“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ~Albert Einstein
It is becoming increasingly accepted that children enter formal academic environments with a diverse range of prior knowledge, beliefs, skills, as well as cultural and linguistic resources for learning. Accordingly, from an early age children become adept at employing a variety of strategies in order to organize, interpret, and apply new information. Differentiation is a pedagogical approach that seeks to adapt instruction in order to be responsive to the diverse needs and abilities of all students. It requires that a teacher be flexible in the ways that she plans and implements learning experiences. It means moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ perspective on the content, curricular materials, methods of instruction, and the ways that progress toward learning is monitored or assessed. Differentiated instruction considers the diversity of learners to be the driving force behind planning and instruction, rather than an obstacle to academic success.
Scaffolding is a term used to describe a variety of techniques that are often employed within successful differentiated instructional approaches. Scaffolding reflects the principles behind Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, which he described as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p86). Educators who scaffold instruction attempt to build on what students know and are able to do and extend their competencies by building supporting structures or scaffolds into learning activities. These supports can include engaging the student in the task, structuring activities such that steps are more easily managed, modeling, and more.
When considering the ways in which differentiation and scaffolding play out in the classroom, many of us educators don’t typically think about altering the content, in other words, the ‘what’ that we teach. After all, all students are capable of academic success and (like it or not) all students are expected to demonstrate mastery of that content on the annual state standardized tests that are used to determine whether a school has met adequate yearly progress. Usually we do consider altering the process, the how learning experiences are planned and implemented, and the products, how progress toward learning is measured, in order to meet individual student needs.
There are many straightforward ways that teachers can build differentiation into their instructional practice. Quite often this manifests in terms of curricular materials being modified in terms of ‘high, medium, and low’ or ‘above, on, and below’ grade level. This could mean three different reading passages on the same topic or featuring the same story that differ by Lexile level. It can also mean structuring some activities such that groups of students complete graphic organizers before they write, previewing vocabulary and/or creating vocabulary flash cards, adjusting the length of assignments, etc.
A difficult yet poignant question, however, is to what extent does differentiated instruction authentically lead to differentiated learning. Are we truly seeking to be responsive to individual learning and helping each child to construct more sophisticated understandings, or are we simply moving from ‘one size fits all’ to ‘a few sizes fit most?’
Understandably, this is not an easy question to answer and, for many of us, merely considering the question requires a significant paradigm shift with regard to best practices for how people learn. Constructivist theories on knowledge and knowing assume that all knowledge is constructed from previous knowledge. Constructivist pedagogies, then, focus on accessing students’ pre-existing conceptions and helping them re-craft those ideas into deeper and more sophisticated understandings. When one thinks about the extensive diversity of experiences as well as the cultural and linguistic resources that contribute to a child’s pre-existing knowledge, the thought of trying to tailor instruction and curricular materials to be responsive to individuals can seem overwhelming. Additionally, it seems reasonable to assume that those preconceptions are constantly being made and refashioned and it would be unrealistic for a teacher to attempt to create an instructional plan and separate materials for each and every student in her classroom.
Indeed, it is quite the conundrum.
The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) offer strategies that may serve as solutions. UDL is an educational framework that is grounded on the supposition that the unique nature of cognitive development and learning requires flexible learning environments. The framework compels teachers to provide multiple means of representing information, a variety of different opportunities for students to communicate understandings, and numerous ways for students to engage with the tasks. According to UDL, differentiation means more than providing different versions of materials for different learners It means planning instructional experiences with the intent to reduce as many barriers for learning as possible while optimizing opportunities for enrichment and support.
To be truly responsive, the student must be at the center of the learning experience. This doesn’t mean that teachers must be hands-off, should never lecture or ‘tell’ the students anything. In the teacher-student relationship, the teacher is the expert who, according to Vygotskian approach, places the scaffolds that help the student advance in her understandings. What it does mean, is that students’ ideas before and throughout a lesson must be transparent, accessible, accessed, and validated as not only tools, but elements of learning.
So, what does this look like in an actual classroom?
In fourth grade science in the state of Maryland, students are expected to “use scientific skills and processes to explain the composition, structure, and interactions of matter in order to support the predictability of structure and energy transformations” (mdk12.org, 2008). One of the objectives within the indicator is to identify examples of matter. Differentiated approaches to this indicator that I had taken up in prior years involved providing the definition of matter (matter has properties that you can observe and measure, takes up space, has mass) and then giving students a variety of activities that allowed them to provide examples of matter and non matter on their own, classifying given examples, matching and sorting activities with vocabulary support, etc.
