Differentiating in the classroom is one of my passions. It is seriously one of my favourite parts about teaching – to get to really know my students and plan specifically for them. I love seeing students succeed and meet their own personal social, academic, or behaviour goals.
Of course, when we discuss differentiation, there are so many different ways in which we can do this in our classrooms. In fact, most teachers are probably doing tons of differentiation without even blinking an eye – it just comes naturally to us to program for each of our kiddos!
When we differentiate, we can do so by altering content, process, product, or learning environment. They’re all unique and there are many ways in which to differentiate within them. On today’s post, I want to talk specifically about differentiating process.
First, it’s important to clarify what exactly process is and how we can alter this in our classrooms. Process refers to how students actually learn and intake the information you’ve provided for them.
Basically, these are the activities and tasks we’re asking students to do in order to make sense of the material we’ve given them. This is the work that we’re assessing formatively, to gain information about whether students are understanding the curriculum.
In my humble opinion, this is the most fun thing to differentiate in our classrooms.
Also, it’s the easiest to change when it’s not working. After all, the reason we formatively assess isn’t just to see what the kids are learning, it’s to see if we need to alter our teaching methods as well!
Here are some of my favourite tips for differentiating process and fun ways to do so. There are absolutely TONs of ways to differentiate, so this by no means is an exhaustive list, but it includes the majority of my go-tos:
Time block your periods
First of all, when you’re teaching, make sure that you don’t spend entire periods doing just one activity or task.
For example, don’t spend a whole class lecturing, having students copy notes, or working on an assignment with no check-ins. This can be incredibly difficult, especially in content heavy courses where teachers feel the need to “get through” a huge amount of curriculum. But avoid it whenever possible!
Not only do the majority of your students not have the capacity to be interested in one activity for an entire period, you also need to give them various “breaks” in which to reflect upon and understand the content they’ve been presented with.
For example, if you’re teaching writing paragraphs, you may start a class with a mini lesson on how to write an effective opening sentence. Give some examples, have a discussion, and involve the class during your mini lesson.
Then, in order to have them reflect upon what they’ve learned, you could have them write their own introduction sentences.
After this, bring the whole class back for another group discussion. Ask them how they did, get some student examples, and give some feedback. Talk to the group about ways to improve these sentences and how to provide feedback, then break them into groups of two or three to peer edit their sentences.
This is just a quick example, but as you can see, each of these steps would only take about 15 minutes tops, but the students have plenty of time and opportunity to take the information you’ve provided them with and apply it, then check in again as a class, and with groups.
Time-chucking classes into mini-lessons and meaningful activities not only keeps our students from getting bored, it also provides them plenty of opportunity to intake information and improve their own skills
Provide plenty of variety
Even if you are time-blocking your classes and ensuring students have time to learn and then time to reflect on what they’ve learned, you’re going to leave a whole bunch of kids behind if you use the same style of lessons and activities each day.
People all learn in different ways, and we have to provide our students with different ways in which to process the and understand what we’re teaching them.
If your go-to activity for students to complete is always writing a paragraph, you’re not giving students who struggle with writing a chance to learn the information properly. They’re going to focus on the writing instead of the content and feel like a failure.
Instead, provide a plethora of different ways kids can engage with the content. This doesn’t only provide ample ways for students who learn in different ways to access the content, it also exposes students to activities which may trigger other knowledge or understandings they have in which they can “hook” new content onto.
My next few points are going to cover some of my favourite ways to differentiate process so you can ensure you’re using tons of variety in your class.
Use Bloom’s Taxonomy to plan
Yes, there is controversy around Bloom’s Taxonomy and how it is used, but for the most part, it’s an easy to use jumping off point for planning for different ability levels in your classes.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, it’s basically a framework which breaks down the stages of learning into six categories: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. It’s a great way for teachers to plan for their students.
There are a ton of great resources online which can help you use Bloom’s to plan. My favourite one can be found here, which I found on this Grown Mindset blog and which pops up as one of the top results when you type “Bloom’s Taxonomy” into a Google image search.
When I plan assignments, questions, or centres for my class, I think about all the different kids’ needs and abilities and base what I have them do upon the Bloom’s hierarchy. This is great for tiering your activities for different students and creating lessons which act as building blocks for students.
Gallery walks are great fun! Not only do they get kids moving around, they also allow for students to see how their peers have made sense of information.
If you aren’t familiar with gallery walks, they basically have students put their work up around the room (you can do this anonymously). Then, all the kids walk around with sticky-notes to make comments on their peers’ work. You can plan this however you like, so you can have students only write what they love about their classmates’ work, things they still have questions about, feedback, and so on.
You can do gallery walks with individual work, partner work, or group work – it’s great for all of them. I even do these as a teacher in professional development opportunities, and my favourite part is seeing other people’s perspectives. It always makes me think of things I hadn’t before, helping me to better process the information we’re working on.
Have students engage in centres
Centres are one of my favourite ways to differentiate in class. Most teachers stop doing centres after about grade three, but you can literally use them for any grade and in any subject. All you need to do is plan properly.
Having a variety of tasks or ways for kids to learn is great for ensuring kids can learn in a way that works for them. For example, you could have students rotate through a centre which explains the concept in a video, then complete a writing task based on the information, then they could draw or build something relating to the content, and so on and so on.
You can set these up so the students rotate through them in a class, or have them do a different “centre” for each of the next few classes.
You can also have daily centres, which I love to do for ELA and Math, so that kids work on and build different skills each day. Making it a routine is also great for classroom management!
Doing think-pair-share is excellent for having students work through their ideas independently and then bounce them off of their peers. It’s excellent for students who learn best orally and with others.
