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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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Devon Dean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly believe that differentiated instruction saved my classroom. My second year of teaching was a challange for me in more than one way. One, I was moved into a sixth grade classroom, whereas the year before and my pre-service teaching had all been centered in lower elementary levels. I was new to the structure, curriculum and the age group. Second, my classroom was filled with 24 individuals. 9 of the children receiving services from special education, speech, POHI, ESL and physical thearpy. I felt as if I was stranded on a foreign continent in Spetember. I had a million things to learn and only a week or so to learn them. I struggled for the first two months, getting my balance and finding my way around the curriculum. It was very difficult trying to accomodate each child with the curriculum, knowing in my heart that they were just not getting it. I really had to think about my lessons, I found myself giving the lesson and then spending the next hour re-doing the lesson for the 9 students that just didnt get how I had taught it earlier. It was then that I said enough was enough, I enrolled myself in a conference on this instruction practice that I had heard others talking about at another conference. I entered the "differentiated instruction conference" feeling defeated, but I walked away from that conference feeling like I could change the world. The key concepts and methods that I learned at that conference will stick with me for the rest of my career. It was so simple, why had I had such a hard time seeing that I could change a few things in my teaching and it would make a world of difference to my students. I did just that, the next day I went to school a "new, differentiated teacher", I began to look at education in a new light, one that is never the same color, it can be dim or bright, on or off. It is our job as teachers to get the "bulbs" working no matter the obsticle. My students grades soared, that year each one of my students made the honor roll at some point, but the most important thing that happend in my classroom that year was my students became confident in themselves as well as in their abilities. I dare to be "Different"!

Melissa George's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article to be especially relevant to my current teaching situation. As a teacher of students with disabilities, my whole day is based on differentiated instruction because of the wide range of abilities present in my class due to the various disabilities my students bring. I have to disagree with the following statements, "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." As special education teachers, it is part of our job to make sure that we do in fact treat our students differently because we are trained to meet the students where they are and to base instruction on each of their unique needs. As special education teachers a one method approach does not work for our us or our students. We cannot have one set of lesson plans for all of our students and as a result need to have multiple ways to teach the same thing due to each student's unique learning style. As with any teacher, we need to build strong meaningful relationships with our students in order to be able to recognize their learning styles and base instruction on them, which is all part of differentiated instruction. Since Ben states "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", we must also be aware of Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligence to make sure we address each students area of strength, whether it be spatial/visual, bodily/kinesthetic, or any other of the intelligences.

As I mentioned before, as a Special Education teacher I am constantly differentiating my instruction. I differentiate instruction based on my students' needs in many of the ways listed by Ben. I make adaptations in the how I present the material (visually, orally, or a combination), the length of the assignments given, the form of completion for assignments (performance based, written, or oral completion), and I constantly give more learning activities to let the students focus on the same concept in different ways. I use different reading and math curriculums for my students based on their individual needs. I found it interesting that Ben mentioned SRA materials. I do not have the technology-based program, but do use the textbook formats for both reading and math and find they are very beneficial to my students. I continuously allow do-overs in my room as well by continually going back to each concept taught. We do not expect the students to master each skill the first time around and frequently go back to a skill to re-teach, review, or build upon it.
The problem I have with differentiated instruction is getting the regular education teachers to do it for my students. Some of them have a hard time seeing that simply reducing the numbers of problems the students need to complete or allowing them to perform orally instead of in writing are forms or differentiated instruction. Too many times before even trying any of those strategies the teachers come to me and tell me it is not working with them in the room. Another challenge is getting to know my students to find out what they are capable of and how they best learn. Sometimes it takes me a good month to really get to know them and I feel like valuable time is wasted. It can also get overwhelming at times with the amount of differentiating I need to do and sometimes I run out of ideas. As a result, I am constantly seeking out other methods of doing things through reading and collaborating with other colleagues. I am curious to see if any regular education teachers have great ideas for differentiated instruction that I could share with regular education teachers I work with.

