The Difference in Differentiation

Division Directors' Blog
Posted on September 13, 2013
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

The word differentiation is the most popular educational term searched on Google in the last five years. Wikipedia defines differentiation as “a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing students with different avenues to acquiring content; to processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and to developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.”

In the lower school at VMS, we understand that not every student in every classroom learns at the same pace, is inspired by the same topics, or is challenged by the same lesson. When our teachers work to differentiate, they provide varying levels of materials, engaging processing activities, and formative assessments to meet the needs of all students whether they have a learning difference, are on grade level, or are a high flyer. Their classrooms are designed around specific content, processes, products, and learning environments. Content is differentiated by topic and/or level of thinking (Bloom’s Taxonomy). Process when differentiated, provides a variety of ways in which new information is shared with a student. Product refers to what a student produces at the end of a lesson that demonstrates their mastery of the content. A differentiated learning environment is flexible with varied types of furniture arrangements, and areas for quiet individual work as well as areas for group work and collaboration.

So what does this actually look like in a VMS classroom? It begins with a pre-assessment. This enables teachers to determine the strengths and needs of their students. The data gained from the pre-assessment helps the teacher plan engaging tasks that challenge and enhance learning for each student. Recently in a second grade math class, students were pre-assessed on their knowledge of adding two-digit numbers. The results of the pre-assessment showed three varying levels of competence with that specific skill: one group completed the pre-assessment quickly and accurately (secure), another group completed some of the problems, but lacked accuracy (developing), and the final group did not attempt the problems (beginning).

From there, the teacher created three levels of activities for the second grade students for their next math class. The first group used iPads and watched a Show Me video on how to add three digit numbers to four digit numbers, and then were instructed to create five new problems for a classmate with an answer key. The second group used iPads to watch a Show Me that reviewed how to add double-digit numbers and then practiced the skill with pre-made problems from their teacher. The final group met with the teacher who introduced the skill and monitored the group as they practiced adding double-digit numbers on their iPads using a whiteboard app. All members of the class were involved in addition, however individual students were engaged in tasks that enhanced their own level of skill.

At the core of everything the lower school does with students is a profound respect for individualism, and as such, we are committed to providing differentiated instruction whether that means supporting students as they are just beginning to develop understandings of new skills and concepts, encouraging students right at the point of a breakthrough in their learning, and/or offering challenge to those who have mastered a skill or concept.

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.