Defining Differentiation in Today’s Classroom

As a superintendent, I strive to put structures in place that enable our students to reap the benefits of being in the right place at the right time. The only way to do that is to ensure that every classroom is the right place all the time. Educators have a single school year to make a difference for students. Students only have one chance to experience each grade. This means we have just 180 days per year to facilitate impactful learning. We don’t get do overs – we have tremendous power over our students’ lives, and we have a critical responsibility to ensure that they are in the right place at the right time, set up to achieve success.

Meeting individual students’ needs is an often-elusive goal for American educators. For as long as I can remember, we’ve been learning about and promoting “differentiated instruction,” or providing different students with varied approaches to learning. Certainly a lofty goal, but our industrial-era school system was designed for groups, not individuals. Consider the classroom design of the typical schoolroom: rows of desks all pointed toward the front of the room. Group instruction is based on rigid and fixed schedules regulated by bells, mass movement of large groups of students, standardization of assessments and “batch” organization of students. That model served us well from the 1800’s through the 1900’s.
Times are changing. Scores of research reports inform us about more effective ways to facilitate learning, and the buzz around differentiation is growing. Educators and school systems are more interested in how to incorporate differentiation into their approach. The good news is that information on how to differentiate is all around us. Studies focusing on everything from neuroscience to instructional practices inform us of the need to change and the ability to do so.

Early in my career, I published an article that touched on the subject, sharing this story:

With U.S. History Workshop, I was able to teach traditional units of instruction more effectively than before. For example, most U.S. history teachers are familiar with the Civil War and Reconstruction period (roughly 1850-1880). For this and every unit taught with the workshop, I taught the students to view social studies and history as human experiences. This unit, like the others, separates history into five core areas or themes: Civil Rights, Women in History, Science & Technology, Politics, and War & Conflict. I identified key ideas, concepts and so on for each area and allowed student teams to explore these key concepts rather than the whole concept of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Instead of teaching this unit as one big complication, I presented it as one big puzzle–each of the concepts or ideas from each of the areas was like a piece of a puzzle. The challenge for the students was to piece together the puzzle independently, cooperatively, and with direction from the teacher. (Page 11)

I share this experience to provide a conceptual background to passion for meeting students where they are. Fast forward to 2015, and in our classrooms we have differentiation, individualization, and personalization in the mix of instructional improvements.

Another good example of differentiated instruction comes from a third grade classroom I visited recently in our district. After viewing the video Caine’s Arcade, one teacher’s classroom was inspired to spend 30 minutes a day for two weeks working on their voice projects. These students experienced a combination of differentiated instruction (different project for each child/group), individualized instruction (each child’s unique voice and interest came alive in their projects) and personalized instruction (each child had full creative license to produce learning in their own ways).

In addition to this type of engaging and creative lesson planning, our school district also supports digital tools for meeting individual student needs. We have invested time, dollars, resources, planning, training, and support for this transformation of teaching.

To support differentiated instruction, our district has intentionally and deliberately acquired digital resources. We use subscriptions, tools, and programs to support teachers and students. We use combinations of free, open, educational resources as well as paid resources. Some of the companies with whom we partner are web-based subscriptions, which allow for 24/7 school and home access. The possibilities are endless as we truly become a community of learners.

As a superintendent, I see learning every day and my aim is to support every classroom’s transformation into an engaging, motivating, challenging learning space for our nation’s most precious assets – our children. It’s imperative that we act with urgency to provide the most excellent educational system for all children.




About Michael Lubelfeld, Ed.D.

Michael Lubelfeld, Ed.D., is Superintendent of Deerfield Public School District in Illinois. Mike believes in the writings and messages of Michael Fullan, Thomas Sergiovanni, John Maxwell, and others in the field of leadership. They give clear guidance in areas of leadership like culture building, relationship building, servant leadership and effective change agency. Mike finds great value in both the boardroom and in the classroom as all decisions for his superintendency are based upon what’s best for students. Conscious of the impact on staff as well, his aim is to cause enough disruption as needed to move the “organization’s needle to the right” on its transition and transformation into becoming a highly disciplined school system whose focus is on excellence at all levels. The motto Engage, Inspire, Empower is alive and well in this superintendent.

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One Comment;

  1. Victoria Nelson said:

    Mr. Lubelfield example of differentiated instruction for the third grade class is right on point. When teachers provide differentiate instructions an opportunity is created for all students to learn. No child will feel inferior since each child would be given the opportunity to capitalize on their strength. The Caine’s arcade video is an interesting one. This is a perfect example of what a young mind can achieve once they are given the opportunity to do what they love. I have had the opportunity to observe a grade one classroom where differentiated instructions were given. The focus of the lesson was sight words. After conducting a reading comprehension lesson, the students were asked to identify the sight words in the story they read. The class was then divided into several groups. Each group was given different instructions. For example a group was given a graph with site words, another group was given the task to match sight words on cards, another group was given a fishing pole and a dice. Each child receiving a 6 on the dice was given the opportunity to fish a sight word. Each group was given the necessary instruction to complete the each assignment. The teacher also conducted a one on one with one of the students with the challenge of English being a second language. It was great observe each group working differently to reinforce as well as bring to light “sight words”. Differentiated instruction is a great approach for intentional teachers to adopt.