Fair is not Equal: Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom


Fair is not Equal: Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom
Written by Jill Rockwell

Image Credit: https://edtrust.org/the-equity-line/equity-and-equality-are-not-equal/

In her book, How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson, explains:

At its most basic level, differentiating instruction means "shaking up" what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively.

Differentiating Instruction (DI) is meeting students where they are at with their learning and development while taking them to the next level. It’s a mindset of making learning content accessible for all students – a mindset focused on equity, not equality. 

As a special education teacher most of my students had learning and behavioral accommodations, which were (as Tomlinson put it) the “different avenues to acquiring content” (the same content as their grade level peers). 

However, sometimes students would complain, “That’s not fair. Why does Jack get to listen to the book on the iPad, and I have to read the book?” or “That’s not fair. Why does Jack get to take a break?” 

After spending a lot of time explaining (sometimes defensively) the notion of “fair does not mean equal” multiple times to individual students, I knew I had to find a more effective and proactive way to handle this. 

Moving forward I began deliberately to make my presence more known within the general education setting by introducing myself to the entire class and offering my assistance to everyone (not just the students with special needs on my caseload). I gave mini lessons on the difference between equality and equity and led class discussions that were centered around the images shared in this article. I explained how many of us benefit from accommodations - such as wearing eyeglasses and hearing aids to see and hear adequately. We discussed how ramps provide individuals who use wheelchairs (and parents with babies in strollers) accessibility to buildings and sidewalks. Students also reflected on and shared their own strengths and limitations during our insightful conversations.

Image credit: http://etec.ctlt.ubc.ca/510wiki/Universal_Design_for_Learning

Soon the classroom culture began to noticeably change. I no longer heard complaints of, “That’s not fair. Why (fill in the blank)?” Instead students began offering more help to one another and discovered different ways they could learn while still reaching the common academic goals and objectives. 

Because learning looks different for everyone, a key foundation of DI is establishing a positive classroom environment, where differences are embraced, and classroom accommodations are accepted as additional avenues leading to student success.

Interested in learning more about how to accommodate students with diverse learning needs using differentiated instruction? Check out our new course - The Differentiated Classroom: Creating Pathways for All Learners to Succeed.


Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Jill Rockwell
Jill has over 13 years of experience as a licensed teacher in the areas of Special Education, Reading Education, and Health Education. She embraces diversity and has worked with students in grades K-12 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Jill completed her Master of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls while teaching full time. She fully understands the soaring demands of today’s teachers. Her courses are designed to maximize the time of all educators by providing engaging, meaningful, and applicable activities which can be used to enhance teaching practices. She focuses on research-based best practices and technology integration throughout her own instructional practices. Together with her husband and two young boys, Jill enjoys traveling, biking and the changing seasons of the great outdoors in Wisconsin. 

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