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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.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (146)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cindy Reneau's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great blog, Ben. I remember some time ago in a class of some sort, a teacher saying that life can be fair without being equal. Or, was it the other way around? Life can be equal without being fair. Either way, the name of the game is teaching the kids. I am reminded of a September, 2003 article that I recently read in my graduate class at Walden U by Dr. Pat Wolfe, entitled Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation? She states: "...emotional responses have the ability to either impede or enhance learning. ...emotional responses can have the opposite effect if situations contain elements that a person perceives to be threatening. "What is more threatening than knowing for sure that you have to finish every paper or assignment in a time that is impossible for you? For the case of grading, isn't it true that grades should be based on a rubric and not on comparison to other students in the class? To satisfy the do-over option, one might take one point each time the paper has to be redone or add points for fewer times that the paper is submitted. Dr. Wolfe continued this passage by stating, "...emotion is dominant over cognition and the rational/thinking part of the brain is less efficient. The environment must be physically and psychologically safe for learning to occur." What you have described in your blog is a very safe and relaxed learning environment where all students can just relax and learn. What's more, you've described how to do it! As I plan for the upcoming year, I'm taking a copy of your comments with me.

Erin 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found your blog to be very interesting and differentiated instructions is something that many teachers struggle with and you point out some of the reasons why. I agree with the fact that sometimes our energy as educators is focused on the struggling students therefore those who are in the middle are kind of looked over at times. If the students do not cause disturbances in the classroom and complete most of their work, they may not get much attention in the classroom. This is something that I continue to remind myself on a regular basis to give attention to all students and make them feel like they are a part of the classroom.
I agree that differentiated instruction is essential in the classroom today. Every student learns differently and as educators we need to incorporate the variety of strategies to assist the students in succeeding. I think that by incorporating a variety of strategies, the teacher is reaching more students then he/she may think. Just by writing directions down and saying them, more students may understand the assignment. In your post, you brought up many valid points that could help in the upcoming school year. These points are easy ways to help differentiate instructions and help students in the classroom. I also do incorporate the use of "do-overs" on major assignments. After reading your post though, it maybe something that needs to be included more often to help students improve upon their writing and reading skills.
Now that I have found this website, I feel that it will be very useful in the future and one that I will return to for more information and helpful tools.

Erin 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found your blog to be very interesting and differentiated instructions is something that many teachers struggle with and you point out some of the reasons why. I agree with the fact that sometimes our energy as educators is focused on the struggling students therefore those who are in the middle are kind of looked over at times. If the students do not cause disturbances in the classroom and complete most of their work, they may not get much attention in the classroom. This is something that I continue to remind myself on a regular basis to give attention to all students and make them feel like they are a part of the classroom.
I agree that differentiated instruction is essential in the classroom today. Every student learns differently and as educators we need to incorporate the variety of strategies to assist the students in succeeding. I think that by incorporating a variety of strategies, the teacher is reaching more students then he/she may think. Just by writing directions down and saying them, more students may understand the assignment. In your post, you brought up many valid points that could help in the upcoming school year. These points are easy ways to help differentiate instructions and help students in the classroom. I also do incorporate the use of "do-overs" on major assignments. After reading your post though, it maybe something that needs to be included more often to help students improve upon their writing and reading skills.
Now that I have found this website, I feel that it will be very useful in the future and one that I will return to for more information and helpful tools.

Erin 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First off, I want to say that it is great to see a principal on these sites. So many times, it may feel like principals do not know what it is like to be in the classroom but it seems as if you are still connected with your teachers. I agree with how important it is for a teacher to get to know the students before determining what assessment or assignment works for the class. So many times students do poorly on an assignment because it was difficult for them, like writing a paper was for your student. It is vital to test students comprehension of a topic in different ways. Like you said, something as simple as allowing the student to dress up and present the project orally. The student is still gaining the knowledge but demonstrating it differently. A way to help the student build up his/her writing skills could be to present the information and maybe add a shorter paper. Therefore the student is practicing his weaker area while continuing to thrive in another area. What is most important in school is for students to demonstrate their knowledge no matter how they may do it.

