All Aboard the Differentiation Train

Joan King, the principal of Pemberton Elementary School, is conducting her annual faculty evaluations. The school has recently embarked on a differentiation initiative. Mrs. King is challenged by the fact that one of the teachers models an exemplary lesson while the other has not demonstrated any differentiation at all.

Joan King, the principal of Pemberton Elementary School, prepares for classroom observations.

Joan sat at her desk, planning her final teacher evaluations targeting differentiation in the classroom. Earlier in the year, she hired a consultant to provide workshops on classroom differentiation, and the faculty has worked to develop differentiated classrooms.

Pemberton Elementary’s student population has become increasingly more diverse. Currently, eight languages are represented, including English. Several new apartment buildings have sprung up. Now, 40% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. The new housing has also increased enrollment. Just 10 years ago the school had 367 students in grades K-6; this year, there are more than 530 students in Pemberton Elementary, and the average class size has increased to 25 students.

The teachers Joan plans to observe today are two of her finest teachers. Betsy Clark and Lola Walter are leaders in curriculum and instruction. Both teachers have completed Master’s degrees and many staff development hours. They work hard, parents frequently request them, and students seem to enjoy their classes.

Although Joan looks forward to wrapping up faculty evaluations—which are not her favorite administrative responsibility—she also enjoys watching two of her best teachers demonstrate their understanding and competency in creating differentiated classrooms. Joan has invested a great deal of time and money in the school’s initial differentiation efforts, which she believes critical to meet the evolving needs of their students. Her expectations are high, but she also realizes the challenge of developing and maintaining classrooms that respond to the ability levels, learning profiles, and interests of so many students.

Joan visits Lola’s classroom.

Joan heads down the hallway to the three first-grade classrooms. The halls are noisy and crowded as students move to different rooms for math. The first grade team struggled with differentiation efforts last year because of the diversity of students in their heterogeneous classrooms. This year, the teachers approached Joan with a plan to pre-assess students and group them by readiness and need for math instruction. Each teacher would focus on a different level of readiness—struggling, on grade-level, and above grade level.

The teachers completed an extensive pre-assessment of basic math skills during the first weeks of school. Before each major unit, the teachers re-assess students’ math skills and move them in and out of instructional groups as needed. For example, before the money and time units, students were pre-assessed and placed into classrooms based on readiness levels in each topical area. However, prior to the problem-solving unit, students were moved around based on teachers’ knowledge of students’ overall use of problem-solving to approach any learning experience.

If a child moves between one math classroom and another during a grading period, teachers conference and collaborate on the overall mathematics grade. They do their best to create a fit between student needs and placement in an instructional group. The flexible grouping efforts have been so successful in first-grade that Joan has asked the team to present at the next faculty meeting in the hopes of starting a school-wide initiative.

The first grade team is young, but incredibly talented. Betsy Clark has taught for six years, three of them at Pemberton Elementary. The teachers attend many professional development opportunities and share a unifying commitment to making each of their students successful.


“Mrs. Clark, the principal is here,” shout several students in unison as Joan enters the classroom.Betsy hands Joan a lesson plan. While reading it over, Joan sees a clear intent to differentiate the lesson for the 28 students in this advanced math group. Perhaps the biggest misperception about grouping students by need is that differentiation is not necessary after initial group assignments by readiness levels. Given individual student differences, Betsy’s 28 students provide unique challenges during each lesson.

See Problem-solving lesson plan below:

The students stream in from the other two first-grade classrooms. Daniel arrives from the kindergarten wing. He’s been working most of the year with the first-grade class because of his advanced mathematics skills. The classroom includes computer stations, centers, and resource tables—all organized to promote student work. Betsy teaches small group lessons at a table in the back of the room. She leads large group instruction from the side of the room at her chair or at the front of the room using the overhead projector and/or chalkboard. Student desks are arranged in groups of four.

Students start class by completing a mad minute assignment, a 1-minute written drill and practice. Betsy places worksheets on desks and then indicates where each student should sit to complete the appropriate worksheet. Students in orange and brown chairs have more difficult mad minute assignments because they are already able to complete 30 basic facts a minute.

It’s clear that Betsy has thought about differentiation in every aspect of her math lesson, including drill and practice. Before they begin their work, Becky cautions, “Remember, you each have different challenges. So do your best, work carefully and as fast as you can. Just remember, this is not a competition.”

Food pyramid

At the end of the mad minute, Betsy asks the students to join her on the floor in front of the blackboard. Betsy asks students review questions regarding their knowledge of the food pyramid and a balanced diet. For Daniel, the kindergartener, this is his only introduction to the material. Betsy begins with many questions: “What are the major food groups? How many servings of each food group should we eat? What’s a balanced diet?”

Then Betsy points to a daily menu that she has placed on chart paper and posted on the front chalkboard. She has the students read the menu. “How can we decide whether or not this menu is balanced?” she asks. “Do you know how many servings of each food group is needed?” As Betsy asks more concrete questions to guide student thinking, more students raise their hands.

Betsy gives several students a piece of plastic food to represent an item on the menu. Students move to the appropriate food group space in a food pyramid taped to the floor. Betsy asks the remaining students questions about the demonstration. “Does anyone see a food item sitting in the wrong food group?” Then she progresses to questions regarding the balanced diet.

Again, Betsy differentiates her questions, and calls on students who may not volunteer answers. “Daniel, is this menu balanced?”

