Differentiation: Can It Be Hardwired into Our Teachers?

Differentiation: Can It Be Hardwired into Our Teachers?

Differentiation: Can It Be Hardwired into Our Teachers?

With national attention on differentiated instruction and growing evidence of its value, more and more teachers are trying to apply the principles in their classrooms. However, many are facing struggles along the way and need the encouragement and nurturing of school administrators.

Before administrators can provide that support, they need to understand how their teachers learn a new skill or behavior. The “conscious competence” learning model may provide valuable insight. It presents the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence.

Conscious competence is a good reminder of how we need to train teachers—in stages. In addition, it helps administrators stay in touch with the emotions of the teachers they are teaching, so they can better guide them through the learning process.

In this article, let’s look more deeply at the four stages of conscious competence and how they look in today’s evolving, differentiated classroom.

Stage One: Unconscious Competence

At the beginning of the learning process, a teacher’s awareness of the need to differentiate is low or doesn’t exist. The teacher doesn’t understand differentiated instruction or know how to implement it and therefore does not see how learning how to is necessary. In other words, these teachers do not know what they do not know. Teachers will respond only when they are aware of their need for differentiation and the benefit of mastering it. As administrators, it is critical to gently make teachers aware of their weakness or lack of ability before beginning any training in differentiation instruction.

Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence

Teachers at this stage do not understand how to differentiate, but they are beginning to realize the value in learning how to. This awareness may arise gradually after they attempt to differentiate in their classrooms. Or it may come as a shocking realization when, for example, the teacher meets a colleague who is clearly better at differentiation than they are. Or a coach brings their lack of skill to the forefront. These teachers now know they don’t know it. They recognize they have a blind spot. And, they are beginning to realize by improving this skill, their effectiveness as teachers will improve.

Stage Three: Conscious Competence

Teachers are consciously competent when they develop their ability to differentiate, but still have to think about it. In other words, it does not come naturally nor is it automatic. Differentiation is a complex skill and becoming consciously competent in it may take a while. Teachers must intentionally work to improve their differentiation skills and perform them reliably, at will, and without assistance. By persevering, some may be able in the future to differentiate without thought or effort.

Stage Four: Unconscious Competence

Eventually some teachers reach a stage where they no longer have to think about differentiation. They just do it. Teachers who are unconsciously competent are good at differentiation and it comes naturally to them. In fact, they have practiced the skill to the extent it has become second nature and can be performed easily.

The progression from incompetence to competence is from stage one through stage four. Teachers cannot skip stages. Some teachers, the more advanced ones, may regress to previous stages if they do not practice and exercise their new skills. In some classroom situations, stopping at stage three is perfectly acceptable.

It’s worth recognizing that each of us is constantly making decisions about what we want to learn and what we want to get better at. Teachers are no exception. Learning a new skill, especially a challenging skill like differentiation, is not easy. However, by acknowledging the stages of competence, coaches can help lead teachers through the learning process, manage the ups and downs, and eventually turn differentiation into a habit.


Explore in more depth how to coach teachers to differentiation confidence and success in the SDE webinar Increasing Teacher Effectiveness with Visible Differentiation Strategies (Gr. 3–12) classroom teacher and experienced administrator Richard Cash, Ed.D.