Jay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too wonder when it comes to state standard tests. I like the mastery idea. I see how it can reach the needs for many rather than only some or a few. We started this last year in our middle school, and it will continue to be a main focus in our teaching.
Our admin will say to us that you can take the drivers test over and over til you pass. They use this as a key analogy to mastery. However, like a read in the post before, this is not how it goes in the real world. How do students get trained for this? Do you think society will bend outside the schools?

Erin 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a regular education teacher and I feel that differentiating instructions can be difficult at times. While I do take into consider and incorporate Gardner's eight different styles of learning, I wish I could do more in the classroom to help my students. I only took one special education class which was helpful but I wish I had more knowledge about it. I use the internet as a resource and use some of the ideas presented in the post including shortened assignments, or simplier instructions can help but at times I feel as if I am not completely sure what would work best for struggling students. Sometimes when asking special education teachers in my district for some strategies, they may not be as helpful. I wish at times, regular and special education teachers could come together to work on how to best help these students. Ultimately, that is the goal for all teachers and if we all work together it is a benefit for teachers and students.

Melissa 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an elementary teacher in a rural area of Ohio. Naturally I use differentiated instruction with my group of students. Within the last four years, my school has been using more of an Inclusion Setting, and less pull-out. This has been an incredible experience. I have been able to work in regular education classrooms with other teachers with the entire class. We co-teach, teach in small groups, among others. Through our weekly planning it has been a bit easier for us to jointly give every student what they need. More of the teachers within my school are being encouraged to use Differentiated Instruction. My principal is truly passionate about the students and providing as much training and resources to the teachers as needed. She continues to inspire everyone. Being in the classroom and using Differentiated Instruction has proven beneficial for the entire class. I look forward to seeing more positive changes with the upcoming school year.

Takeela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an elementary school teacher in South Carolina. Ben, this is a great blog on differentiating instruction. I just attended a Differenting Instruction Conference in Las Vegas last week. There were some very informative sessions on tiering and how to differentiate assignments. When some people think of differentiating they think of "watering down" the task or assignment. That's not what differentiation is all about. I agree with you when you mentioned scaffolding and changing the language of the assignment or task. We have students of different ability levels in our classrooms and teachers should differentiate the assignments for those students.

I just completed my first year of teaching and I struggled with differentiating my assignments without "watering down" the content. After attending this conference I figured out what I was doing wrong and what I need to do to correct my mistakes. Every student should have the same goal, but how they reach that goal will be different for each child.

Justin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben I really enjoyed your blog as my district is going full steam ahead into differentiated instruction. I too was directed to your blog through my graduate studies at Walden U. I agree that differentiating curriculum should not lead to watering it down, however that is what I see happening. I struggle with the core principles of DI not because I disagree, but because I feel that they are too idealistic. I remember not too long ago when I was in elementary school, etc. that our classes were tiered. In this instance teachers differentiated their lessons based on periods throughout the day, rather than within the same period. I have worked to differentiate my curriculum but what I find is that I am leveling my students within one class period. Which is fine and works well until the students catch on that they didn't get the "smart" kid assignment. It is just my opinion that if we returned to leveling our students by class then DI would be way more effective than it will ever be when you are trying to differentiate a lesson for 24 students in a 40 minute class period.

Erin Madigan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I definitely agree that differentiated instruction is very important in the classroom. Students learn all different ways, and teachers need to realize that one way of teaching is not going to reach all students. This was my first year of teaching, and I realized that simply reading something or writing something is not always going to help the students understand. I don't know how many times I have read over directions that were also typed up in front of the students, and they still ask me later on what they are supposed to do or when something is due.

I also agree that students sometimes should have redo's on projects or tests. At my school we have international night, and all the language classes are supposed to do a project with their students to show off for that night. I let my students start their project in class and if they had a rough draft finished and wanted me to look over it for them I did and would correct their mistakes so that they wouldn't get points taken off for them. Also, at the end of the school year I gave my students a quiz that covered a good amount of information that we had gone over. I noticed after grading them that most of the students, even the really smart ones, did not do so good on the quiz. For half credit, I let my students do corrections on a separate sheet of paper. A good amount of my students took advantage of this and I think were happy to have the opportunity to have a second chance.

I think sometimes that it is important to give students a second chance, because if they mess up the first time they might just get discouraged and not want to try anymore. If they are allowed a second chance they might try harder to do a better job so they can get a better grade.

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