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Defining Differentiated Instruction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

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

Christa Dandoy's picture

Last year I had the gifted cluster at my school. I had about 6 gifted students and the rest were considered on-level. I felt like my on-level students benefited so much because I was challenging them and holding them to higher standards. I think many of them grew more than if they would have been in another class. However, I constantly felt like I was not doing enough for my gifted students. I did not want to just give them extra work, but I wanted to challenge them. I was unsure of how to do this as I had never received any training on teaching gifted.

Then to make matters more difficult I was chosen to have 2 resouce (special ed) kids come into my room throughout the week. It was difficult to differentiate when I had very high and very low students.

Does anyone have any opinions on the gifted cluster model?

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

Great article, great dialogue! As a teacher and instructional coach, I've found a key to accommodating student differences is actively assessing and assisting students as they're working independently. Check out my blog post Practice (With Coaching) Makes Proficient for more on this.

Dana Goetz's picture

I have asked the same question: What does differentiation look like? Before I learned about Differentiated Instruction (DI), I thought it looked like every student doing something different. Now, I understand it looks like a regular classroom. I have come to learn that DI is more of a mindset and an approach to teaching than it is creating a different lesson plan for each student.

Simply put, teachers begin with the learning objectives. The goals are the same for all students. How you get there is what differs. For instance, some student may need more scaffolding than others. Some students may complete the assignment independently, others may work in groups, and other student may work with a classroom aide. Teachers can differentiate by product, content, readiness, or interest. The key is to know your students, so that you know the best way to engage them and move them along on the learning continuum.

Tanya N's picture

I appreciate the posts and ideas on differentiated instruction. Differentiated Instruction became the goal of my school district towards the end of last school year. My school district provided a three day workshop to get us started and even gave us a book. That was in June. Now, as the school year is upon us, I find myself very apprehensive and uneducated about differentiated instruction. I am earning my master's degree right now and have spent the last couple of weeks sharing my concerns with my cohort. They have provided me with some useful tools that I would like to share here. www.differentiatedinstruction.net and www.lrobb.com. I hope those help as well.

Christine's picture

Great ideas! I will admit, my first year of teaching, differentiating instruction did not come easy. I struggled with the creativity and the time it took to plan activities that would meet students at where they were in their learning abilities. However, going into my third year of teaching, I found that differentiating instruction accurately resulted in effective teaching and learning. In order for me to understand where each of my students were academically and with interests, I had them complete a "Getting To Know You" questionaire at the beginning of the school year. I also used their Cumulative Folders as I tool to guide me to understand and learn about the students. Once knew more about the students, it became easier to differentiate.

During my Reading Workshop time students who were working independetly, while I pulled my small group would work on DI tic-tac-toe boards like this: https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/edyburn/www/Sample1.pdf

Also in reading, sometimes all three of my reading groups (Above, On, Approaching) would have the same objective, but the books & activity would be differentiated. For example, for all 3 groups, the objective would be: Students will compare and contrast the information in the text by creating double bubble maps. My Above group would be reading Winn-Dixie and completing the map indepedently and then sharing w/ a partner. My On group would read Frindle and complete the map w/ partners. My low/approaching group would be reading Balto and complete portions of the map w/ my guidance.

That is just one example of how I differentiate in my classroom. Other ways I encourage DI in my classroom are by the different levels of text in my reading library. For spelling, I have students paste a menu in their journals and have them choose which activity they would like to complete each night for homework. I also have students pair up w/ reading buddies on different reading levels so they can encourage each other.

Differentiating Instruction is SO crucial to student development and achievement. It supports each student's level and learning style, and builds their self-confidence because certain students do not feel like they are being targeted or treated differently. DI is having the same activity, but different strategies to meet each student.

Tiffany's picture

I like what you said, "is it a matter of doing what is fair, or what is right?". I totally agree. I teach at a title-1 school, and for the past two years I have had different ability levels that I just was not sure how to meet their needs. For example, my first year teaching, I had 6 IEP, two students who did not quailfy but were significantly below grade level, three students who were significantly above grade level, and the rest pretty average or on grade level. It was very overwhelming. I realized that college did not prepare me for this dynamic of a classroom. I began asking my colleagues what to do, and how to meet the needs of all these students. It was exhausting. In meetings, professional development workshops, etc., I heard "differeniated instruction" a lot, but was not sure how to implement it in my classroom. After all, I was just a first year teacher trying to keep my head above water. I tried to develop guided reading groups based on their different reading abilities. I also tried math groups, where I took my students' scores and grouped them based on what they already knew about the content. I created centers that would accomodate students individual needs.

