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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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6 Strategies for Differentiated Instruction in Project-Based Learning

Andrew Miller

Educational Consultant and Instructional Coach
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Project-based learning (PBL) naturally lends itself to differentiated instruction. By design, it is student-centered, student-driven, and gives space for teachers to meet the needs of students in a variety of ways. PBL can allow for effective differentiation in assessment as well as daily management and instruction. PBL experts will tell you this, but I often hear teachers ask for real examples, specifics to help them contextualize what it "looks like" in the classroom. We all need to try out specific ideas and strategies to get our brains working in a different context. Here are some specific differentiation strategies to use during a PBL project.

1. Differentiate Through Teams

We all know that heterogeneous grouping works, but sometimes homogenous grouping can be an effective way to differentiate in a project. Sometimes in a novel- or literature-based PBL project, it might be appropriate to differentiate by grouping into reading level. That way, I can take groups that need intensive work and ensure they are getting the instruction they need. I think teaming should be intentional, and we need to know the "why" of how we structure teams. Are you differentiating for academic ability? Are you differentiating for collaboration skills? Are you differentiating for social-emotional purposes? Are you differentiating for passions? If you're a designer or co-designer of a PBL project, teams can be an effective way to differentiate instruction.

2. Reflection and Goal Setting

Reflection is an essential component of PBL. Throughout the project, students should be reflecting on their work and setting goals for further learning. This is a great opportunity for them to set personalized learning goals and for you to target instruction specific to the goals they set. At specific milestones in a project, one teacher that I observed had students reflect on what they'd learned so far in math and science, and then create goal statements for what they still wanted to learn. The teacher then designed activities to support students in learning not only what they wanted, but also what they needed to know.

3. Mini-Lessons, Centers, and Resources

This is probably one of my favorites. In addition to being a great management strategy to prevent "time sucks" in class, mini-lessons and centers are a great way to differentiate instruction. Perhaps you offer mini-lessons or center work to support your students' learning, or maybe you show students a variety of resources from which to learn, including videos, games, and readings. I know a teacher who has a well-oiled PBL machine of a classroom. Students move seamlessly from product work to learning stations, resources, and mini-lessons based on what they know. Students are so in tune with their learning that they are able to truly take ownership of it, and the teacher provides instruction without assumption. Not all students may need the mini-lesson, so you can offer or demand it for the students who will really benefit.

4. Voice and Choice in Products

Another essential component of PBL is student voice and choice, both in terms of what students produce and how they use their time. Specifically to products, you can allow students to show what they know in a variety of ways. From written components to artistic or theatrical, you can differentiate the ways that students are summatively assessed. Their passions actively come into play here. Again, it all depends on the standards that you're assessing, but don't let standards confine your thinking. Yes, you may have a written component if you're assessing writing, but ask yourself, "How can I allow for voice and choice here?" Embrace possibilities for differentiated student summative products.

5. Differentiate Through Formative Assessments

Formative assessments can look the same for all students. They can also look different. We know that students can show what they've learned in different ways, as mentioned above in terms of products produced as summative assessment. In addition, as you check for understanding along the way, you can formatively assess in different ways when appropriate. Perhaps you are targeting collaboration in the project. You can differentiate a formative assessment of this through a variety of ways. Perhaps it's an oral conference. Perhaps it's a series of written responses. Perhaps it is a graphic organizer or collage. More importantly, these formative assessments allow you to differentiate the type of instruction needed as you "feed forward" in the project.

6. Balance Teamwork and Individual Work

Teamwork and collaboration occur regularly in a PBL project. We want to leverage collaboration as much as content. However, there are times when individual instruction and practice may be needed. You need to differentiate the learning environment because some students learn better on their own, and others learn better in a team. In fact, we all need time to process and think alone just as much as we need time to learn from our peers. Make sure to balance both so that you are supporting a collaborative environment while allowing time to meet students on an individual basis.

As you master the PBL process in your classroom, you will intuitively find ways to differentiate instruction for your students. You will design the project to scaffold content and skills in a variety of ways. You will create formative and summative assessments to allow for student passions and goals, and you will manage the process so that it allows you to meet students where they are and move them forward.

Please share some of your successful strategies with us!

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Michelle McCullough's picture

I thought these were great strategies for PBL! I would just like to add to your list. I have found that differentiating the tasks of the project itself is effective. I have created projects where there are different levels. In creating the levels, I keep in mind that I need to assess the same standards for everyone, but the approach needs to be modified for the different types of learners.

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LOLearningSMU's picture

These are really good answers that I have been asking myself as well; how PBL can allow for effective differentiation in assessment and instruction. I also really liked the way you mention we can use multiple intelligences to create summative assessments, so students can express what they know or learn through the PBL in a variety of ways.

MGGI's picture

While I agree with this at the higher grades I have to ask, "Can you effectively differentiate to children for whom you have not established benchmarks that establish the depth of their knowledge beyond grade"? and the big one, "can you differentiate in Pre-K where some children do not know their letter names, sounds or how to write, count or recognize numbers to 10 when you have a child in class that sounds out 4 letter words, knows all letters and letter sounds including which ones are vowels, counts to 100 by 1's and 10's, adds and subtracts within 20, can add three single digit numbers in her head, writes her full names, reasons far above her grade level and for all practice purposes is 1 to 2 full grades ahead in all subjects, minus the ability to read"?

Linda Edwards's picture

I found this article really interesting. I used this to help inform and guide my knowledge when I completed a research paper on Collaboration. This has given some more insight and helped me to think about how I can use formative assessment collaboratively. I will be taking this suggestion and apply in my practice during 2016.

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Helen94's picture

In my opinion this idea - 3. Mini-Lessons, Centers, and Resources - is very good

Gael Lynch's picture

The only way we can get better systemically is to make differentiation work. These strategies are just a wonderful collection of best practice out there! Next step, teaching teachers who aren't there yet to trust themselves and trust the process of messiness! Hearing a lot of voices and seeing an array of work in process in a classroom is an absolute delight.

misterchris2014's picture

Differentiation is so important when teaching any subject, at any year level but I am really glad to have found some really useful tips etc around assessment as well. I am going to be trying PBL this year with year 7/8 students (NZ) so need all the help I can get :-) Also, found the tip about 'mini lessons' helpful as a way to ensure engagement and focus. Cheers

Bruce Hopkins's picture
Bruce Hopkins
Director Information Technology

While I agree with the context, after all, projects are the way the real world works and the sooner you can prepare students to learn to work in teams the better off they are. Of course, you need to take steps to ensure that just one or two of the best performing students are not doing all the work. I'm sure anyone who has been to college and had group projects know this all too well, some students just won't work as hard if they can convince someone else ot do the work for them. This not only puts an undue workload on the good students but really does a disservice to the ones who are slacking as they may pass the course, but not really learn what they needed to learn.

ARain's picture

Differentiating through formative assessment really made sense to me. Students like having choices and it can build self confidence.

Susan's picture

I believe that you probably differentiate without realizing that you are doing it even in Pre-K. think about how you have the room set up. Do you have differenct activities such as puzzles, books, shapes, counters, blocks, paints, crayons, markers, house center, etc. All of those are ways to allow students to explore in their own way. That is differentiation. Small children explore their environment and learn in that way. You are meeting all students needs by having a variety for them to explore.

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