Daniel replies, “Wait a minute, I need to figure it out.” He uses his fingers to count, and then replies, “Yes, it is balanced.”

“How do you know?”

He replies, “I counted up how many foods in each spot. Then I made sure we didn’t eat less or more of the servings you’re supposed to have. Each group has just the right number, so it’s balanced.”

Students are instructed to go to one of three designated areas in the classroom to work on related activities. Each group is given a different written assignment. Betsy also has a challenge problem for students who finish early.

Betsy walks around the groups of students answering their questions, and asking them about their strategies for problem solving. She hands two children who finish quickly additional challenge problems. Two students interact with Betsy and their peers in English, and then speak with each other in Spanish.

After students complete their work, they join Betsy in a circle around her rocker. The students share their various approaches to problem solving and summarize some of the most effective strategies used by the class. Betsy comments on various approaches and compliments several specific efforts by students. When the 50 minute period is over, students place their problem sheets in the “done” box by the door and head back to their regular classrooms.

Joan checks the lesson plan for student evaluation. She is delighted to see that student assessment is based on continuous progress from individual starting points. Each student is assessed by the number of correct problem solutions or correct application of strategies regardless of the level of problem the child was presented.

“Thank you so much for allowing me to see your lesson today,” says Joan as she gets ready to leave. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. You are so good at differentiating instruction.”

“Well, thanks,” replied Betsy. “Now that I’ve got the hang of it, I couldn’t imagine teaching any other way.”

Joan visits Lola Walter’s sixth-grade classroom.

The sixth grade “wing” contains three classrooms with about 25 students each. Sixth graders remain with their homeroom teacher all day for instruction in the core subjects. Despite the fact that students are homogeneously grouped, Lola Walter’s is still a diverse bunch. Her classroom is made up of 26 students—14 boys and 12 girls. Her class has four identified gifted children, two LD students, and a variety of needs. Six of her students do not speak English as a first language.

Lola has been teaching at Pemberton for 15 years. Although she is an exceptional instructional leader, she is not comfortable with change and is skeptical of new trends and reform movements. Because she receives a lot of praise from parents and is respected by her less experienced peers, she doesn’t have a lot of motivation to do things differently. Despite her reservations, she has really tried to differentiate instruction this year.

Lola’s instructional style is unique. She posts weekly classroom assignments for all subjects on chart paper and then randomly assigns students to start with different activities. Students may work on different assignments at any time, but all students complete the same assignments by week’s end. If students finish early, they can read in the book corner or work on the computer to build basic skills. Once each day, Lola teaches a multi- or inter-disciplinary lesson building on two or more subject areas.

After several years of working together, Joan has grown more comfortable with Lola’s teaching style. There’s no doubt that Lola works hard to motivate and enrich her core curriculum, however, she’s never demonstrated differentiation in lessons before. Lola had sent her lesson plan earlier in the week, one she adapted from online. Joan’s first reaction was disappointment; this didn’t seem to be a differentiated lesson plan. Still, she hopes Lola might come through today and demonstrate differentiation.

“Good morning, Lola,” says Joan as she enters the room.

“Well, hello,” says Lola, smiling. “Come on in and have a seat. You know the routine!”

Most students sit at desks, working diligently. Some students work on math, others spelling, and all but three work on one of the posted weekly assignments. On the carpet, in the designated reading area, three students read novels.

As the lesson begins, Lola asks all of the students to return to their desks, which are grouped to form a table. She explains the lesson, following the original lesson text verbatim. After an animated reading of part of the story, she distributes individual charts for recording student work.

The chart or worksheet is used to determine a pattern that solves the problem of how many grains of rice Rani ultimately will get. Students have the choice of working alone or with a partner. Lola gently encourages partner work for students with limited English proficiency or those who might otherwise have difficulty understanding the recording sheets on their own.

Lola moves around the classroom offering guidance and validating student progress as they work. She spends quite a bit of time supporting one group of students by offering probing questions to encourage rethinking the problem. She also provides the book for reference and helps them locate and rethink the pattern needed to solve the problem. Two other students complete the assignment significantly earlier than other students, check their work with Lola, and then move to the designated reading area to continue independent reading.

Student evaluation is based on whether or not the students are able to use the pattern strategy to determine the right answer.

As all students complete the assignment, Lola pulls the class together and finishes reading the story to them. Students realize the accuracy of their prediction as the story is completed.

Joan thanks Lola for sharing her lesson and asks her to schedule a time after school to stop by the office for some feedback. This is Lola’s least favorite part of the observation. She is neither threatened nor uncomfortable with the annual administrative observation, but she is extremely uncomfortable with any criticism.

Joan conducts debriefing sessions.

Back in her office, Joan can’t remember the last time she saw two such different classroom lessons. Although she is pleased with the level of classroom differentiation in Betsy’s classroom, she is equally concerned that she saw none with Lola. How could this be?

Later that afternoon, Betsy shows up in Joan’s office with pad in hand, ready to take notes.

After the meeting, Joan is delighted by Betsy’s genuine surprise with the positive feedback she has received. Unfortunately, Joan’s delight is short-lived. Now she is faced with the challenge of helping Lola understand the problems with her lesson. How can she make Lola understand the difference between good, effective, creative teaching and differentiated instruction? She pulls out a differentiated teaching chart she had once shared with her faculty. She would use this as a starting point. She has to be very careful to help Lola understand without discouraging her from future efforts.

The differentiated teaching chart