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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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Kris Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson,
Thank you for sharing your experiences. It must have been devastating to lose a student in that manner. I would agree that the quiet ones in the middle are the students who are neglected the most. It is frustrating to devote our attention to the ones who tend to demand it. I, myself, find this quite difficult. Even though I have been teaching for nine years, I know that I am not as consistant as I would like to be. I also know that it is important to separate the student from the behavior. This can be equally challenging. It does affect my self-efficacy, which in turn affects my efficiency.
I agree that allowing for do-overs is important. In the program that I teach, all students must reach a 75% proficiency before they are allowed to move on. This is quite effective. I am able to assess more clearly and students learn to put forth full effort the first time.
Thanks for your thoughts. They are helpful!

Martha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm newly back to the classroom, teaching science to Middle School students with severe emotional disabilities. I love, love, love, technology, and gladly so do my students! I am also blessed with almost one computer per student. My biggest challenge in teaching, is that while it is a snap to motivate the students to learn, it's not always so easy to get them to want to learn what administration wants them to learn. Dry ice is cool (pun); molecular structure of water is (yawn) boring. My students are required to take 'formative assessments' after each unit of study. I agree that having a foundation of common knowledge (facts) is important. I want them to know that air is mostly hydrogen, not oxygen. But they could care less. "Let's just do some more dry ice experiments!" The students have great, inquiring minds. They can think, explore, problem solve (on good days). But they are also extremely good at non-conforming. I could use some insight into how to get across the 'curriculum', (read: information on the test), and still have time to do what really interests them? By the way, much of this population does not read very well, so their content vocabulary is minimal. Watching video streams only goes so far with them, because they focus on the pictures and tune out the commentary. Suggestions?

Danielle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The idea of designed differentiation where I have completely individualized learning plans for each of my students is something I would really like to achieve. As a first year teacher, I have yet to master being able to provide equivalent learning activities that cater to students' strengths, but also bring all of the students to the same learning objective. Your suggestions really motivated me to try harder at reaching this goal. I also gained new insights and ideas as to how to go about succeeding. Thank you!

Mrs. VH's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 6-8th grade science and I have had great success with differentiation. For assessments, I allow students 2 days in class (45 minute periods) to complete an assessment. If students choose to take the test: Day 1 will be a study guide and Day 2 will be the test. If students choose to do a project: Day 1 and 2 will be spent working on the project in class while I usually allow a weekend to finish the project outside of class. During the assessment days test takers are on the right side of the room while the project students are on the left. During day 2 students can't talk until all the test takers are done. Most often students choose their appropriate assessment but sometimes I have to urge a student to change their assessment.

I have started to try having students "redo" or turn in a rough draft of an assessment if it is lower than a C. Most often I found that students do try hard but sometimes don't understand the question or didn't really get the concept. This allows students to be held accountable for the material.

Science notebooks have also allowed for differentiation of instruction. Through the notebooks students get to choose how to complete their notes or output (reflection on the assignment). NSTA is a great resource if you are interested in using science notebooks.

Michele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at a charter school and have 1st-4th grades all together. We do not give grades, but each assignment must be turned in corrected or, in the case of projects, done to the best of that student's ability. Students keep portfolios of their work and have presentations of learning for parents and staff twice each year. Parents, students and teachers meet six times each year to keep track of progress.

Having a student for four years really helps me to know where to extend, encourage, demand more or accept an assignment as complete. We do constant do-overs and have very few deadlines; however no assignment may be skipped or left uncorrected. We also don't wait for others. If a student's assignment is finished that student may help design the next assignment and get started. Then he or she gets to be the model for others. My students are very used to the process of revision and correcting, but new students I get really resist the process at first. They want to be "done" and I've had more than one hold his head and groan when asked to edit a paper.

It is very difficult at times to keep track of each student's progress when they are all working on different things. But I feel I have so many more opportunities for student growth than I did when teaching at a traditional elementary school. I used to feel real despair about my students who seemed to slip through the cracks. I don't feel that way anymore.

Ben Johnson (Author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Learning something just because it is cool is not enough to keep the typical student's attention, let alone those that already have a tendency to be emotionally charged. Your job is not necessarily to come up with cool things to do, but mainly to create a learning environment that motivates the students to learn. The students' job is to come up with what is cool about what they are learning--they don't know this usually. Intrinsic learning (student run) is always better than extrinsic (teacher run). Anyway, here are some ideas I thought of.

Computers force students to read, so that is a good thing. To get any information, they have to type too(--also good). You need to give the students a reason to go to the computer to get information. You can start with essential questions about dry ice--What does it do to water? (makes it fizzy) How does that change the the molecular structure of water? (it adds CO2). Then do some advanced research and come up with some websites that they must type in to the computer to discover what dry ice does to water. Eventually, they will learn how soda is made and what changes happen with water. Have them put together a powerpoint presentation about their discoveries (writing is good).

This could lead to the ideas of chemical reactions. Diet Coke and Mentos produce an immediate reaction. Why? You could have them see the Utube videos on this and then have them find out the science behind this. When they get their report done, then they can do the real thing (motivation to learn). (you need to talk to them about safety here--not to do this at home or school.)

This could lead to questions about solids dissolved in water and crystal making. You could take that to the composition of the oceans'salt water, then the water cycle and the three states of matter. Have them find out why ice floats, and what would happen if it didn't. Investigations on iceburgs, the Titanic, submarines traveling under the North Pole, Deep sea recovery, Blood and nitrogen, pressure, temperature layers, ocean zones, currents, creatures in the ocean, effect of ocean on climate, and on and on... NASA has a ton of stuff (you have to sift it first, because the kids will get lost in it--there is so much).

That computer is the window to the world. Have the students do some real life exploring (guided) for knowledge.

Good luck to you! Have a blast with this!

Ben Johnson (Author)
San Antonio, TX

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