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Defining Differentiated Instruction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Updated 01/2014

When I lesson plan with teachers, out of earshot from their fellow teachers and their principals, I can't tell you how often I'm asked, "what exactly does it look like?" when it comes to differentiated instruction.

In the education world, differentiated instruction is talked a lot about as a policy or as a solution, but rarely do educators get opportunities to roll up their sleeves and talk about what it looks like in practice.

The definition begins with this: Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need. Approaching all learners the same academically doesn't work. We have to start where each child is in his learning process in order to authentically meet his academic needs and help him grow. With a classroom full of children at different stages of learning, this certainly sounds overwhelming, I know. So I'd like to suggest a place to begin and provide some examples.

Start with the Student

If a child in your class is really struggling with reading, writing, organization, time management, social skills or all of the above, the first step is to find out as much as you can about her educational history and anything else. This includes learning about her interests, cultural background, learning style, and something about her home life (The youngest? Foster care? Single parent home?)

The fact is we are mainstreaming a larger number of our students to general education classes, who, 15 years ago, may have instead been assigned to a special education class. That's good news in so many ways but makes a teacher's job more challenging. This is also one of the reasons why differentiated instruction has become such a hot topic.

Several years ago, in one of the general education language arts class I was teaching, 8 of the 34 students enrolled had an Individualized Education Program (IEP). When a child has an IEP, it is required that all teachers provide accommodations and modifications to assignments and instruction for that student. Speaking of overwhelmed. I definitely was, to say the least.

So, I learned. I spent many of my conference periods combing through student files. It's amazing what you can discover about a child from doing this. For instance, I had a student with perplexing behaviors then I learned he suffered from schizophrenia. How did I find out? Looking at his file. I was a much better teacher for him after gaining this information. Of course, he had an IEP, and someone should have told me in the beginning of the year, but we all know how things -- and children -- fall through the cracks of large public schools in enormous school districts.

A Classroom Example

Making an assignment, task, or objective different for one student than the rest of the class is meeting that child where they are in their learning journey. It's okay, you don't have to feel bad or feel as if you are being unfair, or lowering the bar. You are the child's teacher and you spend enough time with her to understand what she needs. And remember, equality is about meeting the needs of the individual.

Here's an example from my teaching:

It's a high school language arts class, and students are reading a novel. The daily objective is practicing inference and application of this skill. They are writing a brief essay predicting what the character Crooks from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men might do next. They must pull textual evidence from the book to support their predictions and claims.

But Diana is seated over there, frustrated. She is struggling with the concept of inference, partly because she is reading below her grade level. Knowing this about her reading abilities, and other challenges indicated on her IEP, do I expect her to stay the course, or do I admit that success for her with this assignment as it stands is not likely? I decide to give Diana the task of listing five adjectives to describe the character Crooks. She has to find one quote from the character in the book to prove one or more of the words she has chosen. There are similarities to these two assignments, but different enough to ensure a higher probability of success -- and learning -- for her.

A Matter of Fairness

Differentiated instruction for Diana, and for other struggling students, may mean providing a handout with sentence starters or a graphic organizer to help them with constructing meaning. It may mean providing extra time to complete an assignment, giving directions again, reducing the length of an assignment, or offering alternate assignments or projects altogether. You can also provide struggling students with leveled text -- less difficult reading that contains the same content.

(For more differentiated instruction ideas and examples from the classroom, check out this Edutopia group discussion on the topic.)

Do I pre-plan variations of an assignment? Not always, but when I know my struggling students and their challenges well enough to predict road bumps ahead for them, I'm ready.

One way to be ready? Create file folders filled with various graphic organizers, visual aides, and sentence starters for different types of thinking (cause and effect, chronological, compare and contrast, to name a few). You can quickly pull out one of these in a pinch. If a student finishes a differentiated assignment with time left, then assess if it was too easy, and add a step. If a differentiated assignment is too difficult, break down the directions even more, give them one-on-one time with you, or remove a step.

I've heard teachers suggest that making an assignment less difficult for one student is not fair to the others. But I ask: Is it a matter of what is fair, or what is right?

What are ways you differentiate instruction for the grade level and content you teach? We look forward to hearing from you!


Comments (83)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bruce's picture
elementary tech teacher

I have been quoted many times on this:

Differentiated instruction is simply a reaction to the failure of heterogeneous grouping.

