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How to Differentiate for Success in the Science Classroom
More than ever, today’s diverse classrooms highlight the fact that teaching is not one-size-fits-all. Most educators will tell you each of their students has unique interests, experiences, readiness to learn, and learning preferences, as well as varying levels of English language proficiency. What tools can be used by educators to maximize individual student learning? With adequate support for differentiation, a teacher can facilitate opportunities for students to move in and out of different grouping structures, or provide a wide range of choices for learning, and ensure success for everyone.
To add these tools to your teaching arsenal, consider the following four pathways to differentiation: content, process, product, and learning environment.
Before we can differentiate content, we need to identify the students’ current backgrounds and abilities surrounding the curriculum. Your science curriculum should assist you by providing pre-made resources, but you’ll need to take appropriate steps to understand your students’ backgrounds/abilities as you embark on each new unit of study.
- Assess student readiness – Topic readiness tests or benchmarks will allow you to learn about the students’ background and abilities in the upcoming content. Once you have identified prior knowledge or gaps in knowledge, you can begin differentiating content and create opportunities for success for all.
- Adjust the amount of content – Adjust the amount of content as necessary for your student needs. Resources to look for in your program are Remediation sheets that prepare students who are not yet ready for the topic and Enrichment worksheets, for students who benefit from the additional challenges.
- Adjust the difficulty of materials – When adjusting the difficulty of materials, look for help in the teacher’s edition wrap-around text. You should find differentiated instruction suggestions for special education, below level, and advanced students. Your program may even call out resources that are already differentiated.
- Present content in multiple ways – Your science program should provide a variety of resources, so take advantage of the multiple ways to present content, including: reading, listening, viewing, and interacting.
- Remediate for mastery – Use formative assessments to determine when remediation for mastery is necessary. Your curriculum may also make use of data tracking with standards, so look for those tools when available to help you make decisions about student learning.
- Enrich with additional, challenging content – When students need additional challenging content, look to enrich content opportunities with more open-ended inquiry and deeper dives into science and engineering practices.
- Scaffolded resources – Include scaffolded questions so students have a structured path for showing their depth of knowledge. Science programs can do some of the heavy lifting here by providing these resources or even differentiated point-of-use tips in the instructor write-up. Whenever relevant, bring in some Enrichment materials or supporting documents. Give students more choices through open-ended inquiry. Have them plan their own procedure or data table. You can have something with stepped-out support for students who need more guidance.
Process describes what students do to learn the material and makes sense of it. By offering choices, we can differentiate for various learning styles and ability levels. When I see a science classroom with students accessing the content in different ways at the same time, I know the opportunities for success are so much higher.
- Offer choice in the way students access content – Next Generation science curriculum provides a variety of ways for students to access content during class time. We can find students reading from the print or digital text, listening to teacher-led instructions, discussing prompts in peer groups, viewing multimedia, such as videos, and working on online simulations or interactivities.
- Modify process as needed – Whenever you see a need for modifications in the process, look to your program for some leveled reading questions. When you can, enrich with higher-level questions, or go back to the support for special-ed, below-level and advanced students. For some students, you may want to make use of editable materials to block off or modify parts of assignments to help with focus.
- English Language Development – The written and spoken word are essential parts of the process that leads to students learning and communicating science content and concepts. English Language Development supports will be useful tools for differentiating instructions for all students, not just those who are still developing their language skills.
- Differentiating inquiry – Inquiry and hands-on experiences are great opportunities for a differentiated approach. You can differentiate inquiry with varying levels of guidance or open-ended expectations. The age and grade level of your students will have an impact on what strategies you use more. A K-5 classroom might see more teacher-led Guided Inquiry, with some stations set up for Open Inquiry with occasional teacher input, And some opportunities for Do-it-Yourself labs. For the middle grades, you might expect Open Inquiry to be the standard approach. Do-it-Yourself types of hands-on activities can also take a much bigger role. Your classroom can have students following different paths and versions, but they’ll all complete the same lab.
We are used to science programs with a full suite of traditional assessments such as benchmarks, quizzes, and tests, but students can also create other products that demonstrate their learning. In order for students to do that, teachers must differentiate their opportunities to do so. Using the options and content in a Next-Generation science program like elevateScience™, students can present to the class, build a model, make a slide presentation, write and perform a skit, and plan a laboratory investigation.
- Groups – Teachers can also differentiate by giving students the ability to work independently or with their peers.
- Resources – Make full use of your digital courseware to provide a variety of student product possibilities with editable labs, problem-based learning, STEM activities, virtual labs, and digital interactivities.
A classroom set up for student success is a classroom set up with a learning environment that invites all students to participate and gives them tools and opportunities to do so. Let’s break down the components of a learning environment to see where you can incorporate differentiation.
- Social-Emotional Climate – Our goal for a differentiated classroom is one that helps foster a social-emotional climate where students feel supported and motivated. A science classroom full of student success will have them confident in making choices that best meet their learning needs and feeling emotionally safe asking for help when needed. When we create a climate that values differences in ways of understanding, we can foster new discoveries, both in school and in society.
- Physical Environment – The physical environment is another way to set up a healthy and productive classroom. Classroom arrangement can go a long way when making productive workspaces. Teachers can vary the setup of a workspace to meet student needs. This can be a classroom arrangement that allows for Independent activities or Collaborative activities, with the opportunity for teacher-directed learning when needed. A range of learning needs will exist in any group of students. Use a variety of material support such as traditional books and hands-on lab materials. If students have access to electronic devices, this can allow digital courseware full of multimedia resources for further support. Science is about doing, so don’t forget to go beyond the classroom to engage in outdoor learning or investigate the natural environment available to you.
Your Differentiated Classroom
Students need multiple pathways to succeed. A differentiated classroom makes that success available. Content that is challenging and engaging, processes that target various learning modalities, choice in products that demonstrate mastery, or a supportive learning environment. To make this easier to achieve in your classroom, look for a program that complements and elevates your teaching.
Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.