Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tools for Differentiating Based on Student Readiness

  1. Bloom’s Taxonomy (old or new)
  2. Tomlinson’s Equalizer
  3. Concept-based Teaching.

1. Most teachers are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy as it has been a staple of teacher education programs for over 40 years. Originally designed as a means for identifying the degree of abstraction of questions that are typically asked in educational settings, this hierarchical model of thinking is now widely used to assist in the design of assignments and tasks that address different levels of readiness. Whether using the original version of the Taxonomy or the newer one, it is important to keep in mind that Bloom did not intend for his model to be used as a means for labeling students. That is, we should not consider some students to generally be “knowledge-level learners” while others might be labeled “synthesis and evaluation learners.” Rather, we should keep in mind that there are times when even our most struggling thinkers are capable of thinking at higher levels. Similarly, there are certainly times when our most gifted learners must focus on basic recall of information, or lower-level thinking.

Bloom’s Taxonomy can be applied to almost anything teachers create: for example, discussion questions, homework assignments, items for tests, and projects. The trick in using this thinking structure, as with any instructional tool, is to make sure to offer students adequate and appropriate challenges. This means that we focus on students working at as high a level of thinking as possible given their readiness with regard to the content being studied.

2. Tomlinson’s Equalizer is a tool that asks teachers to consider how to modify lessons and student work across nine different dimensions. These dimensions include:
  • Foundational to transformational
  • Concrete to abstract
  • Simple to complex
  • Fewer facets to multi-facets
  • Smaller leap to greater leap
  • More structured to more open
  • Clearly-defined problems to fuzzy problems
  • Less independence to greater independence
  • Slower pace to quicker pace
(From Carol Ann Tomlinson’s The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 1999)
Clearly, the great benefit of this tool is that it helps teachers think about ways to differentiate classroom learning across a wide range of student learning differences and needs. Rather than simply asking us to think in terms of “high ability” and “low ability,” it addresses characteristics of learners that might be related as much to learning profile as to readiness. For example, we can certainly modify the amount of independence with which students are asked to work in a given assignment. We can also provide some students with a great deal of openendedness in a given task while others might require a significantly greater degree of structure. In terms of readiness differences, some students may need to work with more concrete and simple resources and ideas while others may be ready to grapple with more abstraction and complexity.

Tomlinson’s Equalizer works much like the knobs on a sound system’s equalizer. By moving a knob from one end of the sound spectrum to the other, the quality of the music being produced can be modified. Likewise, a teacher using Tomlinson’s Equalizer can move a knob anywhere along a given continuum to meet the needs of students during any given lesson or with a particular task. Tomlinson’s Equalizer reminds us that there are many ways to think about differences in student readiness and there also are many possible approaches to responding to those differences.

3. Concept-based teaching directly addresses two of the dimensions on Tomlinson’s Equalizer – concrete to abstract and simple to complex. During the planning process, it asks teachers to think about the “forest” rather than the “trees.” When using this approach to instructional design, teachers focus on large (perhaps even huge) ideas and the generalizations, or big statements, that can be made about them. For example, a unit in history might become a study of conflict and power rather than simply a march through time. What can be said about the causes and effects of conflict? Why do people seek power? What is the relationship between conflict and power? When we ask students to think about abstract ideas or concepts, we require them to think at a higher level and encourage them to make connections across time and disciplines. In addition to conflict and power, some useful concepts that apply to many subject areas and topics include (and this is just a short list of the many possibilities): change, patterns, exploration, communication, adaptation, systems, interdependence, wants and needs, survival, responsibility, courage, progress, growth, cycles, influence, and equality.

Look for Tools for Differentiating Based on A Student Learning Profile (Groupings, Gardner's Multiple Intelligences) early next week!


  1. Years ago, at a KGTC conference, you had bookmarks kids could use that correlated with Bloom's. They were from a "Talented Readers" presentation. I have used them now and then, but due to several moves, cannot locate them. Do you still have access to them and can send to me? Many thanks!

  2. Hello Unknown! Who did you see at the conference? We are trying to narrow down the bookmarks and put you on the right path. Thanks! Tyler @ Pieces of Learning