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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Back to School: Differentiation for All Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

In every classroom we have students that are as different as condors are to capybaras. A soaring condor's capacity has little to compare with the skill set of the water-loving capybara. Understanding their differences is the first step, but even if we create individual education plans that differentiate instruction for each student, teachers are forced to make choices that affect student learning when it comes to instructing them all at once.

The issue is how do you provide instruction that meets the needs of each individual student? The answer is you can't, but there are some other things that can.

Tried-and-True Tactics

I would like to introduce you to the idea of automatic differentiation. It is impossible for a single teacher to provide 35 unique individual learning opportunities for every learning objective, so as a result, we do the next best thing; we clump student-learning needs into related categories and get as close as we can. If we are able to do three different categories, we feel that we are doing great -- hard, medium, and easy. But, even still, we know we are not meeting the specific learning needs of every student, just some of them. If we take advantage of automatic differentiation, however, then the learning needs of all of the students are met naturally or organically.

The only thing we have to do in automatic differentiation is to start the process and then let it go. Here are some examples of automatic differentiation:

  • Cooperative learning is done in small groups, and students are forced to interact with other students to complete the learning task. In this setting, students automatically choose the task they are most comfortable doing along with the level of participation that resonates best with them
  • Project-based learning is also an example of automatic differentiation. When given the project and the standard of success in a rubric, then it is up to the student to determine how to meet the requirements. The students automatically choose methods and learning strategies that coincide with their needs and interests

Turning to Technology

An example of automatic differentiation that is highly effective is seen in classrooms where tablet computers are integrated into the learning. The tablet computer is the ultimate automatic differentiating tool because students are the ones using it to learn and as a result, the students automatically work at their own skill level, and automatically follow their own interests and learning styles. This differentiation is facilitated when you have a device designed specifically to help teachers and students in the education setting.

I found out about the tablet made by Intel Education and was so excited about the possibilities that I had to share it with you. It is a powerful exploratory learning tool made for schools to help them automatically differentiate for each student. For example, with a clip-on attachment, the camera on the tablet becomes a microscope, temperature probes connect through the headphone jack, and with other built-in sensors, the students can use the Sparkvue app to perform multiple laboratory experiments. I also especially like this tablet since it comes loaded with resources, which include a variety of ready-to-use digital content that students (and teachers) need to delve into science, math, social studies, and English.

This tablet has the MyScript app that changes handwritten characters to text and ArtRage that allows students to create intuitive art. These and the other apps in the Intel Education suite help students discover and create for maximum alignment to their learning needs (i.e. differentiation).

For teachers, the Intel Education Tablet includes e-Learning, a learning management system that allows teachers to send individual students, or groups of students, unique learning opportunities to differentiate instruction to their specific needs. Intel also has hundreds of apps in their ecosystem to fit the needs of individual students.

I like that tablets are built rugged for student use and schools can rest at ease because of a built-in security features and security software. Perhaps most importantly, as I expressed in my last blog, with this particular tablet teachers have access to professional development that doesn't just show teachers how to use the technology, but they show teachers how to use it to help students learn better.

So even if you have condors and capybaras in the same classroom, a tablet computer can provide effective differentiated instruction and also the intense exploration and discovery that effective student learning demands. What are your experiences with automatic differentiation?

Back to School Blog Series
Back to school tips and strategies to help you rock the new year!

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