Differentiated Instruction

Using Differentiation to Challenge All Students

Whether students are ahead of their peers or behind, differentiation should ensure that all learners engage in critical thinking.

April 20, 2023
Hero Images / iStock

Imagine asking one of your students for advice about choosing a birthday present for a family member who’s their age and shares similar interests. When they recommend what to get, could they also explain what options to avoid and why their suggestion is the best choice? Is it likely that any of your students could give gift advice in this scenario whether their academic success was high or minimal? 

Their advice is critical thinking in action. They analyze the information about your family member’s interests and evaluate the quality of the options, including their suitability as the best fit. How do we give all learners opportunities to engage in challenging content that is differentiated based on academic needs?

A common misconception is that an effective differentiation system for readiness (i.e., skill levels) can be based on the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy or another framework, like Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. The idea is that advanced learners get activities where they analyze, evaluate, and create, while struggling learners need to build knowledge and understanding through basic applications. 

As a result, learners who struggle with a subject area are denied rich experiences that could help them see authentic uses of skills in the world outside of school. While they work on abstract school content, they see their peers engage in rich conversations, analyzing and evaluating concepts to create artifacts for a public audience. It’s like watching a three-star chef prepare a savory banquet as you prepare to eat a white bread sandwich containing iceberg lettuce.  

This oversimplified approach to differentiation denies struggling learners valuable experiences that are based on higher-order thinking, despite their capacity to analyze, evaluate, and create in their daily lives. But how do we give all learners opportunities to engage in challenging content that is differentiated based on academic needs?

Steps for Differentiating to Challenge All Learners

Start with the end in mind. Identify the core skills and concepts that make up the learning outcomes. Then collect information on your students’ preparedness, from prerequisites and minor gaps to existing mastery. Combined with students’ lived experiences, this data should inform you on how to revise and/or remix a planned complex activity.

Next, design the learning experience for all students to complete that includes a critical thinking challenge.

For students who can accomplish the skills with bridging supports, curate resources, guides, and tools that support learners’ needs while focusing on the instructional outcome. Here are some examples:

  • Recorded readings. Oral understanding can aid reading material by improving access to the information.
  • Word journals. Provide a words/terminology bank for key concepts in the subject area. Students should routinely update and review their journals.
  • Collaboration teams. Use structured protocol strategies for learner groups to explore, process, and construct content.
  • Peer support. Other learners can serve as resources as the need arises.

For students who lack prerequisite skills or conceptual understanding, plan activities that include custom supports for skills and critical thinking experiences. Here are some examples:

  • Learning stations. Have students participate in different stations where they work on prerequisite skills based on their current skill level. The teacher is one station to personalize support for students grouped by similar needs.
  • Independent work. Assign students work based on the prerequisite skills they need more practice with. The teacher meets with students for personalized support.
  • Remix the critical thinking activity. Review the activity and make a version that focuses on either fewer choices or fewer moving parts. Simplify without compromising the critical thinking experience. Or, create a version that focuses on the prerequisite skills without compromising the opportunity for critical thinking.

For students who already meet learning expectations, introduce new knowledge, skills, and/or concepts that amplify their understanding. Add these elements into the prepared critical thinking experience for more seasoning and spice. This could be included in learning stations, independent work, and other activities.

Differentiation is about meeting needs for all learners through equitable critical thinking challenges.

If we routinely review and analyze student achievement data to monitor their progress, the information tells us the specific gaps or prerequisite skills each learner needs more practice with to learn. The steps shared above take that information and add adaptations or mirrored versions of the core assignment. A different series of learning activities do not need to be created—unless that is the direction you choose based on the learner achievement data. 

Not limiting critical thinking opportunities for learners who struggle with the content helps them feel that they can do challenging work. This is an important goal for growing their self-esteem.

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  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Critical Thinking

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