Brian Long's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben, I couldn't agree with you more on some of the points you made. You said that "we are pressured to give the students with more needs more attention than those students who have less needs." Then you went on to say, "adults are no different than students and to tell you the truth, many teachers are more afraid of failure than students are." So here is my question, do you think that it's because teachers are "pressured" from so many sides that they do become "afraid" of failure? I saw that you encourgaged one of the responders to take risk. To me, taking risk means sometimes going against the grain, and thinking outside the box. How can we as educators think out side the box when we are driven by curriculm and best practices and things of that nature? I would be scared to take risk too. Education is a wishy washy business. If one person does something and no one else does it, then they are looked over. However, if one person writes a book, that says something works, and they get a researcher or two to agree with them, then that person becomes to greatest thing since sliced bread for the year.
One more question, how is it that we differentiate, but when the students take the state test it's all the same? Are we truely preparing them for the world by giving them them on their level? I have never known a company to have differentiated hiring processes. I wish we could all get together in a big forum type situation with the " powers that be" so that we could really get some start forward questions that they, like you said, typically " mumble" some non-answer to.

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, my name is Kelly Rieckers, a 4th grade teacher in Brownstown, Indiana.

I completely agree with differentiating instruction. I am reteaching specific math and English areas where students generally are weak in during a certain period of the day each week. Some of the areas are taught several different times throughout the year but are taught in a different way. Each time we do the skills, more and more students grasp the concept. When they are given the problems, they are allowed to find the answer in any way. They also make more connections as time progresses. Students later throughout the school year will then tell me all the different ways they can think of to solve the problem. They also realize that they can check their answer by discovering a different way to solve the problem.

Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a school psychologist in Columbia who serves 3 schools in Maury County, TN. I am sympathetic with your concerns about the seemingly senseless and chaotic change in education. I think school districts are under the gun because of NCLB and jump from "bandwagon to bandwagon" out of a sense of desperation. Federal and state lawmakers, perhaps with the best of intentions, fail to realize that it takes time for school districts to conduct the necessary research and provide professional development to educators in order to implement the best programs which are needed to meet tougher standards in addition to dealing with the usual chaos (transitory students, discipline problems, hiring and firing, training, and budget problems, etc). School systems are also grappling with limited financial resources and limited pools from which to select good educators and educational leaders. Who wants such a stressful job anyway? Educating young people--that is, providing meaningful instruction to help all students make progress and succeed, is one of the hardest, most demading job to do well. When I observe talented teachers in the classroom, especially in the younger grades, it is a sacred experience that words are cannot describe.

Other professions are being monitored by licensing boards and do receive some oversight but not to the same degree as educators. Businesses are accountable to stockholders but probably need to be accountable to some extent to the greater society at large (when it comes to issues of pollution that can drift to places other than where it originated, for example). Doctor's treatment plans are challeged, not by licensing boards or the AMA but by patients and insurance companies. Remember, this is the era of managed care, malpractice lawsuits, and the internet. If doctors are not following evidenced based practices they probably won't last very long in their field. Because of the internet, I can research treatment protocols and challenge my physician if I feel that his or her treatment plan for me does not meet evidenced based practice. If I had access to the internet before 1996, I probably would not have agreed to my doctor's treatment plan to have back surgery to repair a ruptured disk. Doctors are being challenged more often as the years go by with respect to their treatment plans (at least for some conditions chronic conditions) by their patients and by insurance companies.

