Thursday, January 6, 2011

Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades

Work Cited:
Tomlinson, C. A. (2000, August). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC DIGEST , 2.

This digest is a quick snapshot of author Carol Ann Tomlinson’s ideas and suggestions regarding differentiation in the elementary grades. She begins by defining differentiation through four elements: content, process, products, and environment. She explains how each of these elements can be altered to facilitate student learning. For example, in the realm of differentiating content, teachers can use leveled reading, strategic peer collaboration, or modified/challenged class work and homework assignments. Student choice is also a large factor in defining differentiation in the elementary classrooms. By allowing students to choose, Tomlinson suggests a higher level of student interest, engagement, and motivation.

Tomlinson continues by explaining the reasons for differentiation. “A simple answer is that students in the elementary grades vary greatly, and if teachers want to maximize their students’ individual potential, they will have to attend to the differences.” (1) She cites several sources of evidence to prove this point. In the following paragraph, she details the factors that make differentiation successful. These success factors include: clearly focused curriculum, a variety of lessons, activities, and products, interesting and relevant materials and tasks, active learning, and students are engaged and having fun while learning. Tomlinson states that there is no “recipe” for differentiation, but that instead it’s a way of thinking and teaching that “values the individual”. She does note, however, that there are three main principles that can be employed to assist in establishing a differentiated classroom. She lists them as: ongoing and tightly linked assessment, worthwhile and valuable student activities, and flexible grouping.

To conclude the digest, Tomlinson discusses what she believes to be the best way to begin the differentiation process in the classroom. She suggests not looking at differentiation as an “overhaul” type project but rather viewing it as a way to refine what’s already occurring in your classroom. She lists several differentiation suggestions. Some suggestions include:
• “Create a mental image of what you want your classroom to look like, and use it to help plan and assess changes.” (2)
• “Frequently reflect on the match between your classroom and the philosophy of teaching and learning you want to practice. Look for matches and mismatches, and use both to guide you.” (2)
• “Think carefully about management routines – for example, giving directions, making sure students know how to move about the room, and making sure students know where to put work when they finish it.” (2)

Tomlinson presents her thoughts, suggestions, and information in a quick and concise manner. This digest serves more as a brief summary of differentiation rather than a detailed research study with presented findings. Her text is easily accessible and is accompanied with examples when necessary. However, it is hard for the reader to picture several of her differentiated techniques and approaches in the classroom because of the fact that no “face” or specific school was attached to her information. It is difficult for the reader to make a personal connection with the reading. Tomlinson does mention differentiation in an elementary setting, but does not specify by school, grade, or educational approach (i.e. school philosophy). Very little background information is presented and many educational terms are not defined. Hence, if you are not an educator, the reading may be difficult to understand. The digest is also fairly biased with no opposing views presented. Tomlinson suggests that to differentiate is to “a more competent, creative, and professional educator.” (1) This is a lofty claim to make with out presenting research findings or anecdotal accounts. Although she suggests that differentiation is not a “recipe” but rather a way of thinking and teaching, her text presents itself as some sort of prescribed way of becoming a better educator.

I thought that this digest was great for introducing the concept of differentiation. It’s quick and to the point. However, I felt that more research or anecdotal accounts were needed to help me connect to the reading. This may just be my personal preference. I liked how the information was presented in an organized and easily accessible manner. Tomlinson states her main points, lists her accompanying elements/concepts, and provides examples when necessary. It is also refreshing to see information presented specifically on elementary education. This digest would be a great brief summary to present to educators who want an immediate idea of differentiation, or for those who are unsure as to what differentiation is. For educators who already know what differentiation looks like in the classroom, the information presented is not of much use.

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