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Differentiated Instruction Allows Students to Succeed

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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.


Comments (146)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Scherry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school is also using differentiated instruction and has been for the last three years. It has made a difference in our schools scores and the students learning. Our school went from exceptable to recongnize. It is very helpful with the students in the special ed. department also. We have inclusion at our school and the special ed. teacher comes in and helps with the students that they have to service. We also have para professionals that help also, so we have different leveled groups in the classroom. I agree we have work with the students ability levels and not water down their assignments.

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


We certainly are emotional creatures. I am not so sure that the emotional part is more efficient than the logical part, but I do believe that it gets more attention and practice than logic does. I believe that rubrics have their place when grading things that are typically subjective, like an essay. But straight point value per question has its place too. We can't exclude one for the other, but we can be judicious on how and when to use them. The most important thing is that the students know what we expect from them and how to get a good grade if they want it.

Even when differentiating for students we have the obligation to push them to do their best.

Good Luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Stephanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My colleague and I are high school English teachers in Omaha, Nebraska. We have been using differentiated instruction in our English classrooms and as of last year, received a grant where our focus is better understanding how to help differentiate in a mixed ability classroom, especially where higher ability students (or students who possess higher levels of readiness) are concerned. Last year we attended the Midwest Conference in Columbus and this year, we would like to be able to actually visit some high schools in the United States who have gone to using it. We are hoping to see schools who have taken it on aggressively and not simply individual teachers, although that would also be valuable. I'm looking for some contacts of teachers, schools, and/or principals who I could see whether or not they would be willing to let us come and observe and ask questions. Thank you!!

Richard Jaks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A few years ago, grouping students by ability in middle school in my district was eliminated. It was replaced by differentiated instruction including "do-overs" and excuses for every student who has a bad quiz or turns a piece of crap that is pretending to be a project. Although the current students have the same ability as the students I had even 5 years ago, the current students are extremely soft primarily because they are used to getting good grades for marginal work, and if they struggle someone will come to their rescue. Differentiated Instruction and the removal of levels has caused the state test scores to plummet in the last few years even though the demographic of the district has gone up. Differentiated Instruction is a good tool in grades 1-5 but that is it. Please stop making excuses for kids. It is ok to struggle, they will get over it. It is even ok to fail on occasion. Peace.

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


I hear you. In no way do I espouse giving the kids an easy ride. My take on differentiation is to engage the student on a personal level rather than as a "shotgun" approach. Engaging the student individually, in my book, involves pushing them harder than if they were just coasting along as part of the group.

I totally agree that many "so-called" educators have become soft, and in that respect, the national testing movement from NCLB has been the biggest benefit for students because it has forced the soft teachers and principals to do a better job, at least to a minimum standard.

Differentiation should not be about combining the Olympics with the "special" Olympics and adjusting the scale so that everyone "wins". I believe there are flaws to the education system, and this is one of them- A special ed student does not get the same education as a regular ed student and therefore should not get the same diploma. A gifted student should get a different education (not just more work to do) and should get a different diploma too.

Differentiation should be about a teacher taking the time to cater to learning styles, preferences, capacity and interests but not to change the content one whit. The teacher seeks to inspire, build on success and employ "hold the feet to the fire" accountability. Some students will choose to fail. That is a self-differentiated choice of the student.

Special Education has been over applied and over protective of student with marginal disabilities and it has become an entitlement. Once in Special Ed, such a student never gets out. Each school district has its own Special Ed empire that is a sacred cow and a cash cow. The inequity between funding for Special Education and Gifted Education is astounding. In my former small school district, the Special Education program had a budget of over $300,000 while the gifted and talented program was only $5000. Enough said.

The good thing about differentiation done right, is that the gifted students don't get jilted while the teacher spends all her time and effort at the level of the special ed kids.

Rather than being soft, as we both agree education is becoming, we need to be tough as nails--on an individual basis. Being soft helps no one--ever.

Best of luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


Congratulations on making it through your first year. In my thinking, since you are concerned about differentiation, you are way ahead of most other first year teachers who are mostly concerned about their own survival.

I wanted to point out that everything we do as teachers has an effect. For example, if we tell the students, "Don't worry, if you mess up, you will be given a second chance." In an effort to encourage students to not be afraid of trying, what we are really telling the students is they do not have to do their best the first time. Rather than give such a statement, we should make it clear to the students that the grading for the second chance needs to be altered. The first chance is worth 100 pts. while the second chance is worth only 80 pts. The difference has to be significant, and if a student really messed up, like my son recently did, 80 pts. on a second chance looks really good.

