If you are a teacher, admin, or in any other career related to education, chances are you have been inundated with ideas and philosophies related to the idea of differentiation.
In its simplest state, differentiation means tailoring instruction to individual student need. However, that simple definition can become lost in the shuffle of new educational buzz words and jargon. As a teacher, my job is teach every student I come into contact with. With that goal, it is also my job to make sure I reach every student in a way that is meaningful to them. There is a problem though. The problem is that some people feel differentiation occurs only, and ONLY, if it is visible in a walk-through or observation. I disagree with that. There are many different ways to differentiate in a classroom.
Ability grouping can be a good strategy, but it can also produce negative results. I think this is true especially in middle school. In middle school, self-esteem is king. In addition, they know who is considered 'smart' and who is not. Kids are not stupid. When you place 4 low performing kids in the same group and 4 high performing kids in another group, it does not a rocket scientist to figure out the reason for the groupings. That one act alone can isolate already low performing students and make it more difficult for them to be successful. In the minds of some of those low students, they might be thinking, "Even the teacher thinks I'm dumb." These types of thoughts occur in students' minds every day. I think there is a way this can be avoided and still reach the student through differentiated methods.
I am a huge fan of the "True Colors' personality test. I give it to my students the first or second day of every school year. The idea behind the test is that each person has different personality traits, but those traits usually end up manifesting into one particular type of personality. The test is designed to measure a person's personality traits and help the person find their "True Color."
The colors are: orange, gold, blue, and green. Orange personalities are the ones who take risks, are loud and outspoken, and tend to be leaders. Gold personalities are loyal, rule following, and want to help the person in charge. Blue personalities tend to be very emotional and concentrate on feelings and emotions. Green personalities are very logical and look at facts, data, and other logical concepts.
I propose that differentiation by personality is a method that can yield better results than other methods of traditional differentiation.
My kids know their color. Many of them have told me they now know their parents colors. I have even had students tell me they know understand why they do not get along with certain people. If you are a green personality, chances are you are going to have a lot of problems hanging out with an orange person. So, when I differentiate in class, I group them according to personality.
I have students get in groups of 4: one of each color. If there is not an even number of colors, I make it as even as I can get. When these groups are created, it becomes obvious to the students what has occurred. Each student now has a specific role. The orange person tends to be the leader; the gold person (who is usually obsessed with rules and logistics) helps the orange person and keeps everyone on task; The blue person is concerned with everyone's emotions and making sure cool heads prevail; The green person is detail oriented and makes sure the work is as perfect as it can be.
Some people ask: how is this differentiation? Remember, the definition is tailoring instruction to individual student needs. When you create groups based on their personality color, they have a distinct role in the group that they are responsible for. They now have a purpose, and that purpose is based on them as a person. They are all doing the same work; however, they are doing their work in a way that highlights their personal characteristics.
Here is an example of how I do individual work by personality differentiation. In my class, we are working on creating an original myth. The myth is accompanied by 3 student drawings. This activity is fairly straight forward, and the students have a lot of autonomy in how the assignment can be carried out. I told my orange students that they can focus on the very emotional characteristics of their god and how those characteristics formed their myth. I told my gold students that they can focus on how the rules of the world (and Greek Mythology) helped their god to create their myth. I told my blue students they could focus on how other people treated their god and that they could use the gods relationships to help explain their myth. I told the green students they could use specific data from natural phenomena and historical statistics to explain why their god created their myth. All 4 personality styles did the same project, but they focused on the student's strengths.
If you come in my room, you will not see any differentiation. That is how it should be. If you look at my lesson plans or ask to see my group chart, you would see the magic behind the curtain. That is the goal of differentiation. It should not be something that has neon lights pointing it out...it needs to be something that is naturally done in the classroom. My kids might even be in rows; however, they are doing work that is designed for them, and that is what I am supposed to do.