In think-pair-share, students are given time to sort through their own ideas independently. You can literally just have them “think”, or you can have them produce something – such as a short paragraph, a few words, a picture, and so on.
Then, students discuss what they’ve learned and/or produced with a partner. This allows for students not only to discuss, but also to teach and to learn. Both are excellent for retaining information.
Finally, partners share what they’ve discussed or produced with the class. This provides accountability and allows for students to hear the entire class’s thoughts on the content.
Allow use of manipulatives or other learning tools
Give students what they need in order to find success. Of course, we don’t just want to provide students with manipulatives and tools which allow them to coast and not really have to work, but we need to give them what they need in order to access the curriculum to the best of their abilities.
Manipulatives and tools include things like base ten blocks, a calculator, a visual dictionary, a home language dictionary, a translator, use of assistive technology, and so on.
If an old school teacher or a student talks about “fairness” – remind them that fair does not mean equal, and if someone needs glasses in order to read, we let them wear glasses – that is just another example of a learning tool that some people need but others do not.
Give students time to write, or draw, or use speech-to-text every day to understand their thoughts and what they’ve learned. This daily practice allows them to better understand their own learning (metacognition) and to look back to see how far they’ve grown.
Gaining metacognition skills are fantastic for students to best understand how they learn. This way they build self-advocacy skills and they know what they require in order to find academic success. This is a skill that will take them well into post-secondary schooling and beyond.
Looking back and seeing how far they’ve grown is a fantastic self-confidence booster! Not only will students realize they’ve grown so much, they’ll also begin to develop a growth mindset. Seeing that the more we work at something, the better we get is a fantastic skill to improve upon!
I love using the jigsaw method when teaching because it’s a fun way for students to learn the information they need and to become instructors themselves. Of course, teaching information to others is one of the best ways to retain content.
If you haven’t used the jigsaw method in your class yet, you’re really missing out! In this activity, students are broken into groups to learn about one specific topic within that group.
For example, one group may learn about the life cycle of frogs, another will focus on frogs’ predators, another on frogs’ diet, another on habitat, and a last one on frogs’ adaptations.
The initial group will work together with the resources you’ve provided to learn all about their topic, each one writing notes and learning it extremely well.
Then, you’ll mix up the students so that in each of the new groups there is one person from each of the initial groups. So, each new group has one member who learned about life cycles, another who learned about predators, one from diet, one from habitat, and one from adaptations. Then, they’re each responsible for teaching the rest of the members of the group all about the information they’re the expert on.
This is great for having kids use collaborative skills, research skills, build writing ability, and learn how to teach information. You can also go over all of the groups at the very end of the activity to ensure any “holes” in information are filled in and all students have the important content they need.
Of course, graphic organizers are a go-to for all educators! They are a great way for students to organize information, plan work, and ensure they’re not missing anything.
Additionally, there are so many different fantastic organizers for so many things that they work for basically any subject and any grade.
Students can work on graphic organizers individually, in small groups, or you can complete them as a class. They can write or draw their answers. They can even complete them online and use like speech-to-text. The possibilities are endless!
I personally like literature circles for quite a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a great way to differentiate content itself – giving different novels to different groups depending on ability level and interest.
When it comes to process, literature circles are great because you can assign different tasks to different students, or have them work on one particular area as a group together. You can base specific activities not only around the different books, but also which students are in each group and the skills they need support with.
Also, in general, when students are in smaller groups, they have more of an opportunity to engage. This can be more of a challenge when completing a novel study as a whole class.
Use a variety of oral, visual, and written resources
When giving students resources to use to help them with their learning, make sure you utilize a variety of different texts. Don’t always rely on the textbook, as many students have difficulty understanding written information, or become bored with textbooks.
Instead, rotate in lots of different texts. Use videos, podcasts, comics or graphic novels, plays, novels, picture books, and so on.
Use these varied texts with direct teaching and also have them in the classroom for students to access. Use them as part of different centres or activities.
Ensure that it is well-known within your class that these are all different, but that none are superior or inferior. A picture book can help a student understand content just as well as a textbook can, depending on things like background knowledge, how that student learns, how you’ve taught the content, and so on.
Make sure your kiddos have lots to choose from so that they can utilize multiple resources to best process content.
Individual student agendas
Sometimes, one of the best ways for students to process information, and to build independent skills, is to provide them with a “Student Agenda”. These are basically individual checklists, designed for each student, letting them know what they should complete. These are great because you can design them for each student. If you have older or more mature students, you can also build them around the outcome rather than the task.
For example, you could assign them “know chapter two vocabulary”, rather than “complete a frayer model for each of these vocabulary words”; trusting them to pick their own method in order to complete the final outcome.
Of course, the worst part of these agendas is the amount of work it takes teachers to create them for each student. However, many of your students will be working on the same or similar things, so it doesn’t end up being as time consuming as it seems to be. I like using individual student agendas for “work periods” because it holds each student accountable, provides specific tasks for them to complete, and helps build their independent work skills.
Finally, task cards are a great way to differentiate process in your class. These are great because you can use various task cards geared toward different ability levels and utilizing different ways to process information. If you can’t find any that work for your specific class online, try using Bloom’s Taxonomy to create some which work for you. These are great to use during centres, in small groups, individually, with strategic partners, on “student agendas” and so on.
Well, what do you think? Are any of these ideas things you’re already doing? Did I miss anything? let me know in the comments!
enjoyed this? here are some other blog posts on katie is a teacher you may like:
want even more? here are some katie is a teacher resources you may be interested in: