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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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!

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

Saraswati's picture

Thanks Peter. I do agree - research on each child and especially the handover from one teacher to the next is essential. But - as teachers we're only human - there are only so many "variables" we can juggle, as you said. The year I had a particularly wide range of students in my class, I was so exhausted, that I took a break from teaching the next year! I didn't want to teach if I couldn't put the same energy in with a new class. But I'm fortunate that the school I work with has a maximum of 30 kids per class. A lot of schools in India go up to 45 or 50 a class, even in primary school!

Mark Pennington's picture
Mark Pennington
ELA teacher and educational author

Reading is not a simplistic "how-to" that is once learned well and thereafter applied. Academic reading is multi-faceted and complex. In other words, there is plenty to learn that will challenge gifted students throughout their K-12 experience. In fact, the old learning to read and reading to learn dichotomy is limiting our "best and brightest" students. Let's un-limit them with Differentiated Reading Instruction for Gifted Students.

Thomas Nixon's picture

Thanks for the article. A lot to think about. I think that Differentiation seems like a enormous task but if it is treated as important work over the term many aspects of the learner can be discovered and new guidelines can be established to establishing equal education. Thanks!

Jim Snyder's picture
Jim Snyder
Math Coach and Interventionist

I did a word find and and saw not metion of the word math. I am a new teacher confronted with a variety of skills level in the classroom. Are the any "math gurus" using this strategy? We are using Carnegie and for some the gap grows larger and never narrows in performance.

Laura McCall's picture
Laura McCall
More-at-Four (Pre-K) Teacher's Assistant

As a Pre-k teacher for at-risk students, our entire curriculum focuses on differentiating instruction. We have a few high students, a few low students and the rest fall right into the middle. I tend to think of differentiating instruction meaning that you teach each child through the learning style/s that suits him/her best. A lot of our differentiation focuses on different learning styles. This includes incorporating songs or body movements to help our musical and kinesthetic learners. We also use visuals aids such as signs with symbols, pictured social stories, computer projected lessons, and a visual schedule to help the visual learners. It is important to develop lessons that encompass a variety of teaching methods so that all learners will have opportunities to be successful learners.

Erin's picture

I understand completely that there needs to be this level of differentiation within my classroom. I know all children learn differently, and I most certainly understand the importance of meeting each individual's needs. However, when it comes to the "it's not fair" issue that will most certainly occur, how do you make it understood that you are not playing favorites, or helping some children more than others. I think this is a very delicate subject and I would be curious to find out the strategies used to eliminate this potential problem in the classroom while still being able to have other children feel motivated to strive for their best, even if some children are not expected to do as much.

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