Differentiation in High School

The most fundamental truth in education is that each person learns differently.  The second most fundamental truth in education is that we benefit from learning in part of a community, where we simultaneously model learning and teaching for peers around us, and our ideas help others develop or reject ideas.  While those truths may seem to be at odds with each other, sensitive and thoughtful teachers use both axioms to advantage as they differentiate for student learning within lessons.  

Differentiation is not teaching simultaneous different lessons, nor is it modifying expectations — it is, rather, creating deliberate opportunities for students to access content and face challenge as appropriate, to meet the needs of individual students as they encounter curriculum.

During a day in the HS classrooms, I’ve seen teachers use several kinds of differentiation strategies to ensure students successfully achieve the desired understandings. For example, juniors reading Dante Aligheri’s “Inferno” have been assigned different tasks for the canto they are reading; one student keeps an eye out for the famous resident, while another student is specifically looking for the crime and the punishment assigned.  A third is the reader, because voice reveals clues that the eye might not appreciate, and a fourth reads but also records the commentary.  As they read, annotate, and parse meaning from the text, these tasks support the development of broad comprehension skill and detailed analysis appropriate for each student.  When a geometry concept resonates or fails to connect to previous understanding, the teacher picks up the pace of delivery or slows down accordingly.  Independent completion of a problem or two can cement the understanding and challenge a student who has clicked, while the student who needs more understanding can develop a base with the teacher.  In the AP Computer Science class, students shared their chains of code to meet the challenge posed by the teacher, and one student verbalized, “I’m sure there’s a quicker way…” but teachers value the multiple paths possible to arrive at the desired outcome.  And while successive work on that type of code will doubtless help the student develop a more efficient strategy, student-created artifacts should not look (or read) as similar as cut-out cookies.  Algebra students working on solving systems of equations will arrive at the solution, but as each student works on the problem in class, he or she can expect a level of dialogue and support that reinforces correct understanding and prompts him or her to take the next step.  The whole class didn’t need to hear it, but the student whose work was acknowledged when the teacher agreed with her process (No, it’s not in slope-intercept form…) was encouraged and supported in developing her understanding of how to proceed.  As a group of students is composed to work through a problem, such as Constitutional rights, students benefit from collaboratively reading the expectations, developing an answer, and posing an audience-appropriate solution.   Multiple types of resources are leveraged to support them, from audio versions of novels, Shmoop, Rewordify, Cliff Notes, Newsela, digital textbooks, Khan Academy, and podcasts.  Finally, teachers use formative assessments to figure out what students know and what they need the next pieces of instruction to be – as seniors in LEAD 2 develop financial literacy skills, offering advice to Black Friday shoppers about the use of credit card (with a 17% APR) versus cash, in scenarios offering 25-75% savings off regular prices.

These are examples culled from two hours during one day — differentiation is a living, present force as we develop our lessons and engage our students.


Ruth Rubin
Head of High School