Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners: Differentiating the Learning Process 4/6

When you choose to change, adapt, or otherwise make different the ways in which students gain access to new information or the way they process or learn new ideas, skills, and content, you're differentiating by process.  This is the fourth installment of my series on differentiated instruction. If you're interested in reading more about the whole process of differentiation, you can read about the definition of differentiation, pre-assessment, differentiating content, and how a differentiated classroom works, in previous posts.

What Does it Mean to Differentiate the Process?

Differentiating the process for learners usually translates to changing the activity part of the learning process or lesson. It is often the verb part of your learning objectives; whatever students do to move from their current understanding to deeper, more thorough, more complex levels of understanding. The need to differentiate the process for your students can often stem from a student's readiness, either in the area in which you're planning to differentiate or in another area. It can also result from the need to differentiate due to a learning disability in a student with dual exceptionalities. Your student with a disability in reading comprehension may be gifted in science and already know most of what you're planning to present in your rocks and minerals unit, but it will be difficult for him or her to access the information he or she needs to learn in a traditional textbook. When you differentiate the process for learning, you allow this student to have the same (or even more) information delivered to them in a different way. It might also mean that you allow them to interact with the information as part of their learning in a way that is different than their "typically developing" peers.

It is important to note that pre-assessment again plays a crucial role in using this strategy with fidelity. We have to have a solid grasp on what our students know (and don't know), as well as their strengths and weaknesses to plan effectively.

Framework for Differentiating the Learning Process

There are a few key ideas we can keep in mind as we plan and prepare to differentiate the learning process.

In her book, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2001), Carol Ann Tomlinson gives ideas for increasing the complexity of learning activities. They include moving from concrete ideas to more abstract, starting at simple and moving toward more complexity, beginning with more structure and moving toward open-ended tasks or ideas, and moving from examining a single facet to looking at multiple facets of ideas or concepts.

Of course using Bloom's Taxonomy is another way to think about how we can create different learning activities that move students from lower order learning skills to higher order thinking. We can move them from simply remembering, understanding, and applying, to the more complex and intertwined analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Using Dr. Sandra Kaplan's Depth and Complexity tools is another way we can plan for differentiated learning processes. You can read more about these visual prompts associated with deeper levels of critical thinking here.

Examples of Vehicles for Differentiating the Learning Process

Below you'll find just a few ideas for strategies or structures you can use in your classroom to help with the process of differentiation. This by no means is an exhaustive list, however, maybe it will help get you thinking about how many things you may already do that are headed in the direction of differentiation. Click on the picture to get access to your free printable copy. *Just to be clear, by clicking to get the freebie (and instant access to the growing collection of free resources in my library of subscriber exclusives), you're also agreeing to be added to my email list, where I'll send occasional messages with fresh ideas, tips, and other resources straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.* 

A Couple of Examples in the Classroom 

Perhaps your students are learning some new content in the classroom about Native Americans. In one scenario, students might take out their social studies textbooks (all written on the same reading level and all containing the same information, of course). They listen to your voice while you read aloud, or they read the text to themselves, with or without your support. Not only does this sound pretty boring, but it also doesn't take into account the differences in the ways students in your classroom learn best. Aside from not engaging your students much in the learning process, you may also be inadvertently creating an environment where students will begin entertaining themselves in various ways, otherwise disrupting your plans for a peaceful learning experience. If you differentiated this process for your students, you could both increase student engagement and tighten up your classroom management. So, instead of assigning the reading from the textbook, perhaps you could work with your librarian to find a variety of informational texts written at various reading levels so students could access the information at their independent reading levels. Maybe you could also research (or again, work with your fabulous, indispensable local or school librarian) for some multimedia presentations of the information, some kid-friendly websites, some audio recordings, or even some local professionals who could deliver the information in a different way. This way, all of your students are gaining the information that you need them to learn, but they're just approaching it a from different angles. You can use these materials as part of your small group instruction (learn more about planning for small groups here), as part of an independent learning contract, or in some other way. The point is, not everyone has to do it the same way, in lockstep. We don't all learn the same way. It's just not the way we're made! 

Maybe it's your language arts class and the students are working on identifying character traits. You can differentiate the process by tiering the learning assignments. Let's say the learning objective is for students to choose two characters from whatever story they're reading currently and identify key character traits for those two characters. The tiers could look like this:
  • Tier One (below or approaching the standard): Use a graphic organizer to identify two main characters, note behaviors, actions, and thoughts from these two characters, and then draw inferences about their traits based on the text evidence they've recorded on their graphic organizer.  
  • Tier Two (at standard): Use a Venn Diagram to compare two (or three) characters from the text, using text-based evidence to support the claims of similarity and differences.
  • Tier Three (exceeds grade level standards): List characteristics displayed by two or three characters from the text. Rank the characteristics in order from most important to least important (or even have students decide upon which criteria to use in ranking the characteristics). 
If you look closely at the tiers above, you'll see that I used Bloom's Taxonomy to make slight changes from one tier to another. Tier one is pretty much remembering/understanding, tier two is more like applying/analyzing, and tier three is analyzing/evaluating. Please note--it is not appropriate to ONLY have your tier one kiddos staying that remember/understand level. They need to be practicing higher order thinking skills as well--this is how they'll grow best! At the same time, your tier two and three kids will also need to spend some time in the lower levels of Blooms sometimes as well, but the amount of time spent understanding and remembering as opposed to the analyzing/evaluating/creating levels should be considerably less

Well, you made it. You're at the end of another post. I hope you found this information helpful, and perhaps you'll consider stopping back to my little corner of the interwebs for the last two installments of the differentiation series. For those of you inspired to tackle one of the learning strategies I mentioned above, I created a FREE Independent Learning Contract for you to use. Click on the image below to download your free copy. *Just to be clear, by clicking to get the freebie (and instant access to the growing collection of free resources in my library of subscriber exclusives), you're also agreeing to be added to my email list, where I'll send occasional messages with fresh ideas, tips, and other resources straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.*

And if you're looking for some activities that are already differentiated and ready to go, hop over to my store on Teachers Pay Teachers. I have a small (but growing) collection of materials for you to use in your classroom. 

Thanks so much for reading! Be sure to check out the next post in the series: Differentiating Products


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