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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

Kori B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree and am discouraged when all of the teachers attention is focused on the students with special needs, behaviors or the most educated. I feel the kids in the middle are really starting to slip between the cracks. Now that we are so focused on "No child left behind" I feel we are letting another group fall behind.

Tina 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is almost natural for teachers to treat students differently. The problem lies with us thinking that this is not the correct way to approach education. If educators continue to teach all students in the same way, regardless of ability, we are going to have one of two outcomes - a collection of young drones, or large group of students way ahead or left behind.

To me, differentiated instruction is common sense. You see a student struggling and you find a way to help him/her out. This may require extra work, research, and extended time, but if the final goal is to provide a quality education to all students, this is a part of the job.

I have had great success with differentiated instruction within my Language Arts class. The fact of the matter is that despite my undying love for Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," I know that some of my low level students either will not read it or will have great difficulty understanding it. So, I assign different reading material to different groups in class. Regardless of what my students read, they will (hopefully) reach the same learning objective and ultimately they will be exposed to a variety of works through class presentations. In the end, ALL students read a quality work and employ critical thinking and analysis skills.

Brooke Donovan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that one of the greatest challenges a teacher faces is treating his or her students differently. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that all students meet the daily objectives successfully. However, we often fail to encourage students to use a variety of sign systems. The failure to understand education as a multimodal event results in limitations and narrows options for the learner. The ability to take what you know in one sign system and express it in another is a process called transmediation. In this respect, it is necessary that teachers learn to treat students differently. Educators must design curriculum that places these various sign systems at the center of the learning process. The inclusion of art, music, dance, drama, and movement may help us to see the strengths of previously unrecognized students. I highly recommend reading chapter 1 of Beyond Reading and Writing: Inquiry, Curriculum, and Multiple Ways of Knowing by Beth Berghoff, Kathryn A. Egawa, Jerome C. Harste, and Barry T. Hoonan. It recommends including a full range of abilities in the classroom and gives suggestions of how to implement them.

Kristi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Differentiated instruction is something that I have always found to be a challenge, even being a special education teacher. I teach small groups of students who need the highest level of support that we offer for English and though they all struggle, they struggle in different areas and need to be challenged in different ways. Recently, I have come to the conclusion that the ones that I need to do more differentiating for are the ones who are in the resource class for a reading disability and behavior but are otherwise nearly gifted. They bring the greatest challenge because they don't think they should be in a special education class and think that it's too easy yet they still need a high level of support for reading and constant redirection for behavior.

John Prekrel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that inclusion is not the answer for the future of America. Once the students graduate high school, their employer doesn't want to hear that they are special or have ADD/ADHD, etc. If the students want to be in the same classroom, they need to take the modifications and appreciate them. If the students can not complete the work with the modifications, laziness or other issues are happening with the student. In order for education to be successful, parents have to take a role in their child's education. After school programs are usually offered for those who need the additional help. If the students aren't willing to do this then something is wrong. If the adults can't take care of their kids, they shouldn't have any. Too often I see many teachers just let little jimmy or gaige sit in the corner and fail. It takes a collaboration of all team members and unfortunately many schools do not offer all of these pieces. Education needs to be valued again and until it is, I see many more issues with educating the youth of America in future years.

Anson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel the students in the middle are being forgotten about. We have spent so much time worring about the low level tha we are not pushing the middle students hard enough. In some cases I believe the middle students maybe brought down to a lower level.

Jacqueline B. Good's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wholeheartedly agree with your rough draft idea. I do use it in all subjects - because I am a special education teacher I have had the opportunity to use it across the board. Mastery is my goal as you said. How ofter have you had that student that says to you "Is that a passing grade?" you say yes - they say "Good enough for me." Well it is not good enough for me. I want them to experience success at a greater level than "just passing." I literally tell my students that I am making their grades up. How can I do this? Because I have returned their work multiple times I have multiple scores on them. Who says which score I have to use for the grade? My students know their grade reflects their attitude. There is not an option of not redoing the work; I don't allow it. But there is the option that if I have to argue with them about it they don't earn the higher grade. Eventually their attitude changes because if they have to do the work anyway; why not get the higher grade. I have the luxury of having less students; therefore I develop a better relationship with the student and their families. Their parents are aware of my make up your grade attitude and I have yet to have a parent that has a problem with it. I think this is because before I taught their child their work and grades were mediocre. now the parents get to see quality work from their child. It is an expectations thing. I feel it is a reflection on me if my students get low grades, not on them. Does this mean I give all A's and B's? Absolutely not. Some students are just not school oriented. I do not mean they don't want to learn. School can't be all things to all people. I have encountered some of the brightest students who just can't wait to get out of school. They just don't like it. Being an educator, I don't get it. Nor do I feel I have to.
I know some reading this may be horrified by my approach but I have a lot of success with it. Having the rough draft approach allows for so much better understanding of how your students learn. It is such a shame that class size, hinders this approach for so many teachers. I enjoy your blog and I commented on your previous blog in January. I actually replied to another reply first because I wasn't getting the whole blog thing. I feel you are on to something and look forward to your future postings.

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


It appears that you are using the Mastery approach to education, where students must meet a specific standard before proceeding to the next step. In such instances, grades are irrelevant. Making progress is crucial. I am assuming that that is what you are referring to when you say, "I am making their grades up."

You are absolutely right about connecting with student attitudes. For many students, grades themselves are not a motivator. "Good enough" becomes the norm for them. When you clearly establish expectations and standards and provide students with a mechanism to be able to meet those standards successfully, then that is the greatest motivator. The do-over or rough draft is one of those mechanisms that puts the learning directly on the shoulders of the student.

Keep up the good work!

Best regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


I appreciated your responses. I thought I would take a shot at your questions.

Would you adjust the grade of the "unacceptable work?" --No, do not adjust the grade, but you can have the student re-do portions of the work, not the whole work.

- Do you leave off grades often and give feedback, like Ben suggests? --Still grade the paper, just do not record it until it within the acceptable range.

- What if a student who receives an acceptable grade does not think that it is fair for the student to "raise their grade" or "have a second chance?" --Do not forget that not all student learning activities are formative. If it is a summative test or activity, then no student should have an opportunity to retake it.

- Is it appropriate to encourage them that they are still doing the same amount of work that they are doing, only the classmate has to take additional time to make it acceptable? --If you give greater points to the first draft, soon students will learn to do their best work first. The decision to re-do will be a choice of "Can I get a better grade if I redo it, even though it is worth fewer points than the first draft?"

How should this work:
- Should students with a high-earned grade be able to work towards higher? Like their co-parts? --See the answer to the above question.

- Do the students with the unacceptable grade earn a higher grade, earn up to a C (acceptable), or keep the grade they initially earned? --If they meet the standard, why wouldn't their grade reflect that?

If they kept the grade, would they understand "the point" of them working to fix their papers? --The only point for them to fix the problem is to get them to learn from their mistakes. That is one of the most effective ways to teach.

Hope this helps.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Shawna N. 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just recently graduated with my bachelors in ECE and now I am working on getting my masters online. The idea of differentiation was completely drilled in my head in my education program for my bachelors. However, no one ever explained the idea of grading papers that are differentiated. I also love the idea of letting the students redo work. The point of being teachers is to teach the students and let them learn the concept and for some students they need more than one opportunity to learn it and succeed. I also think that actually providing the students feedback and letting them apply it then and not trying to remember for the next assignment is another great idea.

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