Carol Tomlinson: an encounter to remember!

This year in our Instructional Rounds group within the local network of schools we purchased Carol Tomlinson’s book “Leading and Managing A Differentiated Classroom” to use as a base text for understanding our observation of instruction in classrooms.

Last year I was privileged to attend the ASCD Summer Conference in Boston and spend a day with Carol Tomlinson unpacking some of the issues in differentiated instruction. This post is a summary of some of her thoughts and my reactions.

“stop believing homogeneous groups exist and stop insisting that alike is always fair”

This was the opening line and a call to action however I see and hear lots of teachers saying they differentiate they just use a different definition of the term. What I believe is a general confusion about the term.

What often occurs is that all students “receive” some common instruction at the start of lessons and then they break up into groups to work on their tasks.

I have challenged this notion of common instruction particularly when it focused on a single skill rather than an understanding developed using lots of  skills (often clustered). Making clear the learning intention is the key here and the intention might take several lessons to achieve. Tasks that connect to the intention and allow students to share their understandings enables group reflections.

When asked Carol said

“the essence of differentiation is to plan a task that allows students at different points of need to engage with and be challenged – connecting this to a conceptual framework – looking for similarities and differences – allows expression of thinking in different ways and all the time adjusting instruction so that all students arrive at the destination.”

This definition is a challenge for teachers, particularly those working alone. Knowing all the students needs mean we need to constantly collect data about students as individuals and this is not just done by using tests but observations, records of key conversations and quizzes to know their immediate needs or interests.  I believe teachers working in teams can plan the tasks once they know their cohorts needs and then individual teachers adjust their instruction for the students in their care.

Carol spent a long time talking about the environment actively supporting students and having 4 parts – in summary

  • learning environment: growth mindset & community where they feel they belong
  • curriculum: engaging, connected to their culture and backgrounds, where teachers teach up and respectful tasks which are equally challenging
  • assessment: ongoing and where grading supports students investments in their learning (product + self assess how well you work and your progress) informs student feedback (look for misunderstandings)
  • instruction: flexible ( target and interest based groups) using different strategies and working together to know the routines.

When faced with this list I know my task as a leader is to support teachers particularly at the start of each year building the routines and shared values, learning community where people feel they belong, common expectations and relationships between teacher and students and their peers.

I know from last year its important students build expectations of what a good teacher does and unpack the values of differentiation, particularly “fairness”.

I hope my summary here helps others unpack what differentiation means to them.



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