We aren't living in the 1950 where everyone knew their place. Yes, living in the 21st century is complicated and unfortunately the Age of Information is accelerating change. Nothing is simple anymore whether in education, medicine, business, etc. If I received the same education in the late 70s that my mother received back in the "good old days" in the 1940s (in the rural southeastern part of the US) I would have not been able to take physics, chemistry, and algebra in high school and would not have made it into college. As as a youngster my parents told me stories of how many students in their classes had to drop out of school because they had problems learning. Back then, no one knew how to help them and everyone just assumed that "some kids just cannot learn." The illiteracy and drop-out rate were much higher than they are now. Students that dropped out of school worked on family farms or worked as share-croppers. They were "taken care of" more or less. Unskilled labor is not a viable choice for our kids now. So much for private schools! Most people in the south could not afford them even if they had them. Going back further, my grandmother had an 8th grade education, which was all that was mandated in the early 20th century in Alabama. At that time, most black children in Alabama were probably not educated at all. You cannot convince me that public education is worse off now than in the past when it comes to educating the masses.

As a school psychologist who serves elementary schools, I am encoutering new teachers that don't blink an eye when it comes to providing differentiated instruction, using progress monitoring data to inform teaching and decision making, and applying technology to challenge and help all children learn, regardless of ability. They know that these techniques provide them the basis on which to adjust their instruction, enabling such children to perform better on high stakes tests and in the classroom. They also know the importance of teaching kids to problem-solve, not just memorize isolated facts.

As public school educators, we are mandated to level the playing field as much as possible for children with learning problems and atypical learning styles so that all can have an equal opportunity to access education. This does not guarantee that all students will equally succeed but we do need a means of accountability to show that we have tried everything in our power to educate everyone including the small percentage of children with learning problems that stem from cognitive processing deficits or global cognitive deficits that are above the threshold for mental retardation. Now that is a VERY tall order to fill for public schools! Private schools would shrink away from such a mandate. NCLB emphasizes accountability based on limited information (high stakes tests). While summative, standardized test scores provide useful information to show where schools may need to allocate more resources and professional development, it is not the "be all" or "end all" of assessment for all decision making. To me, overreliance on high stakes data is just downright dangerous and perhaps educational malpractice to base so much on a few scores. For instance, I cannot make any recommendations about a student to a teacher or parent based on 1 piece of data like an IQ score. It goes against all that I was taught and special education regulation rightly forbids me from making special education eligiblity continguent upon 1 test score. But it seems that NCLB is doing just that with high stakes testing. In stark contrast, ongoing progress monitoring that is provided by frequent data collection from curriculum based assessments (and when needed, diagnostic and/ or psychoeducational evaluations) can give feedback to teachers that will inform instruction (immediately instead at the end of the year) as well as provide the ONGOING accountability that is transparent and easy to understand to all. This makes logical sense. Hopefully, this will return teaching to its core roots: allowing teachers to teach, assess, then adjust instruction to meet the individual needs of all children, struggling or not.

Reading your complaints about having to provide students with disabilities accommodations is upsetting to me professionally but I know that you are not alone in your attitude. I want to judge you harshly but I restrain myself for I do not know if this attitude is coming from a lack of compassion due to burn-out or lack of training or both. For you see, I have compassion for you. Perhaps your school district is not providing you with the tools and supports that you need to instruct such children. As you well know, public schools must serve all children, often the children with disabilities or who are non-native speakers of English (ELL)--are the most difficult and expensive to educate. ALL Private schools who receive no public funding can cherry pick their students, Maria. They can discriminate at will and give no reason. They can refuse students who are expensive to educate. If you had a child with significant disabilities, I doubt that you would have this attitude.

Forget about the "good old days," they are long gone. Actually, they WERE NOT THAT GOOD if you did not fit the mold (had emotional problems, ,you behaved oddly, were funny looking, weren't the "right religion" or had learning differences, etc). I saw it first hand as a student in the 1960s and 1970s in the rural southeast. Back then, I'm sure that the core curriculum provided in many private and publich schools served the average, working-to-middle class range, typical student well back then. Historical evidence tells us that the purpose of public education was to ensure that factories and employers would have a pool of employees who were literate and would do as they were told without questioning those in authority. Our 21st century competitive society requires more from workers than that. Why? Because we live in a society of CONSTANT CHANGE. The global economy requires adults who can problem solve, think independently, and act responsibly.

