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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Differentiated Instruction Allows Students to Succeed

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

One of the hardest things for a teacher to do is to treat students differently. It goes against our very nature. We are programmed to treat each child the same as we would treat any other child. No child deserves special privilege, nor does any child deserve less attention -- regardless of race, gender or academic ability.

It grates on our nerves when that know-it-all student who always sits in the front row always demands time to show off. It frustrates us to no end when the student in the back of the class makes rude noises and refuses to stay on task.

Making Decisions

Which students miss out most? It is the student in the middle who doesn't cause problems, who obeys, conforms, and never demands attention. We rarely give her the time of day in our race to take care of the extremes.

I had one of those students in my classroom. He was in my intermediate Spanish class and always sat in the middle. He never said a lot, and he did his work quietly. He wasn't the best in the classroom, and he wasn't the worst. I remember that he did struggle with rolling his rs. One day, he didn't come to class, and we got word that he had committed suicide. Not that I could have done anything to prevent this, but you always have the nagging doubt that perhaps you could have made a difference. In that moment, I vowed to never assume the quiet ones were OK.

Yet even with that, we are pressured to give the students with more needs more attention than those students who have less needs. The largest conflict about differentiated instruction boils up inside of us when we try to assign a grade to that differentiated instruction.

How can we justifiably give the students the same grade when the quality, quantity, or content of the performance is different? I have yet to read a truly compelling argument to answer that question. Most people mumble something about grades being a relative measure of student performance and designed for communication of progress only.

So, this is my attempt to make sense of this dilemma and perhaps calm a few nervous hearts in the process. In my prior post, I discussed the idea of intrinsic differentiation and the role of active learning and active teaching. Now, I want to discuss designed differentiation a bit.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Designed differentiation is the deliberate act of modifying instruction or an assignment in order to customize the effect to match the particular developmental level and skills of a student or group of students. The ideal is to provide equivalent learning activities that cater to the students' strengths but bring all of the students to the same learning objective. On one end of the spectrum is the one-size-fits-all learning activity, while on the other end is the completely individualized learning plan for each student. Although I believe it is time for the latter, realism demands that teachers deal with something that hovers around the middle of the continuum.

The best teachers throughout time have always found ways to reach individual students. Teachers today are no different. We have all sorts of designed differentiation strategies that help teachers offer variety and choice to students of different skills and needs. We can

  • vary the length or quantity of the assignment.
  • extend or curtail the duration of the assignment.
  • change the language of the assignment.
  • scaffold the learning activity from hard to medium to easy.
  • compact the activity and teach only what they don't know.
  • give them learning activities that let them perform the same learning objective with multiple mediums like summarizing a story they have read through narrative, drama, song, poetry, art, or design.

Allow for Do-Overs

There is also a strong movement of simply allowing students to work at their own pace through computer-aided instruction, or SRA-type curriculum. There is one more type of designed differentiation method I believe is underutilized -- the rough draft.

When a student is given a learning assignment to turn in, is it really a learning assignment if they have only one chance at meeting the mastery-level standard? Clearly identified standards of performance are necessary to make this work, but when a student submits a substandard piece of work, rather than assign a grade immediately, we can provide personalized, individual feedback to that student, which includes providing suggestions for improvement and giving it back to the student for revision.

Is there a limit to the number of times this can be done to help a student overcome a particular learning obstacle? Some students might be able to do it right the first time, while others need several revisions. This strategy is the ultimate in designed differentiation.

Typically, we see this kind of opportunity only in English and social studies classes. Why not math and science? After all, if the student eventually gets the concept, isn't that what counts? The thing I like about this approach is that no student is left out -- not even the quiet, no-problem kids.

What are your successes with designed differentiation? What are your challenges? Please share your thoughts.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Bethanne L.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a middle school English teacher, and I struggle with the idea of differentiated instruction. It's not that I don't want to do it or that I can't do it, but it's that I don't know exactly what is fair. I'm not saying what is fair to the other students but rather what is fair for the student for whom I'm differentiating my instruction.

Just this year, I've come to the realization that mastering a skill isn't just acing a test, but rather practicing that skill over and over again and learning from mistakes made in any particular area. With that said, as an English teacher, here I am telling students to "revise, revise, revise!" I'm telling them that no draft is ever a final draft, and then I'm contradicting myself by giving them a test they can't revise! I love this idea, and it works for all types of students, not just IEP students.

CClark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a higher school teacher, there is so much material to cover with so little time to thoroughly teach every topic. When planning a lesson it would be ideal to differentiate each topic. Unfortunately, there isn't always enough of time. I try to incooperate different teaching strategies in each lesson, but the challenge arise when I have three days to cover an entire body system but my different activities last about 6 days. Also, another issue I think educators face when trying to differentiate instruction is the lack there of. Several educators are "lost" when it comes to the technique. It would be grand if there was a class that was offered for those individuals. I think differentiating instruction is the tool to our kids success.

