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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Differentiation: Reclaiming an Abused Word

Teachers, administrators, and well-informed parents are no doubt familiar with an important term in education that can cause serious side effects in teachers. When used, this term causes teachers to experience:

  1. a sudden fear of being seen

  2. the onset of nightmares

  3. changes in sleep patterns

  4. a regression to child-like behaviors (e.g., sticking fingers in ears and chanting, “I can’t hear you” repeatedly)

  5. withdrawal

  6. anxiety

  7. avoidance of certain topics

  8. doubts about one’s sanity

Like the Force in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, this term has great power for both good and evil.

It is differentiation.

Teachers, take a moment and reflect on your inner thoughts after reading that word. What images come to mind? Is that a term you’re familiar with, either positively or negatively, or is it still mysterious? I’d like to reclaim this word and turn it, so to speak, from the dark side back to the light.

To those who have been abused by the word, differentiation probably seems synonymous with individual education plans. Perhaps you’ve dismissed the idea of differentiation because you don’t want to create three or four lessons for every single class period. Since that is unfeasible you feel like the only other option is a one-size-fits-all approach. You teach your one lesson and hope the students get it.

To reclaim differentiation, though, we must first agree on a valid definition. According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, one of the premier authors in the education field, differentiation means

to actively plan for student differences in classrooms.

Differentiation does not start or end with the teacher but rather the student. Sometimes the only commonality in a typical classroom is the age range of the students. Students differ in learning styles, levels of engagement, knowledge, skills, maturity, and behavior (to name a few). Can we assume that one lesson using one strategy will reach most of them, let alone all of them?

What if I said yes?

Let’s look at an example of differentiating the learning styles (process) by which students engage with the material.

Differentiated Lesson

The strategy I used is called Divergent Human Graphing. The goal for the class period was to have students use various strategies to solve and represent 3-digit addition problems. More than just using the standard algorithm, I wanted students to be familiar with using place value, base-10 blocks, the associative property of addition, number lines, and compensation to add. I opened the lesson with this scenario.

What if your teacher wrote the following problem on the board, 237 + 492, and then was suddenly struck with amnesia? How could you prove to her that you knew what the answer was if she not only forgot how to add but also was extremely skeptical? Could you show her at least 4 different ways to solve or represent the solution without using Google, Siri, or a calculator?

I then put them in groups of three, handed them each a blank piece of paper, and let them brainstorm. Some students initially flourished while others languished, waiting for me to give them the answer. After every few minutes I would stop the groups and allow a few to share with the class. I put those solutions on the board for other groups to borrow from if they were stuck. After about 15 minutes of this the groups had come up with most of the strategies I was looking for and two I hadn’t even considered. That’s one reason why brainstorming is so successful – you never know what solutions your students will come up with.

Divergent Human Graphing

I allowed them to use 3 or 4 strategies that they felt most comfortable with to solve the new problem. I posted the name of each strategy we used that day, including the two they came up with, around the room and asked them the following question:

If you wanted to try and teach your teacher (who still has amnesia) how to add 111 + 239 using only one strategy, which one would be the best one to use so that she understood addition? 

Students then moved around the room and stood under the strategy they selected. I gave them an opportunity to talk with the other students at their newly formed group about their reasoning. After a minute, each group chose a spokesperson who shared why they believed their strategy worked. After each group’s explanation I offered everyone the chance to switch groups if they heard a convincing argument. I celebrated any changes and shared their rationale for switching with the class.

A student in the base-10 group gave the most poignant rationale during this exercise. She said she thought that her strategy worked best because you could use the blocks to show how to regroup 10 ones for a ten. When she said that, about five other students raced over to the base-10 group because they agreed that being able to physically show an exchange (10 ones for ten) helped.

This was one lesson taught to an entire math class, so how was it differentiated? It had something for all the learning styles (i.e., mastery, understanding, interpersonal, self-expressive) thus allowing all students to engage with the content.

One Lesson To Rule Them All

The strength of brainstorming plays to self-expressive learners. It taps into their need for alternate solutions and piggybacking ideas. For the mastery learners, the lesson offered factual knowledge from the examples I culled from the group and placed on the board for their reference. The interpersonal students were in hog heaven because they not only worked in a group and used human graphing to discuss and validate their knowledge, I also framed the entire scenario to help their skeptical teacher suffering from amnesia. Finally, the understanding learners made connections left and right because of the multiple representations of solutions. They validated not only how to solve the problem but why that solution worked based on the evidence of various strategies. They especially enjoyed the rationale and decision portion of the strategy.

Differentiation doesn’t have to be a four-letter word for teachers. One way to differentiate is to ensure that students process the content in a way that plays to their learning style strength. With the right teaching strategy, you CAN use one lesson to reach everyone.



Silver, H. F., Strong, R. W., & Perini, M. J. (2007). The strategic teacher: Selecting the right research-based strategy for every lesson. ASCD.

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