 different kind of groups. Homogenous groups or heterogeneous groups. I try to switch between the two group forms as often as I can. In that way I get a clear image from every child without losing focus in the process.

In a homogenous group children with the same level sit together in a group. It doesn’t necessarily mean they do group work, they can perfectly sit together but work individually. The weaker levelled children work at the basic task, the stronger ones complete the basic task and a more difficult task while the middle group completes the basic task and an extra same levelled task.. I usually guide the weaker group until they are ready to work individually and then I quickly go and have a look at the other groups.

In a heterogeneous group, children with different levels work together. I call them thunder groups. In one group you will find a stronger, a weaker and middle child working together at a given task. The stronger/middle children usually function as a guide for the weaker ones. This allows a teacher, to not only work and evaluate the weaker children, but she/he now has more freedom to zoom in onto the stronger and middle children as well.

Which child — what level?

To divide the children into levels, you can do baseline tests at the beginning of the year and divide them based on those results. A child doesn’t have to stay on the same level the whole year. It is ok to shuffle them a bit based on their progress.

Naming groups

I usually name my groups after celestial bodies: moons, stars, suns, rainbows, clouds…. You can get creative with this. If you teach math you can go with geometrical symbols: triangles, circles, cones …. or use creepy crawlers: bumblebees, ladybugs, millipedes… in life science lessons.

I just make sure the group names don’t indicate a level. A green group and a red group or group 1, 2, 3…. When you do that, the children of the weaker group will know they are not performing well enough and get demotivated quickly.

Preparation and evaluation

The latest workbooks already come with differentiated exercises. If you are not so lucky to get one of those in your class, you have to prep for the differentiation. The basic exercises you can already find in the children’s workbooks. So your weaker children are usually already taken care of. You only need to provide one or two ‘next level” tasks and a few ‘same level’ tasks. There are a lot of worksheets to be found on the web , so it shouldn’t be too much extra preparation work.

As you prepare, you set your evaluation. The basic task gets a mark. The stronger group can make 1 or 2 extra exercises on the test and you can mark them separately. Not that much extra marking either!

Without really breaking your neck, you have a concrete overlook of your class and a all children get the attention and challenge they need. Everybody happy!

For example

The time table of 10 just got introduced . We are now going to make exercises in the workbook. This is what my third grade class will look like.

The sun group (weaker): Exercise 1 and 2 on time table of 10. Teacher sits with them and introduces every exercise until every child gets the hang of it. Then they finish them individually. In that time the teacher goes around class to help out in the 2 other groups.

The clouds (middle): Exercise 1 and 2 on time table of 10. When time left exercise 3 and 4 on timetable of 10. They work individually and correct each other’s work with the correction book. When they have a question, they can ask each other, or put a mark in the book and ask the teacher at a later stage.

The rainbows (stronger): Exercise 1 to 4 on the time table of 10. Exercise 1–2 on the timetable of 5 / or mixed exercise on the timetables 1–2–10–5 They work individually and correct their own work.

Buckle up: group work, partner work and individual work in 1 lesson.

A little time ago I did a substitution job as a math teacher in grade 6 and 7 ( 13–14 year olds). I had 4 classes with around 25 students. It was a challenge to keep these students on top of their toes, as some of the students were easily distracted or bored and they had trouble working individually. They would distract the others and nobody was actually doing any home work. I would walk around class and get the same questions the whole time, while I just explained everything less than a minute ago. I went looking for a way to get their focus more on the work and less onto each other. This is what I came up with.

Buckle up: 5 gears in each lesson.

Each lesson got a car theme. We had Beetle lessons and Mustang lessons. Depending how fast we would go through the content we had a faster or a slower car.

Then I divided all lessons into gears:

1st gear: Go to the mechanic
2nd gear: Ear gear
3rd gear: You go solo
4rd gear: Pick up a friend
5th gear: Carpool

Lets have a look at all the different gears

1st gear: Go to the mechanic (10 min)

As the children would walk in class the correction of their home work was displayed on the board. The students would swap books with each other and correct each other’s work. At the end of the correction they would give each other a home work mark and write it at the bottom of the work:

2/2 : home work fully done and neatly done — 1/2 home work not completely finished or not neatly done 0/2: home work not done.

I the mean time I had time to answer any remaining questions or correct some books myself.

2nd gear: Ear gear (10 min)

In this gear the students were only supposed to listen. Any new content I would explain on the board or we would repeat older content and make a few exemplar exercises. I usually had a power point set up for this part of the lesson . I would make sure this part didn’t take longer than 15 min. so they wouldn’t stand a chance to get distracted.

I also explained what exercises they had to make in the next gears and what their home work was going to be.

3rd gear: You go solo (10 min)

Before I started with this car themed work , some students would almost ask me to make the exercises for them or they would simply copy the answers from another student. I was honestly surprised how little they would work independently. So this gear was a challenge for them as they had to work completely individually and were not allowed to ask any question. Not to me and not to another student. I told them to put a mark when they were stuck and go to the next exercise already. I really wanted them to think for themselves first and trigger their problem solving skills a bit.

4rd gear: Pick up a friend (10 min)

In this gear they would work on the same exercises as in the 3rd gear but now they were allowed to ask me or they neighbour questions or work together on a certain exercise. Unfinished exercises from this gear were usually for home work so they would work hard in class and have less home work.

5th gear: Carpool (10 min)

Each lesson I would chose one harder exercise out of the books or I would go look for a mathematical brain teaser on the web. In this gear they would sit in groups of maximum four and try to solve this brain teaser amongst each other. I would make sure the groups were formed by different levelled children so they would learn to explain and talk math with each other and in that way stimulate each other’s problem solving skills.

By naming each lesson after a car I surely got the boys attention. Sometimes I would ask at the end of a lesson if they think a named the lesson correctly so I would know for the next time. The different gears were something to get used to but once they were used to the routine of each lesson, it went smoother and smoother. It gave me some time to differentiate during the lesson and to help out where I could while the problem solving and independence of my students got stimulated.

Veronique Duvivier 
Classloom Blog Writer

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