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Despite knowing that our students have different needs, many teachers struggle with differentiation, not because they disagree with it in theory, but because in practice, the idea of planning so many different lessons is overwhelming.
While you probably know that it’s not necessary to plan a unique lesson for every student, you may not be aware of some of the simplest ways to provide differentiation, so in this tip I’ll share just one, the tiered activity, also known as a tiered assignment.
You can find this strategy in lots of places, but I learned about it from the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson in books like How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (Bookshop.org link | Amazon link).
Here’s how it works: Suppose you’re teaching students how to type on a keyboard without looking at the keys. After giving a brief pretest, you’ve determined that some students have no idea how to do this, while others have had a few lessons in a previous course, and a few seem to have slow, but moderately good touch typing skills. It would not make sense to have the whole class work through a typing exercise that consisted entirely of hitting the f and j keys; this would be a waste of time for those who are past that point. But if you made everyone do an exercise consisting of complex words, punctuation, and numbers, that would be incredibly frustrating for the beginners.
So instead, you offer students three options, or tiers, to choose from:
- Exercise 1 uses single keystrokes of the home keys.
- Exercise 2 uses whole words that only use the home keys.
- Exercise 3 uses whole words with a few more keys beyond the home keys, plus capitalization, commas, and periods.
Each exercise takes five minutes to complete, and students only need to complete one of them.
This kind of assignment makes it much more likely that every student will be working at the level of challenge that’s just right for them, and it doesn’t require you to create individual assignments for every student.
In some cases, you can take one assignment and just break it up into three tiers. For example, if you have 20 practice problems for a math, chemistry, or grammar lesson that go from easiest to hardest, instead of giving all students all 20 problems, tier 1 might be problems 1-10, tier 2 might be 5-15, and tier 3 might be 11-20.
In English, if students are writing a personal narrative, the length of the final piece might be the same for all tiers, but each successive tier might contain more advanced skills, such as a certain amount of complex sentences, specific styles of dialogue, or the use of certain literary devices like interior monologue or metaphors.
In social studies, tiers might consist of three different texts about the same topic, written at different levels of complexity, or the same text offered at different levels on a platform like Newsela.
The point here is that if you’re not doing much differentiation, but you want to be, don’t think you have to create a whole bunch of separate assignments. Start with a core assignment with clear objectives, then think about how you can simplify it for some students so they still get the most important components, and add more complexity for those who are already further along with that particular skill or body of knowledge.
A few important notes for making this work well:
- Each tier should offer a relatively equal amount of work and challenge. In other words, students who are advanced with the material in question shouldn’t be given more work than beginners; they should have work at a different level. Similarly, those same advanced students should experience a similar level of struggle with their task as those who are working at the beginner level; if they fly right through their tier in no time, it’s probably not challenging enough.
- Tiers should be flexible and fluid. Do not give students fixed labels that keep them in the same tier all year long, for every activity—ideally, students should move from tier to tier depending on the particular task at hand. Even better, help students develop the metacognitive skills to select whatever tier gives them the right amount of challenge, and encourage them to tune in to how a tier feels once they’ve chosen it; if they’re feeling overwhelmed, they may need to move down a tier, but if they’re bored, they may need to move up.
- Mindset and classroom culture can make a huge difference in how well this approach works. If students feel embarrassed about working on lower tiers or “punished” by working on higher ones, a tiered task won’t work nearly as well as it could. Ideally, you can model an attitude of practicality, of each person getting what they need when they need it. Before starting your first tiered task, have a conversation about how everyone has strengths in some areas and needs to grow in other areas—use an example from your own life about something you’ve recently learned or something you’re trying to get better at—and emphasize the idea that we grow the most when we’re challenged just enough to stay interested. Make it a regular part of your classroom conversation to ask questions like, “What tier do you think will be best for you this time?” or “How did that tier work for you?” to help students see the tiers as self-directed choices, rather than labels.
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