Good luck and keep working hard!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


Remember there are two kinds of differentiation- Intrinsic (the differentiation that students do all by themselves--primarily by choices they make) and designed (the differentiation that we force on the situation by leveling, tiering and adjusting the curriculum and how we teach).

The more intrinsic differentiation that we can do, the better because 1) we do not have to mess with the curriculum standards 2) we do not have to keep track of who got what, because the students do it automatically. Remember, intrinsic differentiation can be true collaborative learning groups or pair work, activity menus, learning centers and independent study. Also incorporated with intrinsic differentiation are teaching principles that help all students at their own levels: intensive vocabulary development with comprehensible input (not just verbal, but also visual, auditory and kinesthetic cues for meaning), total physical response (which is having students act out, point or touch what the topic is...), and classroom checking for understanding (personal white boards, thumbs up/down, electronic clickers, etc...).

I hope this helps. The key is to not give up. Some lessons will be more differentiated than others, but keep perfecting the skills.

Best Regards,

Ben Johnson,
San Antonio, TX

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

Jay and Brian:

You wondered how we can reconcile our ideals of teaching so each student does his or her best, while at the same time being constricted by having to prepare students for state standardized tests.
I have the answer for you both. It is an incredibly awesome answer--earthshaking in its power, it is far-reaching effects. It is the ultimate answer. Are you ready for it?

Well, here it is....................... Teach them WELL, and don't worry about the test!

How can I say that? The state tests are minimum standards. If you are preparing your students at higher levels than the minimum, the state test is a breeze.

If you feel that you cannot take risks, here is a way out. DATA. Do a pre-test, and then a post test and prove to your administrators that your "risk" is working. He or she cannot argue with data.

Have fun with your teaching,be enthusiastic and be dynamic and your students will love you and the subjects you teach.

Good luck taking risks!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

Brittany's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I currently teach 5th grade reading and our school constantly uses differentiation in ALL classrooms.

I found your post to be very interesting and wanted to comment on several things. I agree that when you say that to differentiate, you want to engage students on a personal level rather than "part of a group". This is also something I try to do as well each day. Also, when you mention that differentiation is not about changing the grading scale so that everybody "wins" is something that stood out. I have never known someone to consider this to be differentiation. A true special education student is provided with an education using a different approach which I believe is differentiation. It is interesting when you say that these students along with gifted students should receive different diplomas. This makes me think that that students who graduate with a 4.0 and students who graduate with a 1.0 should also get a different diploma. In receiving a diploma, this is stating you have completed the required curriculum. It does not say that you have completed it in a different way, better than another student, or completed more than required. A diploma is not a report card of what was completed, just what was required. I do not think students should receive different diplomas. Not one child receives even remotely the same education due to classes taken, teachers who taught the courses, or level of difficulty so this should not be reflected on a child's diploma regardless.

I do completely agree with you when you discuss what differentiation is in regards to learning styles and preferences. I feel differentiation is about changing the way in which content is learned or the way in which the material learned is presented. The students all still learn the same skills, while the content may slightly differ.

I also agree when you say we do not need to be soft as educators, but understanding. I feel too many students feel that doing well in school is by getting good grades to please the teacher and not by experimenting and even failing at times. I think that if we are understanding while being tough that students can be successful. If a "do-over" on an assignment is necessary as long as the teacher isn't soft about the approach but tough on the student, then maybe they will choose to do better next time. I think it all depends on the teacher and their expectations of their students.

Thank you for your post and your opinions! It is always interesting to hear others thoughts and views.

Brittany's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think differentiation is by far one of the best educational strategies that has proven to be successful for all students. I teach 5th grade reading, but have talked to teachers and have had experiences in classrooms up to high school. I think when students are allowed "do-overs", this is to be used for students who really put forth the effort and deserve this. I do not think students who are just trying to slide by should be allowed this "do-over". Differentiated instruction must be used in grades after 5th grade due to the large variety of students in all classrooms, whether this is ability, language, cultural, interest, and even age differences. I do not feel many teachers where I teach make excuses for their students. Even down to kindergarten teachers, they are not what you call "soft" teachers. I feel like teachers around the country are understanding, but tough when it comes to their expectations. In order for students to be most successful, differentiation is key to all students learning and this will motivate them more to learn.

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