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Defining Differentiated Instruction

| Rebecca Alber

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!

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Substitute teacher

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I appreciate your article. I taught for one year in Arizona. I had both a gifted child and two special needs children. I was able to give the special needs children a simpler assignment, but was unsure of what to do for the gifted student. Another issue, is if class mates find out a student is not required to do as much work, or has a different assignment, how do you address the issue of "its not fair" when the classmates voice their opinions>?

former creative dramatics instructor

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For 5 yrs., I taught Shakespeare in the schools in Berkeley, CA to mixed classes in 4th, 5th and 6th grade including gifted learners, special needs (ESL and Cerebral Palsy) and typical students. We presented scenes from a Shakespearean play at the end of a 10 week session, which was rehearsed in class as part of their English/Lit.

We would do some activities in which all students participated together, like the story-circle, in which an adult told the story of the play and children would stand up, one at a time and represent each character with a pre-determined gesture and sound (ie: a witch in Macbeth would rub her hands and cackle). When we started dealing with text, children were assigned speeches based on the characters they most liked. If a student needed to have lines removed, we did that, but often, they'd want them put back, after seeing another student perform the whole speech! I also tried to assess which students had reading difficulties, and would call on them to read a passage after others had read the same words. This gave them time to hear it and partially memorize the text before trying it themselves. Often these students had great memorization skills, but needed more time at home with the text.

For a student with Cerebral Palsy, another actor wheeled him on and "shared" his line load, with both speaking as one person. A very bright girl who only spoke Mandarin, and had a full-time translator, was given a speech translated into Chinese (by the local University language dept.). She was THRILLED to be able to perform a speech that she could read and understand.

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Differentiating for GATE students

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Quote:

Somewhat helpful, but I would have appreciated further ideas for GATE students/high achievers. In our district, GATE students get minimal funding, little or no support within the classroom, get EXTRA WORK, or are offered supplementary after school programs (at my expense) which can interfere with homework or sports. GATE students are aften bored and unchallenged, and often do not even want to be labeled as such for fear of teasing/ridicule by their peers. What can I, as a parent, do to (strongly, but nicely) encourage my child's teachers to implement more differentiation in the classroom for all ranges? (I haven't yet been to the differentiation discussion boards, but plan to do so next)

Hi Tracey,

You are absolutely right! We cannot forget that meeting students where they are in terms of differentiated instruction includes accelerated students.Truthfully, so often a teacher is stumped on what to do and defaults to giving more work rather than smarter work to a gifted student in a general education classroom.

One suggestion might be to meet with your child's teachers and share with them all that you know -- his hobbies, his learning style, interests, etc. Offer inside information on types of challenges your child gravitates towards (for example, constructing things or problem solving.) Just as with remedial students, this personal student data can help a teacher cater specific assignments for a particular student.

At home, you can raise the bar in your discussions and be sure to ask higher level questions of your child that go beyond right/wrong answers challenging him to analyze, interpret, and synthesize (search "Bloom's Taxonomy" online for examples of questions.)

Thank you again for bringing up this important issue!

Readers: Please offer more suggestions on differentiating instruction for accelerated/gifted/GATE students. Thanks in advance.

All students

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"Less difficult for some students" does not take into consideration students' readiness levels. Our task is to moderately challenge all students to achieve. The level of sophistication of a given assignment(not more work)should be differentiated, with all students focused on the same key outcomes (standards) in ways that are most meaning and engaging to them. Providing options that address not only readiness but interests and learning profiles whenever feasible invites students to more deeply explore the content to acquire knowledge as well as global understandings that are transformational. Using the Understanding by Design framework helps educators maintain focus on outcomes for all students while providing supports for learner differences.

The examples were really

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The examples were really helpful. Thanks.

7th and 8th grade Latin in Cincinnati, Ohio

differentiation and formative assessment

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I get the common-sense approach you're going for, and I recognize that it is labor intensive. In a perfect world all this info would arrive ahead of the student in the form of data and portfolio examples. But that's pie in the sky. I have to Sherlock Holmes the files like you do. Here is my blog where I am dabbling with these ideas:
http://ihlatin8.blogspot.com/2010/04/formative-assessment.html

One of the best differentiation helps that I have found is at www.wordchamp.com While it's a base for learning foreign language, there is no reason why it can't be used by educators everywhere and the feedback that it provides is incredible. I've had students make great leaps with the tool over the last three years, and I hope others will too. Teach on!

Somewhat helpful, but I would

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Somewhat helpful, but I would have appreciated further ideas for GATE students/high achievers. In our district, GATE students get minimal funding, little or no support within the classroom, get EXTRA WORK, or are offered supplementary after school programs (at my expense) which can interfere with homework or sports. GATE students are aften bored and unchallenged, and often do not even want to be labeled as such for fear of teasing/ridicule by their peers. What can I, as a parent, do to (strongly, but nicely) encourage my child's teachers to implement more differentiation in the classroom for all ranges? (I haven't yet been to the differentiation discussion boards, but plan to do so next)

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Thanks for sharing this timely article. We also explore this topic at http://www.ededco.com/seminars/differentiated-instruction/

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