Differentiation in the Classroom Learning Environment

By Jennifer Bontempi Concepcion, Elementary Educator

One year I had a classroom that ran the gamut of learning levels, along with a big bunch of extremely gifted mathematicians, writers, and scientists. This meant there was a lot of differentiation going on–and going on all over the place.

Now, in this class I had one student who was your ‘school-friendly’ gifted student (he behaved like a high achiever). Just one. The others were the more typical gifted student with the personality quirks to go along with it.

These children taught me how to make allowances for all learners to reach their personal best. I thank them for opening my eyes to the importance of challenging gifted students.

There are many ways to differentiate your classroom. Let’s talk about the easiest one–the environment. I’m not saying you need to go out and buy bean bag chairs, couches, and turn your classroom into a Starbucks. So hold on to your pocketbook and save that DonorsChoose for some books.

Here is a list of some ideas that you can use to help all learners, and especially the gifted students.

  • Grouping: Consider grouping students differently. If you do a lot of “Turn and Talk” consider giving each student an on-ability peer. This will offer students the chance to have a conversation at their level and avoid having one student dominate the conversation. Now, you do not have to do homogeneous groups all the time but consider this as one way to help give gifted students a chance to speak to a peer and not as a teaching assistant.
  • Access: Do your students have access to materials on their level? Does your library have books that they want to read? Can a student access the computer during a science discussion to find the answer to a higher-level question they asked during instruction? (I mean, really–if they had that question, isn’t it likely that they might be okay with missing 8 minutes of instruction while they get an answer to their question?)
  • Set Expectations: Make sure your students know you treat them fairly. Explain in your classroom procedures that your classroom will be equitable, not equal. Everyone will not get the same thing, but everyone will get what they need. So if one student needs a review of multiplication, another student needs a review of addition, and another needs to move on to multiplying multi-digit factors, then that is what will happen. Try to avoid having everyone read the same book all the time. Give them opportunities to read in the classroom on their own level.
  • Social Emotional Learning: Do you have students who need to work independently? Make learning in a quiet place an option, and not a consequence. I had a student who could not attend to a task for a long time when we had to sit in our desks. However, if I said we could sit where ever we wanted, he would scoot into a corner and produce great work.

These are just a few of the possibilities. What changes to your classroom environment helps you make it a place where all your students can learn? Please share in the comments what has worked for you and your students.