There are some fantastic and effective strategies and materials we can use to differentiate classroom instruction. Some take a lot of time to find and prepare. But others can be used with no preparation, whenever you realize there is a need.
1) Question Choices
During whole group discussions, include questions that everyone in the class is able to answer, as well as more complex questions that only a few students may be able to answer. Adjust the difficulty of the questions depending on which student will be called on to respond.
2) Allow Partners, Optionally
Some students work best by themselves; others work best when they work with someone else. If an assignment looks to be challenging for some students, offer the students the choice of working with a partner so they can support and build off of each other.
3) End the Assignment Early
Are the students clearly demonstrating that they know the skill or concept? Move on! Don’t require them to complete an assignment if they don’t need it. Instead, move on to the next step. (Circle back to that first skill/concept later throughout the year to make sure it “stuck.”)
For individual students, if you have a student breezing through an assignment and getting it all right (maybe you’ll notice while using a strategy such as Grade as You Go), let him turn it is now instead of requiring him to complete a pageful of problems he already knows how to do, or let him skip part of the assignment and jump ahead to more challenging problems.
In Montessori classrooms, students often work while sitting on rugs on the floor. Sitting on the floor limits what they are able to see out of their peripheral vision, making it easier to focus. Try it! Sitting at your desk now, notice how much you are able to see on each side of you. Now sit on the floor, looking down as if you had work in front of you. Notice how much less you’re able to see to the sides?
Some students may just be better able to focus on their work if they’re NOT sitting at their desks. They may do better in a corner, under a table or in some other not-so-typical place for learning.
5) Mini Group Lessons
One of my favorite examples of differentiation that I watched another teacher do happened at a tiny school out in a very rural ranching area. The school had one teacher and 15 students, K-8. Almost literally a modern one-room schoolhouse. (They actually had two classrooms, though one was empty most of the time, and a gym.)
They were so rural that one of my visits to the school was delayed because of cows blocking the road. Lots and lots of cows.
The students each had a list of assignments to complete each morning. Some they did on their own or on the computer. Some they did with a classmate, and others were done with the teacher.
One morning, a couple of students in a row came up during their work time to ask the teacher a question about square roots. After the third question, the teacher stopped and got the students’ attention.
“How many of you don’t know how to do square roots?” she asked. “Meet me at the back table.”
Five kids (including one ambitious and curious 3rd grader) went back to join her. She spent maybe 5-10 minutes giving them a mini lesson on square roots. She answered their questions, and then they headed back to their seats to complete their assignments.
They got what they needed when they needed it. Perfect.