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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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Dan Kohler's picture

I teach Chemistry in Michigan where Chemistry is now a high school graduation requirement. I have always been a proponent of inclusion and have tried to meet the needs of all my students. The problem is I can not alter the pace. We have common benchmarked assessments at the end of each semester that everyone has to take. I can do extra enrichment for the students who excell but there is not much I can do with the kids at the very bottom other than offer extra help outside of class. If I try to simplify the material then they can't handle future topics that build on the concepts over current material. If I slow down I don't get the material covered and my top students are coming into my A.P. classes less prepared and need more remediation.
Although I favor inclusion, I see no solution that meets everyones needs without seperated our students into different courses based on their math skill level. Those who have less skill need more time to develop understanding the material and gain process skills.
I don't think you can put everyone of any ability into college prep classes and meet everyones needs. I am trying to teach the same material to students who received ACT scores in the low teens with students who scored near perfect.

Ann Marie Wellhouse's picture

First, I believe in differentiated instruction.
Second, differentiated instruction must lead to student success in the class at the same level as other students. We can't be lowering the bar or we relegate low performing students to long lasting low performing status. Differentiation must be scaffolding that leads to learning at the same level as the other students. This means that kids who are behind or who struggle to learn must put in additional effort and we have to help them do that.

Saraswati's picture

Thank you for sharing your experience with this. Since I'm a teacher in India, my first question is - what class size would you generally be referring to when you say "a classroom?"

I had 27 kids in my third-grade class with both gifted and challenged learners, as well as medium range kids and atleast one with attention issues. I find it natural to work in a way that each child gets what he/she needs - individual goals, individual-specific expectations from me etc. At the same time I was also a subject teacher to two second grade classes of 29 students each. Needless to say I did feel completely burnt out at the end of the year.

What do you think of the feasibility of large class sizes and differentiated instruction?

Peter D. Ford III's picture

Saraswati, you could have replaced 'teacher in India' with 'teacher in South Los Angeles', or 'teacher in Washington, D.C.' or 'teacher in Philadelphia'! We have empathy for your plight completely. Large classes hinder differentiation greatly, so your obligation is to do the best you can with what you have. 'Scouting' your students before the year would help greatly, but as one person said you often have to scavenge for the appropriate information (student records, Special Education plans, etc.).
While many in education like to spout the phrase 'research says', I question how much definitive research exists on differentiation because it's so difficult to gather scientific data on classroom instruction. It does seem that larger classes are harder to differentiate because the 'variables,' i.e. students, are too numerous.

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.

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