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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

Peter D. Ford III's picture

Why 'instruction' vs. 'teaching'? I believe honestly because 'instruction' sounds more sophisticated. Their meanings are equivalent. Schools of Education suffer at times from an inferiority complex, so they make things sound as technical and educated as possible. "You say 'tomaeto,' I say 'tomahto,' let's call the whole thing off and say what feels comfortable!

AutismClassroom.com's picture

When I was in the classroom teaching students with autism, we had to individualize everything. It took some time at first, but then it became second nature. For example, I young kids so they had snack time. Some could talk, some could not. Depending on each of their skills, one child may have to ask verbally for the snack, one may have had to give a card with a picture of the food item he wanted, and yet another may have had to give a car with a written word (he could read, but could not talk). This idea of differentiated instruction carried over to our group lessons where I may be teaching a lesson on the topic of "spring flowers", but each student would need to respond in their own way and be presented a work sample that was tailored to them about the same topic of "spring flowers." I have tried to pass this idea on to the classroom teachers I now provide training for.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California

My latest favorite resource on this topic is Rick Wormeli's Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. Carol Ann Tomlinson's work is also very useful, but I find Wormeli's suggestions very practical and immediately applicable.

delainanicole's picture
Marketing, graphic design, & e-communications specialist in education

Question... would all of you consider this 'customized' instruction?

Andrea Weis's picture
Andrea Weis
7th and 8th grade Latin in Cincinnati, Ohio

Define "customized" I don't think we're talking about i.e.p.s for all, but there is some tailoring that is happening at the class, group and individual lesson.

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.

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