I like your suggestion about getting to know students based on their needs, interests, home life, etc. As the case with my first year class, I had to read and know their IEPs to make the appropriate accomodations. What about the other students? I did not want them to fall through the cracks or for the above level students to be bored. I agree it is a challenge to mainstream all students in the same class and meet so many different abilities. It is a challenge that I continue to face. In talking with my colleagues this upcoming school year, we are looking for ways that we can address each students' needs and differentiate instruction more effectively.

Thank you for the post. It was very helpful!

Etienne A. Kouakou's picture

Lynette, I think a simple way to think about differentiation is "to each according to his/her needs." You may differentiate by interest, preparedness, learning style etc. But to go back to your concern--addressing the needs of a special needs student (SNS) vs. those of a gifted student (GS)--I think the challenge is to find teaching materials that are appropriate for each student's level of understanding/performance. So if I were to teach the plot of a story for example, this is what I would most likely do:
1. SNS: I would start with a basic story map or a timeline of the story. I would focus the student's attention on the "big moments" of the story. Then I would teach the terminology used to talk about the plot and ask the student to identify the part of the story that corresponds to each term. Understanding would be demonstrated by the student choosing another story he/she has read or watched and identifying the terms.

2. GS:For this particular student, I may use a timeline or story map, but rather than teaching the concepts directly, I might simply ask the student to match the terminology to the various big moments of the story. As a measure of this student's understanding, I may ask him/her to prepare a short presentation that discusses the relationship among the different parts of the plot based on a story he/she has read or watched. This student can then make a brief presentation as his/her contribution to a class discussion of the plot of a story.

I hope this is not too confusing. The bottom line is that differentiation can be as simple as asking students to demonstrate understanding of a concept or term through a means of their choosing; it could be teaching the same concept using a variety of methods--visual, kinesthetic, verbal, etc--according to students' preferred mode of learning.

Etienne A. Kouakou's picture

Right on point, Dana!could have just asked Lynette to your post. To bad I saw it only after I had posted mine. We're on the same page!

sue's picture

The article was helpful, but it neglected to mention how to address younger children when they ask why other kids are getting different assignments from their own. It is hard to give directions on an assignment for a class when not all students have the same assignment. Younger students will say, "mine doesn't look like that". Other students will notice that some of the students are working on something different. I have explained that each student is working on what is appropriate for him or her. You always get someone who at first feels inadequate and someone who feels left out. They are many ways to handle assigning different work and some are better than others. Some could make students feel unintelligent and give students reasons to tease and belittle their classmates.

Chris Hum's picture
Chris Hum
Educational Technology, Science/ Math Teacher

Really it sounds like education for all. In other words, identifying students needs should not just be for students that might have an IEP. After all, there are many times when I had students struggling with a particular skill or concept but did not have an IEP.

Providing individualized education should be for any student that the teacher sees is not progressing or is not involved in the class. Involvement is a good sign that learning is happening or not happening for reasons that the student is struggling with the content, skills or process or that the student is bored silly. Getting to know all of your students in some way is critical as a teacher. The issue with this is when districts see fit to cram more than 25 students per class. To get around this, a teacher may provide an assignment/ project that is modified for all and then use a rubric/ scoring guide to build expectations for students who can excel at that particular skill or content. In addition assignments that some students struggle with and others might excel can be modeled for the class together in the modified manner and advanced manner, so all students have a chance to perform at their appropriate level, and see how they might progress. This is were backwards design comes in. If you know your students abilities and know the standards or content/concepts your students are expected to learn, you can build a learning unit that meets all of your students needs.

In addition, starting off your year by creating a class community can help with differentiated learning. Completing some activities to get to know your students and their learning style, can greatly benefit the teacher. Have students complete a "get-to-know-you" handout with questions about most favorite assignment and why or worst teacher they have ever had and why or what was the last thing they learned and how they learned it. PLaying short team building games or problem solving games 1 day a week or a few minutes before class can help you to see deficiencies or skills that your students excel at. This can also greatly help for creating groups that can work together and help one another.

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