If we want education to improve we need evidence-based practices -- by that I mean solid, peer reviewed, independnet research, not research that is entirely funded by corporations who are trying to sell schools a curriculum. Schools need to avoid educational fads, most have little or no research to back them up. Improvement is also contingent on providing teachers plenty of ongoing professional development so that teachers have the tools and training they need for programs that are evidenced-based TO WORK. You bring up some valid points about school districts making changes willy-nilly. School districts need time to think, plan, and integrate change, instead of flying off the handle in a panic by adopting then abandoning curriculum and teaching practices from year to year. Sometimes only refinements should be made instead of abandoning a particular teaching practice. To be honest, I don't know who mandates such changes. In some intances it could be state but in other instances it could be the local school district. Different departments (Title 1, Special Education, General Education, etc) should collaborate and work together, instead of so much compartmentalization as you so well point out. Finally we need higher education teacher training programs to step up to the plate and weed out potential educators that don't measure up psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually. I'm not sure but I think some professional schools do just that. I can honestly say, however, that I do not know how that should be done. But beyond that, we need candidates who genuinely like children and want to be around them. What we don't need are people who see education as an easy, "slacker job" with health insurance and summers off. Crossing my fingers, I don't think that happens now as much as as it did in the past but that is only an opinion and cannot be backed up as fact. As a society, we need to attract the best and the brightest to become educators by providing top of the line post-secondary education, ongoing training, and paying them well. I think we can all agree on that.

When I see "Catholic school" and "no accommodations" mentioned in the same passage, what comes to mind is that all children are the same (which is just plain wrong if not heretical- we are all unique in God's eyes) and Catholic (and other religious based schools) perpetuate an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, an assumption that is perpetuated by TV horror stories of mean, unhappy, abusive teachers (usually nuns) that take their frustrations out on mischevious but basically good children. That perception is totally unfair in that it may apply to any school, private or public, past or (gulp) present-day. An unfair stereotype, yet that perception still holds power over several generations. Ok, enough of that!

Wake up, folks! Children are sensitive human beings who deserve conscious, thoughtful, and respectful discipline--not the reactionary, you-make-me-mad-so-I-will-punish-you "punitive consequences" that ran rampant in the good old days to which Maria seems tp harken back with fond nostalgia. By no means do I advocate "permissiveness or anything goes with all warm fuzzies;" yet, I would not subject any child to the disrespectful,immature behavior that I saw in some of my teachers when I was in a public rural elementary school. SCIENTIFIC FACT: Higher order BRAIN functioning (problem-solving) cannot operate properly under conditions of fear. As part of my job as a school psychologist, I interview parents about their children who were referred testing because of learning problems. As adults, these parents often come to school defensive, angry, and ready to fight the schoool for some perceived wrong done to their child. Sometimes, it is simply a misunderstanding and/or such parents seem to be reliving their fear, anger, and hurt about something that happened to them long ago when they were students. Many of these parents had learning problems, were socially promoted but later dropped out of school and are now underemployed. When I listen to them during interviews, I find that they had terrible school experiences in which they were subjected to some teachers (not all) treated them harshly, who were insensitive or too ignorant about learning difficulties and used punishment as their means of dealing with difficult to teach children who may have pushed their buttons. I have heard countless stories from many individuals about their experiences with such uncaring teachers who crushed their spirits and yes, bruised their egos. In some cases, they caused LONGLASTING HARM, Maria. Here is another story: about 15 years ago, I witnessed a teacher in another county paddle a first grade child because he was unable to do some math problems, not because he misbehaved. I don't know what your reaction would be but I was appalled by that. I will never forget it as long as I live. As it turns out the child had sigificant learning disabiltiies. I know that for a fact because I tested him. Can you imagine being punished (beaten) by a large, displeased or angry person for something over which you had no control?

