School Beat: Celebrating Each Child Through Differentiation

By: Maggie Thelen

Director of Instructional Technology


“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

-Henry David Thoreau

By nature, every student who crosses the classroom threshold requires a distinct and diverse educational plan. While our state sets the outcomes for our children, it’s the teachers alone who create the plan to help students meet those outcomes. Or, for the student who has already learned the content, the onus rests on the teacher to present new opportunities. This process is termed differentiation, and it’s how every teacher, coach, and mentor meets the individual needs of pupils.

What is differentiation? It’s a term for a tried and true educational method. Differentiation is simply meeting the student at their readiness level; in other words, teaching students, not teaching content. “One size fits all” has never been a philosophy to which Rockford teachers have subscribed.

Imagine a piano teacher who planned the same lessons for all first-year piano students, neglecting to acknowledge or plan for those students who have natural talents, previous musical training, or difficulties. It’s not hard to see how ineffective those lessons would be for the majority of the students, because readiness was not considered. While anecdotal evidence abounds regarding the effectiveness of differentiation, research is confirming this premise, as well.

A noted expert in the area of differentiation, Carol Ann Tomlinson, writes:

From a very young age, children understand some of us are good with kicking a ball, some with telling funny stories, some with manipulating numbers, and some with making people feel happy.  They understand that some of us struggle with reading words from the page, others with keeping tempers in check, still others with arms or legs that are weak. Children seem to accept a world in which we are not alike. They do not quest for sameness, but they search for the sense of triumph that comes when they are respected, valued, nurtured, and even cajoled into accomplishing things they believed beyond their grasp.

Differentiation may feel overwhelming but there are technology tools that can assist the teacher so that students are engaged and the instruction is matched to the students’ instructional level. Technology allows teachers to differentiate content as well as project options for all students. Collaboration opportunities established with shared documents and resources makes learning with students both inside and outside of school possible and engaging. Teachers can harness the power of technology to allow students to investigate their passion and connect with adults and other students that share their interests and have authentic audiences in which to share their knowledge, expertise, and work.

As we witness our state and nation questioning of the state of education today, we cannot stand idle as advocates for our children and the children of our community. Celebrate the differentiation you see in your child’s classroom; advocate for differentiation for our community’s children; convince our legislators of the need for appropriate legislation and adequate funding to meet the needs of kids, both struggling and advanced. We’d never expect every child to have the same batting average, nor would we coach them in exactly the same manner. No less consideration should ever be afforded our children in schools.