Bruce Cattanach

Paula Worden's picture

These were great ideas that I wish I had used with my 3rd grade students a few years ago. Giving them an opportunity to "get started' and helping them to dfind the line of thought to join the subject seem to be wise methods to bring a student into the learning environment when they are struggling.

Stephanie's picture

I, too, am a chemistry teacher in Michigan and found this blog while searching for something to help me differentiate. I have students in my class with 3rd grade reading levels sitting next to students with college level reading abilities. I am not challenging the advanced kids and feel I cannot really teach that well because not only are some of the lower level students struggling academically, but they are also somewhat of a nuisance in class. What do I do ?? I have been teaching for 16 years and I HATE it right now.

David Ginsburg's picture
David Ginsburg
Instructional Coach, Leadership Coach, Math Specialist

Check out my new blog post, Differentiated Instruction: What Difference Does it Make?. It's a response to Mike Schmoker's provocative article on Education Week in which he said, "DI corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction."

Jon Wopat's picture

It was refreshing to read your article on differentiation. As a special educator, I co-teach with two general educators in a 4th grade inclusive classroom. We always like to remind our students that fair is not everyone getting the same thing, rather it means everyone gets what they need to be successful. We tell our students that we would not be doing our jobs well if we did not make sure that all students have an appropriate challenge that is not too difficult nor too easy for them on an individual basis. Going over this concept has helped eliminate a competetive mindset for our students, where they are overly concerned about their assignment or project in comparison with their peers.

We do a great deal of differentiation for our students. We pretest for their weekly spelling lists, and usually end up using 3 or 4 different lists for students. In math, we also use pretest results to decide our two groups for each unit. The "advanced" group is taught by one general educator, and this group often expands upon certain concepts and uses enrichment activities. The "medium" group is co-taught by myself and a general educator, where we focus more on the main ideas of each lesson and at times use appropriate remedial activities for learners of lower ability. In Reading Workshop, each student reads a book that matches up with their current reading level. Despite this, all students read books involving the same genre we are learning about, such as Historical Fiction or Mystery. This common theme brings the class together despite the different book selection they may be reading. Sometimes the students share parts of their books at the end of class, so all students can learn about the books that are being read. These are a few ways that my co-teachers and I differentiate instruction to meet the individual needs of students. Thanks for the wonderful article!

Bruce's picture
elementary tech teacher

Differentiated Instruction looks a lot like the one room school house of the past. One teacher racing around trying to satisfy the needs of a group that should not be together. "Differentiated Instruction is simply a reaction to the failure of heterogenious grouping." Let's group the kids by ability level, create solid lessons that address the needs of those groups and raise instruction for everyone. It's NOT evil to do this, but many educators carry a heavy amount of guilt dealing with this effective method of teaching.

Britney's picture
title teacher, Ohio

I have never looked through my students files before. I teach title so I never really thought about it. I always thought the way you get closer to your students was by talking, listening, and asking questions. This was a great insight!

Kathy's picture

Stephanie, I understand your frustration. It is extremely difficult to manage a classroom with such varying levels. It always seems like someone is getting left out. Unfortunately, it is often those who do not present challenges or who are at a higher level. It takes practice and trial and error to set up a differentiated classroom. The use of groups and partner work is helpful. Sometimes I will pull my higher level thinkers aside and let them be the teachers. It has been successful because they learn it first and then present it to the group. Another thing that has worked is providing choices in how to demonstrate knowledge of a concept. For example, one student could build a model of an atom showing protons, neutrons, and electrons. Another student could write a report. Another student can draw a picture and explain it out loud. I have found that by changing it up and always having the students involved in some way, that it is making a difference. I have a long way to go and it does not always run smoothly but, the students know I expect them to try. The higher and the clearer I can make my expectations, the more likely that they will succeed.

April Malone's picture
April Malone
8th grade Language Arts Inclusion Teacher from Hattiesburg, Mississippi

I also found this helpful. As a special education inclusion teacher, I find myself faced with this problem all of the time. My school district not only hold me accountable for the special education students but also the general education students as well. So many of my activities include differentiation. I also co teach in an accelerated English classroom which also has special education students.

Gina Hill's picture
Gina Hill
First Grade Teacher from Marietta, Georgia

I have also been struggling to differentiate the higher level students. I agree although time consuming a teacher must truly get to know their students. Searching student files, asking previous teachers and student/parent surveys can be helpful. Knowing a student's background can provide insight of how to better address his or her needs. I would also be open to any sugggestions of how to manage a first grade classroom to keep the other students actively engaged when I am teaching small groups in order to better meet the needs of all the students.

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