“She made me do the green packet. No teacher should make a student do the green packet if she wants to do the yellow one. I don’t care if it means working harder.”
So said a sixth grader in a focus group I facilitated regarding how teachers differentiated instruction. This student’s teacher had adjusted the assignment based on pre-assessments to accommodate different reading levels. However, this kind of differentiation often only focuses on one goal: student academic achievement.
It’s Both/And, Not Either/Or
I’ve seen far too many instances where this approach results in little student growth. Why? Because targeting academic growth isn’t enough to foster academic growth. We know this. Academic growth is intertwined with meeting the social and emotional needs of children, the “Whole Child”. Consider this simple “polarity thinking” diagram—a way to acknowledge that not only do both “sides” hold part of the truth but that neither is complete without the other. Over-focus on either one and you get the downside of both. That’s how systems work.
The STEAM2 Framework
The STEAM2 framework I introduce in Doable Differentiation addresses five goals for differentiation. Yes, academic success is crucial, but let’s look at all of the STEAM2 components to understand other crucial targets (adapted from pages 3-4, Doable Differentiation)
Successfully learning: Teachers need clear learning goals and ways to provide time and support so every student can reach them. Differentiation is at the heart of equity, ensuring students each experience the kind of academic success that fosters a growth mindset and the self-efficacy that helps them internalize the belief, I am a learner!
Example: Via doable differentiation strategies, a teacher team I worked with helped 100 percent of eighth-grade students complete and pass their National History Day projects, compared with failure rates as high as 30 percent on similar projects in past years.
You might say These teachers have reframed what they used to see as student deficits as differences requiring #doabledifferentiation strategies that meet the needs of students who just don’t think as they do!
Thriving as members of a learning community: Classrooms, policies, curricula, and adult-student interactions need to reflect that the whole child comes to school. Social-emotional learning isn’t an add-on. Students constantly pick up strategies, healthy and unhealthy, to meet their emotional needs. Careful implementation of many #doabledifferentiation strategies aids students in developing critical skills for cognitive processing, self-monitoring, understanding differences, and more.
Example: A teacher used a wait-time strategy to help her kindergartners learn to hold their thoughts until every student, including the English learners, had a response ready for discussions. These young students learned about having patience and respecting each other’s ideas from this simple teacher move.
You might say These children are learning to work with others and honor differences so that everyone can thrive.
Engaged actively in their education: Engagement is far different from entertainment. When students are engaged, classroom management problems plummet. Students feel they belong—that they are capable readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, actors, musicians—whatever the content area, they feel part of the learning community. Many #doabledifferentiation strategies require students to think for themselves, make choices, create their own meaning, evaluate their own work, and take charge of their study time. They become active learners rather than passive recipients of knowledge.
Example: I partnered with a teacher to improve small group discussions that changed her mathematics students from passive learners to persistent problem solvers who enjoy open-ended tasks. They went from, “I’m not good at math” to “Do we have time to do another problem together?”
You might say These students leveled up—they accomplished more than the preassessment indicated they could!
Agile thinking: The agile mind is open to new ways of thinking, learning, and doing. Real-life problems seldom have textbook answers; students need to draw on past learning experiences and comfortably explore new options.
Example: A teacher introduced her students to the four cognitive processing styles that underlie #doabledifferentiation. She encouraged students to make choices in assignments that were different from what they’d normally choose. Several students commented, “I had to work hard, but you gave me strategies that helped me stretch. I think I learned more than if I’d done the usual.”
You might say These students developed more agility, learning that just because something is harder doesn’t mean they aren’t capable; they just need different strategies!
Maturing decision makers: Creating lifelong learners can’t be a meaningless generality. Students need to learn how to learn for their own sakes. If teachers tell them what and how to learn, how will they learn to define their own learning targets, narrow down the information that will be most helpful, and plan for mastery? If teachers make all their decisions, how will they learn to make decisions themselves?
Example: As students moved to different Knowledge Stations and completed a wide variety of #doabledifferentiation tasks in preparation for reading a historical novel, they learned to plan their work time, work independently, work well with a partner, examine primary documents, and evaluate the quality of their work—all skills they would need as they left school.
You might say These students are on their way to the mature independence they will need to succeed, whether their postsecondary plans are college or career-oriented.
Successful, Thriving, Engaged, Agile, Maturing–STEAM2 isn’t an add-on but rather a way to embed the life lessons that foster that sense of belonging and self-efficacy every student needs.