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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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Rodger Biney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The idea of Differentiated Instruction is great and I believe that there are many ways of meeting this in our classrooms. I also believe that it begins with having the notion that every student can be helped when we as teachers know our students very well in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. We can design instructions by focusing on the multiple intelligence and mixing up instructions in our classes and thereby meet each student in one way or the other. I have to however say that there are always obstacles such as time as and energy as limitations. The concept of standardized tests, I belive needs to be diffentiated to make this whole idea complete and realistic.

Carolyn Rutman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Differentiated instruction is being treated like a new idea and something that we have to accept as a new requirement of teachers. It is not, and it need not be such a big deal. Any teacher who truly teaches children and not just a subject knows ways to reach each child. Granted, there will always be some who, for reasons over which we have no control, will refuse to accept any help we offer. But for the great majority, providing instruction which actively engages the student will work wonders. Active is the key word. Group work, going to the board, interactive notes, individual help during class practice time, and allowing them to do things in different ways (there's always more than one way to do something!) keeps them involved. Working with the student with consideration for his life/family situation makes a difference. Some students have limited time at home for homework assignments (some work, take care of the family, are involved with other activities and other demanding courses, etc.)and would benefit from more varied, individual homework assignments that they can realistically handle. These things are not difficult to do, even in large classes. All this is part of differentiated instruction. Doing the best we can to see the needs of each child and respond to them will encourage and usually affect success.

Callis West's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Differentiation is about reaching each student in your classes. It is something each of us do everyday. It's about teachers using any tools necessary to engage student learning. This is often done without the teacher intentionally trying. A benefit of differentiation is that teachers and students learn something about each other. Differentiation allows students the benefit of being exposed to academic material through visual aides, lecture, humor, and sound. While this model often takes a great deal of time to plan, the benefits are endless. Because our classrooms are a community of individuals, differentiation should be a practice used by every teacher.

Allowing "do-overs" is just another tool to motivate students to stay the course. I commend teachers who find opportunities for their students to succeed.

Mark Dozier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that an effective teacher "naturally" differentiated instruction to fit the needs of his or her individual students. Unfortunately with our State's standard of learning requirements differentiated instruction is difficult to practice given the limited timeframe for conveying the great mass of required information.

I am not saying this as a cop out. I try to differentiate instruction as much as possible, but with the current emphasis on multiple choice questions (memorizing the "correct" answer)differentiated instruction is pushed to a back burner. School districts measure their success by how many students pass the SOL's, not how much they have actually learned.

Until we come up with a new measure of success differentiated instruction will be limited to elective courses and blogs like this one.

Stephanie Gutierrez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree with the writer, but there seems to be some disparity with the information about how teachers are supposed to have time to reteach. How do we do that if we have SOLs to contend with? I have small classes, but I'm teaching the same content as any other Biology teacher with an SOL. I can spend a little more time with each of my students...but that does not address the issue of giving "each" student your "individual" time to address their concerns. What about students who don't care about whether you bust your butt to make sure that they get all the help they need? I have a few students who do not care nor do they care about graduating from high school. Years ago, teachers had all the time in the world to help the weak and strong students. Nowadays, there is just not enough time to plan "differentiated" instruction...but we can certainly try to do everything we can to make sure the students are receiving the best of our ability!!

Carolyn Rutman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I partially agree with you about tracking. I have found that classes with students of widely varied skill levels can leave students behind. Classes with very talented students can make more progress and achieve higher goals than when mixed with students who have demonstrated much lower level skills. Likewise, students who struggle don't get the attention or time needed when pushed too far or too fast by those anxious to move on. Realistically, we tend to spend more time trying to pull along those who have difficulty with the material. Tracking may indeed be another way to differentiate instruction. All the same differentiated strategies can be used in "tracked" classes.
I do not, however, think you are truly realistic about never having students who disrupt your class. Students are not perfect little robots who do what you say all the time. Maybe advanced AP and Honors seniors may come a little closer to it than others. But not all of us are in that situation. I work with the lower, even lowest levels (9th grade, remedial, standard), and while they can be quite a challenge, they can and do learn despite disruptional behavior. I think you should not be so critical and judgmental. We are all trying to do our best in the face of so much societal distraction.

Carolyn Rutman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know the way of the future is technology. It is being pushed into school classrooms more and more everyday, and it must be in integral part of our students learning and lives. I accept and agree with that to a point. However, the teacher who solely depends on the computer, the internet, or technology in any form forgets the personal and human part of teaching. Students often tell me that some of their classes are boring because they always do the same thing, go to a website, read on their own, do the activies there, etc. They don't get a chance to talk, to question, to answer, to offer a new idea, to get a look of approval or praise, to get a pat on the back or a hug when they do well or when they just need it. We are there to teach, to help them learn how to learn, to encourage. The human part of teaching may become the differentiated part of instruction if we go too far with the technology part.

Mark Dozier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appeciated your comments. In an educational environment where so much stress is placed on standards of learning and rote memorization, every year I find it more and more difficult to assure that my students have really grasped the essence of the various historical periods that we explore. As sad as that sounds, pressure is continually placed on teachers to cover certain events or concepts that will appear on standardized tests. This emphasis fosters a "teaching to the test" mentality that to me is the antithesis of education.

Frank A. Scott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Differentated Instruction seem to be a new idea or way of teaching, But for some of us we have been using various techniques to try to meet the needs of each student in our classes no matter what there learning styles.The teacher needs to be a little creative to meet the needs of our diversified population of students in the class room.The teacher will need to use there tools and resources to modify instruction in order to engage student learning.

Susan Josephs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Meeting kids where they are and helping them to construct meaning and learn how to learn is our ultimate goal. There is no benefit to trying to measure every child to the same yardstick. I began my teaching career in an I.G.E school (individually guided education) in a non-graded pod where we had kids for three years. Our reporting system was narrative and we conferenced with parents three times a year. What an amazingly successful experience. Why we abandoned that model for the archaic letter grade system we have now says more about our lack of imagination, confidence and willingness to spend massive amounts of time to making work than it does to the superiority of absolute grading systems like letter and number grades. The LEAST we can do is differentiate our scoring system based on the very real differences among our students.

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