Differentiation may seem like a lot of work, which initially scares some teachers away from implementing it in their classrooms. They may think they don’t have the time or that there’s no need. What happens when you don't differentiate? This post will explore the benefits of differentiating instruction as well as what may happen if you don't differentiate in the classroom. Unless your class has twenty kids who are all on the same exact level and who learn the same exact way, differentiation should become a part of your classroom routine. There are some quick and simple ways to incorporate differentiation into your teaching. Another essential understanding of differentiation is that differentiation provides several options for your students. Differentiation is not an individualized instruction where you need twenty options for learners. Simply providing three or four opportunities for differentiation should reach most of your students.
You may know all of the benefits of differentiation, but still struggle to actively provide it. (It’s like the gym- we know we’ll be better for going to the gym, but that couch is so comfy after a long day and it may sway you to skip the gym.) So what happens if you get swayed against differentiating? Let’s read about the pitfalls students will encounter when they do not receive differentiated instruction.
Pitfall 1: Lack of Engagement and Motivation
When students are engaged and motivated, they comprehend at a deeper level. They learn with a more positive attitude, which contributes to overall classroom morale. However, when a teacher does not differentiate instruction, the students who don't learn in that one learning style or one performance range will not learn the material. Unless all of your students are learning in the same style, pace, or level, you’re going to have students who feel disconnected from the lesson. Sticking to a target group of students and not offering a variety of activities to appeal to different groups of students will only decrease engagement and motivation in your students. Studies show that the more choices you offer, the greater chances your students will be engaged and excited to learn.
Pitfall 2: Gaps and Cracks
The phrase “slipped through the cracks” is terrifying for teachers. We’ve all heard stories of the students who made it to high school still not knowing how to read or understanding subtraction. You think it won’t happen in your classroom. No way! However, without differentiation, students are more likely to fall through the cracks. These cracks start small, with minor gaps in knowledge. Differentiation is designed to address those small gaps by providing an option for struggling students. They may also need more practice or scaffolding instruction. When you don’t differentiate, you tend to teach to the largest body of performers, those students in the middle. Students who aren’t really grasping material get moved along or overlooked without the gaps in their knowledge being addressed. As we know, those gaps widen into cracks. While differentiation isn’t the solution to every problem and won’t prevent every learner from struggling, it is proven to address many needs in the classroom. Since the heart of differentiation is assessment-driven instruction, teachers who differentiate are able to see which students need more support or haven’t mastered a concept.
Pitfall 3: Students Not Enriched
On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who need differentiation to challenge them. They tend to excel above the majority of the learners in your classroom. Without differentiation, they have to be content with the activities everyone can complete, which may seem too easy for them. They lack stimulation and their needs are not being met. While they will not fall through the gaps in terms of academic achievement, it will lead to the next pit-fall…
Pitfall 4: The Bored and The Rowdy
No, it’s not a new soap opera. When you don’t provide differentiated instruction, this can be what you end up with- bored and rowdy students. When you have students who are fast-finishers or grasping concepts easily and you don’t have an enriching activity prepared, they become bored. Bored students may start to engage in disruptive behaviors. When you have students who are struggling without a scaffolded option or activity that is at their level, they may become frustrated and decide not to put in their best effort. They may avoid work and spend their time in disruptive behaviors, simply because they feel they won’t be successful at the mainstream task provided and they can’t get the help they need.
Even if you have the best-behaved kids in the world and you are a classroom management guru, eventually boredom from not being challenged or frustration from not being able to keep up with the middle of the pack students is going to cause behavioral issues. The time you spend on classroom management to bring kids back on track could better be spent on differentiating instruction. This would eliminate the need for ramped-up management, as well as provide the instruction your students need.
Pitfall 5: Low Self-Esteem
When students feel happy and successful in their classroom and their schoolwork, they experience a boost in self-esteem. Struggling students lack confidence in their academics, which often leads to a general feeling of failure and low self-esteem. When students feel unsuccessful, it can translate into poor choices as they seek attention to prove they are brave, confident, or successful in something. With differentiated instruction, material is presented that is achievable, yet challenging for students at their level. This means that while they are challenged, they will still experience success, which will in turn boost their self-esteem. Thinking positive and viewing themselves in a positive light will not only make them a better student, but it can also lead them to be a better citizen.
Pitfall 6: Lack of Rapport and Trust
You see your students for hours every day. You may see them for more waking hours than their parents in some cases! Your students come to trust that you will guide and help them. They know that you want what is best for them and that you will help them succeed. The best way to ensure that they can reach their full potential is to give them just the right amount of challenge- which will vary from student to student. If you teach them with a “one-size-fits-all” approach, your students may feel as though you don’t see them as an individual. This will injure the trust they have in you. If they continually feel bored or frustrated and don’t see you trying to meet their needs, this could harm the rapport you have with your students. You can rebuild trust and rapport, but it would be better not to lose it in the first place. The time you take to rebuild damaged relationships and restore student trust would have been better spent differentiating in the first place.
Proactive planning and proactive classroom management are watchwords for teachers. We know that it is better to act than react after a situation has arisen. Differentiation requires “front-loading” time and planning. However, it also lets you avoid the many pitfalls that you then have to react to in order to regain control of your students’ behavior and progress. In short, differentiation is hard work- but it’s easy in comparison to dealing with the pitfalls you’d otherwise encounter when you fail to differentiate.
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