Differentiation Trumps Worksheets

Wednesday 21 Nov

Asking all 6th-graders to master the same concept at the same time is like asking all 35-year-olds to wear the same sized shirt. Justin Tarte

Differentiation. The word is teacher jargon, but I can’t think of an everyday word to replace it. Essentially, differentiation is a word that describes what teachers do in the classroom to cater for a range of learning abilities and paces.

In the traditional classroom, worksheets were considered an appropriate teaching strategy. They were neat and consistent, and made for very easy marking by teachers. The problem with worksheets is that they assume all children come to the table with the same basic understanding, and that they will progress with their learning at the same rate. This was appropriate for the industrial era when we had an assembly-line approach to education, but those days have passed.

Contemporary research shows that, just as children develop physically at different rates, they develop academically at different rates. Consider, for example, at which ages each child in your family crawled, walked, talked … it’s most likely that each of your children reached each milestone at a different age. As such, the challenge for educators is to create an environment whereby one lesson can engage and meet the needs of all students. Meeting this challenge is called differentiation.

More often than not, differentiation results in different responses from learners at different stages of learning. Despite the responses being different, they can often each still be correct.

The classic example of differentiation that I often use when quizzed by parents is that of the chess board. How many squares are on a chess board? This is a simple task suitable for use in any year level because the answer, and how this answer is established, will differ according to a child’s ability. A basic level response would be to count each square, one-by-one, and achieve a result of 64. A higher level response would be to count eight across and eight down, multiply, and achieve a result of 64. An even higher level response would be to acknowledge that there are 2x2 squares, 3x3 squares, etc. Perhaps the highest level response would be to realise that there are multiple different-sized squares that overlap with each other, resulting in a total of 204 squares. This response leads to discussions regarding secondary-school concepts such as integer sequences and factorials. Here we have one question about the number of squares on a chess board, with different answers and different ways of reaching these answers, yet all are correct.

A subtler example of differentiation is that of ‘extending the silence’. Giving students time to think about and process a question, and then even more time to develop their own questions to deepen their curiosity and understanding of a topic, allows each child to stretch themselves according to their own potential.

Learning is messy and often inconsistent. It’s not black and white. After all, we are not fostering the development of regimented robots but, rather, our most precious little humans who each come with their wonderfully colourful backgrounds, talents, struggles and quirks. Worksheets still have their place in the contemporary classroom on some occasions, particularly those that draw on open-ended tasks. However, do not be concerned if your child’s learning is not recorded on a traditional worksheet and neatly glued into an exercise book as was the case in my own schooling days. Rest assured that, instead of being put on an assembly line, your child is undergoing learning experiences catered as best as possible to his or her own developmental needs. And, in the same thought, give thanks to our amazing creative teachers who strive daily to deliver engaging lessons that meet a large variety of needs.

- Jane Mueller