Feedback & Differentiation: How Do They Connect?

We may be surprised to know that differentiation can also include strategies for the whole classroom.  Even though we still need to design instruction that targets differentiated needs, styles, interests, we can also foster such differentiation with certain types of whole class task design. As according to Carol Tomlinson, the guru in this area, differentiation is a way of thinking, teaching and learning:

Differentiation is NOT a set of strategies….It’s a way of thinking about teaching and learning – Carol Tomlinson

In terms of whole classroom approach, the ultimate goal of differentiation could be to have students guiding their own learning. But to reach that point, students first need to be taught how to self-assess towards clear learning goals and determine next steps in their personal learning path. Jan Chappuis, in her research-based work called Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, describes how teachers and students can engage in this process. Feedback is a crucial element described by Chappuis, so teachers first need to learn and model effective feedback, then students can use this model to self and peer assess.

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Effective feedback is descriptive and actionable. A descriptive feedback is specific and sheds light on next steps towards achieving a learning goal. Therefore, a good descriptive feedback is also actionable, as students can develop a plan for closing the gap between where they are now and where they need to be in terms of learning. Differentiation then occurs as each student, guided by effective feedback ( from teacher, peer or self), can develop a learning plan focused on individual needs.

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Descriptive feedback can also include guidance to student thinking with a question at the end. The best questions to provoke thinking are called “mediative” (or reflective questions). In the image below you can see the five different types of feedback that someone can give for a specific situation, listed in descending order of effectiveness in growing self-directed students. The list does not mean you always need to use mediative questions as feedback. In some situations, you might use a personal observation to help develop a relationship with the student. Te point is to be aware of those, being careful with incorrect inferences and unfair judgement.

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Being good at asking mediative questions takes time. It is a matter of practice, trial and error. But it is worth the try. Some characteristics of mediative questions, as described in the image below, can help us think and rethink, write and rewrite, such types of questions. You can even develop a personal bank of questions and come back to those as you try them and rewrite some parts, or just adapt in the moment to different students or situations.

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