Eric Allatta has a mission: Make sure all of his students master their computer science curriculum while simultaneously ensuring there’s no cap to what any one student can learn. To achieve this, the CS teacher at Manhattan’s Academy for Software Engineering uses tiered differentiation with a common entry point—a technique designed so that each student begins at the same place and completes that tier before moving onto the next tier. With this method, which doubles as an effective classroom management tool, students build on their knowledge and increasingly develop the independence, critical thinking, and confidence needed to accomplish computer science projects.
WHEN TO USE
Tiered differentiation works well in a number of scenarios. If you have a classroom with no prior CS experience, each student will have to understand the concept of the first tier no matter how fast they complete it. In this case, students move through the same project at their own pace, eventually moving from understanding the design process to applying it.
Eric also uses differentiation in classrooms where he wants to give students a choice in their end goal. These students will have some past experience in CS, but different levels of mastery as well as different desired projections in computer science. In this way, Eric can prepare some students for future AP classes while giving other students the opportunity to practice the skills they’ve learned until they are ready to move on to more complex topics.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT
- For every option you’ll offer students, decide what concept you want students to be able to master by the end of the class or unit.
- Determine the skills they will need to master, internalize and replicate at each step. Design a tier to go with each and decide how you will assess their progress. In a three-tier structure, Eric suggests that the first tier involve more or less copying and pasting; the second tier require students to have to replicate a structure; and the third tier involve problem solving.
- Be sure to communicate with your administrators about how differentiation can relate to the big-picture academic track your students are on.
> IN CLASS
- Begin class time by teaching a lesson on the common entry point. Then allow students to work at their own pace to go through the tiers, walking around and helping each as needed. In a classroom where students have different end goals, separate them into corresponding sections.
HOW TO ADAPT
- Consider setting up CS Centers to allow students to pick activities that correspond to their interests.
- Offer students the chance to choose their end goal, whether a track that prepares them for an advanced trajectory in computer science or one that allows them to master a particular project.
- Allow innovators to work on their tiers in small groups, mastering skills and building upon their knowledge as a team. You may wish to give them the chance to present their project to the class.
- Design a final tier that allows students to consider the implications of their design in society and a chance to rework their project as they deem fit depending on their conclusions.
- Our differentiated instruction resource can help you ensure you’re reaching all students when using differentiation.
- Differentiation: Tailoring instruction to meet individual student needs.
- Tiered differentiation: A form of differentiation which allows each student to excel at their own level of complexity while focusing on the same essential understandings.