I, for one, was terrified by my first grade teacher because she paddled students with little provocation, at least from my limited point of view. She never paddled me. I guess she liked me but I never knew that for sure. She always seemed busy, a bit stressed, but I don't think she willingly set out to harm children. Like most young children, I loved her and wanted to please her. I also found her very funny and entertaining at times but I was often frightened of her and the other teachers I observed. This fear of teachers (prompted stories of undeserved punishment and by witnessing children getting paddled) generalized and followed me through school even though I did well enough academically and had no discipline problems; but I never seemed to do well enough to please my high expectations. Anything short of a perfect score was a sign of failure, a moral failing on my part. My fear teachers and fear of failure generalized to other situations and other adults. As a young child I wasn't frightened by my uncle until later on in school I learned that he was a school prinicipal. I thought that the sole purpose of a school prinicipal was to paddle students. When I was in the 4th grade, I had problems seeing the chalk board from my seat but was too frightened to complain about it. When I asked for binoculars for Christmas, only then did adults finally got the hint that my vision needed to be checked professionally. As it turns out, I was essentially blind without corrective lenses. I was getting a little behind in school because of my vision problems but I was afraid to tell anyone that I had problems seeing. I cried when I saw stars in the sky at night and saw that trees had individual leaves. it was so beautiful. Fear was a motivating factor for me. Perhaps those that are reading this passage may see fear and punishment as something necessary to control student behavior; however, it worked too well to my detriment! Any student of B.F. Skinner knows that punishment suppresses more behaviors than those specifically targeted for exstinction. Good animal trainers know this. I tried to keep quiet and under the radar for fear of incurring the potential wrath of some of my teachers. In middle and high school I often broke out in painful, itchy rashes on my neck that had no medical cause, had problems sleeping, and sometimes vomited. Looking back, I see that it was due to anxiety. Though I did well enough to get into a decent college and did fine, this frame of mind did not serve me well socially, spiritually, or materially in high school, college, or adulthood as it allowed others with whom I formed relationships to take advantage of my quiet, wanting-to-please, fearful nature. Overcoming that fear (and the ensuing anger that fear generated) was and is still a challenge for me but I have taken responsibility for seeking help, enabling me to move on and not be trapped by the past. Still, the fact remains that I was harmed and my "flight or fight" reactions are still occasionally triggered by seemingly innoucous stimuli. Maria, maybe you know this or maybe you don't but fear of one's teachers and authority figures is not healthy. It often breeds anger, disrepect and contempt for authority. I have not read any research that showed that children learn better in an atmosphere of where punishment or harsh, though not technically abusive, discipline is a constant threat. I have witnessed first hand that an atmopshere of fear harms learning and performance and that such fear can generalize to other situations, much to the consternation of others who are understandably clueless as the experiences of that person and their unqiue, inner emotional processes as the result of such experiences.

To be fair, some children may still thrive when they have experienced a few instances of corporal punishment as long as this discipline techinque is used sparingly and is tempered by a rich ratio of positive discipline and many frequent and overt responses of overt affection lovingly doled out by parents. In those circumstances, fear and intimdation are still not intended or used by the parents to be the main means to train or motivate the child. As an professional, however, I still wouldn't take such chances using such punishment, especially in a school setting where making mistakes are part of the learning process.

Those few teachers who still advocate teaching in an atmosphere fear and intimdation should do some radical soul-searching. Maybe a change in profession is in order.

Bridget 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too teach math in a school with a differenciated program. I love the idea of being able to offer different strats. for solving problems and activities that reinforce the skills that are taught. I think that the program itself is great and wished that this was the idea when I was young becuase maybe I would be able to understand math better myself.

As a first year teacher, the problem that I often encountered was confusing other students with a new method when they understood the pervious one the day before. Do you have any tips on how to better clarify things for students, esp. when they are in the primary grades???