Upon deeper reflection on this approach, it occurred to me that the differentiation and scaffolding that I was implementing focused primarily on building scientific literacy skills and only superficially addressed conceptual meaning-making on the concept of matter. I decided to try a slightly different approach. I know that it is important for students to not only be able to identify factual information (such as the properties of matter and examples of matter), but that they are able to make sense of it in terms of their prior understandings of how the world works. Each day I would begin by providing the definition of matter, writing it on the board, and, with the class, physically acting out what each meant. I was careful to explain these properties using appropriate scientific vocabulary as well as everyday language. For example, the property, ‘matter takes up space’ also may be described as ‘two objects with matter cannot be in the exact same place at the same time; in order for one object to be in the same place as another, it must bump another out of the way.’ I would also encourage the students to describe the definition of matter in their own words. This served to help me better monitor their understandings and also helped them to reflect on their own progress. It was my intention that interacting with the meaning of the word ‘matter’ in a variety of non-standardized ways would help students not only develop literacy skills but would allow them to engage more personally and more meaningfully with the abstract concepts behind the word. Differentiation in this case is at work in significant, though perhaps more inconspicuous ways.
Each day we would brainstorm examples as a class and I would challenge the students to conduct argument-based investigations to solve in flexible groups. The groups were structured such that each included students with different levels of linguistic proficiency, academic ability, and cultural resources. Challenges included developing evidence to support an argument for why someone would think that examples such as red, or love is matter as well as for why someone would think that such examples are not matter. Each group was then tasked with reconciling the two arguments to come up with the argument that they believe to be most reasonable.
I was careful to organize these discussions to be reflective of the UDL approach to differentiation such that the students have control over the ways in which they participate in the learning as well as the types of linguistic, cultural, and cognitive resources that they choose to employ. The content, in other words the evidence to support their arguments, arose from their own knowledge and experiences and was communicated in their own words and evaluated in their own ways. I would provide scaffolding along the way by recording the arguments and evidence on the board as they developed-often by enlisting the help of the students to explain and rephrase the arguments and draw illustrations for each.
The unit culminated with an inquiry-based investigation into whether air is considered matter. Each group was charged with developing arguments to both support and challenge the idea that air was matter. Students had access to a variety of materials including straws, plastic grocery bags, string, balloons, in order to conduct their investigations. I believe it is important to view ‘experiments’ as tools for constructing evidence to support or challenge ideas as opposed to procedures to demonstrate a fact or phenomenon that a teacher, textbook, or other traditional source of academic authority has explained to be correct. Truly differentiated approaches to teaching and learning in science place as much of the control over experimentation in the hands of the students as possible. It thus becomes a tool for their learning that they are able to define and access according to their own learning needs. Therefore, rather than provide them the steps for an experiment that would
demonstrate that air possesses the properties of matter, I allowed them to devise the plans themselves.
Experiments subsequently included using straws to concentrate air that could ‘blow’ a pencil off the edge of a desk, weighing full balloons and comparing them to empty balloons, observing the effects of the air conditioning vent a variety of objects, and more. These experiments exposed a considerable amount of students’ thinking about air, gases, wind, weather, water, and how they all are related. Again, for this unit to result in truly differentiated learning, it was important for the students to be able to make sense of air as matter in terms of their current ideas about related phenomena. I was responsive to their conceptions and facilitated discussions in order to help connect and organize their ideas.
In addition to expressing their progress toward learning in the form of discussion, students were given the opportunity to demonstrate understanding in writing (see example below). These written responses were structured such that rather than being required to transcribe a standardized answer to factual questions, the students were asked to provide their own arguments to support a position regarding air and matter. They were also asked to illustrate their arguments, providing yet another method for them to express their understandings. In this assignment, I am not evaluating the responses and illustrations for ‘correctness.’ Instead, I am intending to assess the students’ abilities to employ reasoning and critical thinking skills to describe their understanding of the phenomena of matter with respect, in this case, to air. I provided further scaffolding by requiring that the students use the properties of matter in their responses, however the properties were written and illustrated on the board for students to consult if necessary and they were encouraged to describe them in their own words. I was not assessing their ability to memorize the prosperities, but their ability to apply the concepts behind them toward understanding how we classify air. Similarly, I was not assessing their ability to express their ideas using particular grammatical structures or vocabulary. I am interested in the substance of their ideas and recognize that diverse learners will communicate conceptual understandings in diverse ways.
Differentiated instruction and scaffolding are critical to the creation of successful learning experiences. Incorporating differentiated instruction such that it leads to meaningful differentiated learning is a complex endeavor and I admit I struggle with finding ways to make differentiation meaningful with regard to developing conceptual understandings as well literacy skills. The approaches and strategies manifest in a variety of ways for an assortment of purposes but when used with integrity, they hold power in that they allow the teacher to recognize, legitimize, and respond to the diverse resources for learning that students bring with them to the classroom.