Julie Schmidt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with making sure that you reach those quiet children who never cause any trouble. They are so easy to overlook. The extremes do suckup our time and energy. Perhaps it is because I was one of those quiet, no problem children that I am sensitive to their needs.
I really liked what was said about the "do-over'. I definetly do not see this as being soft. Rather I see it as holding the child to a high standard and not excepting mediocrity. I teach second grade and I often have students who turn in work that they have put in very little effort to do. I go over the mistakes and ask them to fix them. We used to call this reteaching and it is an important step in a child's education. Chikdren do not always get something the first time and need to have the opportunity to keep trying until they "get " it. The struggle that I have is deciding which lessons a child may skip in order to redo another.

Erika's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For those who are educators, and feel that differentiated instruction is something new and foregin to you, give yourself a little more credit. As the school years progresses and you get to know your student's abilities, you group them accordingly. This is the concept behind differentiated instruction. There will be those students who understand and grasp a concept after be presented with it one time, a few others will need a little more practice, while some students may be struggling students who need interventions put in place. Differentiated instruction addressed all types of students. It requires the implementation motivating the gifted students and providing constant practice for the struggling students. I have experience teaching Special Education in a resource room and also as a collaborative approach with an inclusion model. Differentiated instruction is much more effective for teachers and students in an inclusive environment.

Kayla's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a very interesting topic to me. I have enjoyed reading all of the comments on here. It's great to hear so many educators trying to do what is best for their students. I currently teach first grade and have made it a goal this year to differentiate as much as possible. I have a very diverse classroom and two students who require a lot of my time. I'm finding it a struggle to try and balance my time with all my students. I agree with the part where you mentioned how easy it is to over look the middle students. We have parent teacher conferences come up soon and I'm realizing I don't know those "middle" students very well at all. I'm always trying to challenge my higher level students and modify for my lower students that I forget about the middle students.

I also like the idea of letting students redo their assignments. I just recently starting doing this, and it is very helpful for some, but I have one student who just rushes through everything and doesn't care if it's right or wrong. How many times do I let her redo an assignment? After 3 attempts I usually have her stay in for recess and I help her do it correctly, but I'm not sure this is the best approach.

I also feel that by differentiating my students feel that I'm not fair to them. At such a young age, it's hard for them to understand why they're not all required to do the same thing. As a teacher, I often feel bad for requiring different things from my students even though I know it's for the best.

Abdelillah's picture

Another hurdle in teachers' way is teaching large multi-level classes.Differentiated instruction may prove ineffective within the same class.Collaborative learning may help partially but it will probably be very hard to personalize learning.

Amanda Bailey's picture

Reading your blog brought so many memories as I went through middle school and high school. At the high school where I attented, individualiztion was determined by "tracks." There was college prep track, tech prep track, and career track. The students were put into "tracks" based on their student achievement. Therefore, the same types of learnes were among their own kind. I enjoyed this better because everyone could learn at their own pace. No one held anyone back and no one got lost trying to catch up. At the school system where I teach, the students are tossed into a classroom not based on any kind of learning style. Since there are high, middle, and low level learners in each class it makes it more difficult to plan proper instruction to meet the needs of all students. I teach elementary, and I have a paraprofessional. Therefore, I am able to put my students into groups (low group, middle group, and independent group). This works out well because I can my attention to those who are struggling. However, this luxury is not available to those who teach upper elementary and above. Teachers have to be very creative with their teaching plans and styles in order to accomadate all students no matter what level there are at. Differentiated instruction is a hard concept to master and apply, successfully. Reading some of the blogs helped me and gave a better understanding of differentiated instruction. I am excited to read more about this topic.

Kerry-Ann's picture

I believe that differentiation like any other teaching strategy, is most successful when the teacher can use his or her wisdom and better judgement to ensure that most of the students benefit from this approach. There will be some students who will not be able to function as much as they should in a differentiation classroom. There will be factors like large class size, diciplinary problems among other issues that will prevent the teacher from having confidence with applying differentiated instructions. Teachers are their own managers so each one must know what strategies are effective as oppose to those that are ineffective. The bottom line is achieving student performance; academically and socially.

Jenny Wooten's picture

Differentiation can be a difficult and time consuming strategy, but is it best for the students? I am a substitute teacher and I have had to work with students who have tests modified. They are singled out, how does that make them feel and how do the "ok" students feel about it? Also, as I read Mark Pennington's 12 reasons, yes most teachers teach teh content that will be on the standardized tests or will be on the report card. Is that wrong? Can their instruction of that content be differentiated so that all students can master it? Interesting things to think about.

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