Thanks You

Michele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, my name is Michele and I am a third grade teacher at a charter school. Last year was the first time I was given the opportunity to have a class with retained 3rd graders, ESOL, ESE and low 2nd graders coming into 3rd grade. Differentiated instruction is the only way to go with a class like this. Each individual student needs their own IEP. Groups need to set up in order to teach the different level of students you have in the class. I prepare the same papers, same work but each group has different problems to complete. What works on one group will not work on the other. What also works well is having a student in the high group work with students in the lower group. Sometimes the students can present the lesson at a language the students will understand. Which ever method works for a particular student thats good, and then you have to be prepared to present the lesson another way for another student. I am forver thinking of how many different ways I can present a lesson that all my students will understand.

Donna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an elementary school principal in Los Angeles and a firm believer in differentiated instruction. Although many teachers differentiate instruction for the EL student and those with learning disabilities, they often overlook their students'learning modalities when planning instruction. Children tend to be kinesthetic learners but most instruction is delivered aurally. The same goes for visual learners who learn better by seeing, not hearing.

Before a teacher starts planning their lessons, he/she needs to get to know their students. Once a student's dominant modality is determined, assessments and projects need to include their dominant modality while bolstering the weaker ones.

Several years back I had a student in my school who was very intelligent but a great deal of difficulty with writing. The class was asked to write a 3 page paper on the life of a famous American. He asked the teacher if he could present the information in another format. He dressed up as Ben Franklin and did an outstanding, comprehensive job of presenting the life of Ben in the 1st person. Since the purpose of the assignment was to gather information and present it, he got a "4" (above grade level). Once we know our students, we need to provide alternate methods of assessment so our students can show us what they really know.

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


If I understand your question correctly, you want to know if there is anything you can do to not confuse your students with multiple methods of doing the same thing?

In the primary grades, students tend to be a bit more flexible than in the older elementary grades. I believe the key is to make connections between each method so the students can see that it doesn't make a difference if you put the peanut butter on first or the jam. It is still a peanut butter sandwich. Part of the problem elementary teachers have is they do not want to confuse the students, so they teach the students to solve the problems in a very specific format and order. This "control" bleeds into their concept of school and without the teacher having to say a word, students begin to expect the teacher to show them how to do everything in a specific way. Sometimes it is ok if the students do things differently. My son figured out a way to tie his shoes really fast. I mean one step rather than three. Why would I try to tell him he is doing it the wrong way? His way works just fine.

But your concern is the concepts behind the problem. If you roust around in Edutopia long enough you will get the idea teacher directed instruction saves time in getting the information across to the students, but it is not very effective for the students to either understand and remember the concepts or the processes. If you let the students find a way to solve the problem on their own, not only with they make the necessary mental constructs to house the new information, but they will remember what they have learned. This takes a bit longer, and the teacher has to prepare a bit more, but the results are incredible. This is called student directed learning, inquiry or project based learning. You will find many examples of this in Edutopia.org. Have fun.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


I am so glad that you are "connected" electronically and you have found the incredible resources in Edutopia.org. I hope that you are encouraging your teachers and teacher teams to spend time reading, discussing and planning about things that are here on this website. It is obvious that you understand the purpose and process of differentiation, and that it is not about dumbing down the curriculum, but trying to meet the goals and objectives in a variety of ways. Because of the positive experience with Benjamin Franklin perhaps this young man will be persuaded that he needs to improve his writing skills even though it is hard for him--but that is a different objective.

You are absolutely correct. Most students are bodily kinesthetic learners, yet we persist in telling them to not do the things that help them learn the best. We tell them to sit down and shut up, when we should be telling them to move around and talk. Listening is a passive activity and frankly, when a year ago, I shadowed an 8th grader all day long, I was bored to tears, listening to the teachers talk all day. I felt antsy and wanted nothing more than to get up and move around in class. Teachers forget that the body is connected to the brain. You get the body involved and the brain cannot be far behind.

Keep up the good work as instructional leader of your school.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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