Students of Higher Abilities – The Role of Differentiation

As part of the development of our professional knowledge, our college staff have been granted a day to work on our research project. This is our second full day, along with the staff meetings we have been given to work on our own research. This is a summary of some reading I have undertaken.


Reading – Chapter 12 ‘Differentiated Instruction’

My major question is, how can differentiation be developed and supported with a school staff to enable students of higher ability to continue to flourish? This has come about because of the developing focus on reducing external classes for gifted and talented students, both through staffing and financial pressures, as well as encouragement that it is actually a preferable way to operate with students identified in this way (in schools taking on the IB PYP I have observed this to be the case).

What Tomlinson has to say in this chapter is that differentiation is “…the adaptations in content, process, product, affect and learning environment in response to student readiness … interests and learning profile … to ensure appropriate challenge and support for the full range of learners in the classroom.”

What the research appears to show is that even short-term differentiation has a positive impact on reading achievement (a Columbia study is cited) across ability levels compared to non-differentiated classrooms. However, Tomlinson states that there is little research which shows how differentiated classroom instruction compares with extension and gifted programs in student achievement. It is probably a given that unless there is a financial will, withdrawal programs for students of higher ability will be an exception rather that a rule.

Students who are ‘ready’ to progress further in their learning may already have the prior knowledge and understandings in relation to the learning intention of the class, or may develop that readiness during the learning time.

Interest based differentiation is the promotion of their own development of questions which are intrinsically motivating for them. For those students with a narrow focus of interest (for example with just football or Minecraft) it is to provide contextual interest such as applying to real life, novelty or connection with past experiences.

The learning profile can include student preferences of learning style or intelligence, gender (although the research tends not to support positive impact for this conclusively) or cultural impacts. It is the innate or external environmental drivers of learning for the student.

Differentiation should be pre-planned and intentional and this is where the difference can be made in schools. Leadership is the main agent to support any change required in teacher practice. There is much that education researchers such as Fullan, Hargreaves and Starratt, among many others, say about fostering long term, positive change in schools. The question leaders should be asking is

What is the actual practice of differentiation in the school? If there is no differentiation, why? Is it because it is not needed, or that staff are not sure how?

Links research by Tomlinson and others:

Differentiating Instruction in response to Student Readiness, Interest, and Learning Profile in Academically Diverse Classrooms

Differentiation of Instruction in Elementary Grades


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