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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.


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

Emily's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is very important for students to have as many "do-overs" as they need. I usually give my 3rd grade students math homework every night over the lesson that I taught that day in class. In the morning while they are doing their morning work, I try to look quickly over their homework. I give them up to 2 points for their homework because I think they will be better about doing it if they know that I am grading it. At the same time, if a student really doesn't get it, they are not being pentilized too much for not getting it. It also gives me a chance to know which students I need to work with in a small group to get a concept. My goal is for my students to get A's and B's on the final chapter test. That means that I have taught what I needed to and the kids have actually grasped the concept.

Becky Polzin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I try to differentiate my instruction as much as possible. Obviously, giving students a choice of assignments is one way to do it. I have found, however, that sometimes very successful students will choose what they perceive to be the easiest assignment. They are able to complete it quickly because it was designed for struggling students. In fact, the "good" students will sometimes rush through such assignments, coming up with finished products far below their ability levels; they notice that their peers with lower abilities get acceptable grades on such work. What is the best way to continue to keep standards as high as possible for students at all ability levels when they can see the grades that others receive on their work?

Tiffani's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that differentiated instruction in classrooms is crucial for student success. I teach kindergarten and I get students entering with a wide variety of academic levels, ranging from reading to knowing know letters and sounds. My program is considered an intervention program so I am constantly evaluating and assessing my students for each strategy or skill that is taught. I then use the data to BAME the students into flexible groupings. Using the academic standards I put them in a below, approaching, meeting, or exceeding group, then I develop lessons to re-teach the skills that each individual student needs until they are meeting in each area. Meeting and exceeding students get instruction where they are at. This allows me to teach each student the way they learn best. It is important for students to know what meeting standards are but how and when they get there is individualized. No two students are the same so how can we expect to have cookie cutter education.

Shalaan Cowart's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The idea of differientiated instruction is awesome! Our school district strongly encourages this practice for our students to help them suceed in the classroom. Differientated instruction also provides helpful tools for teachers, new and experienced to incorportate various learning stratagies on a one unit lesson or plan in the classroom. At first, I was having a little difficulty with this approach, but with much practice and perserverence i'll be able to soon master it with my students. I do, however, see improvement in my students and myself since I started using this teacing method.

Lisa Jupille's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find this topic so interesting. As a special education teacher I am well aware of the challenges for the teacher to differentiate instruction. I find it to be very time consuming and overwhelming in the beginning from a classroom management stand point. However, I do believe it is worth it. Treating all students fairly does not mean treating all students the same. Some students do require more time than others, but hopefully every student is getting what they need. Teachers would never hesitate to assist a student with a physical limitation, such as being hard of hearing, or requiring a wheel chair, but for some reason they do not want to make accomodations for students with emotional or learning disabilities. Although, I understand the importance for differentiation, I am no expert and I would love to read more blogs from people about how they implement successful lessons.

Heather Rapp's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Response to Ben:
I saw your blog topic and I want to say that it is a very constructive read. You are very knowledgeable in your thoughts and I liked the different angles that you look at differentiation from. I like how you start out talking about the extremes of the classroom and the ones that may not get much attention because they are doing what is expected of them. This is a great viewpoint for me because I am still only a substitute teacher. I see those children in the classroom and feel bad that I cannot give them more attention and praise for doing the right thing because I am too busy correcting certain behaviors of each type of extreme.

Response to Emily:
I also like your share about "do-overs." One of the articles that I read from my master's degree materials was about having high expectations and making sure that all students were successful. (https://www.newslettersonline.com/user/user.fas/s=543/fp=3/tp=39) This article describes how one teacher never allows for students to accept a grade of C or lower. She has them do-over until the work is understood. A popular quote that the teacher stated was that she does not give a grade, rather that the students earn them. I admire how she drives them to earn the higher grades and encourages their personal success.
Thank you for sharing your example of do-overs. I like how you use points for progress as opposed to grades. Percentages can considerably drop the grade of children whose efforts are present, but the understanding is not. To Ben: I also like how you describe how you put feedback instead of a grade on certain assignments. These are both great ideas to help with allowing a more level playing field for different levels. This also encourages students to strive for better, whether they know the material and can gain extra edge with further correction and feedback or they are having trouble gasping and need a night to sleep on it with a follow up of extra help at another time.

My question on do-overs arises for anyone:
When I read the article I listed, my question was based on this excerpt:
Mrs. Franklin had established a grading policy that any student-work earning a grade lower than a C must be done over. She emphatically pointed out that she did not give every student a C; instead, she insisted that every student earn a C or better. The students were fully aware that the teacher would not let them off the hook. But rather than resenting that fact, the students explained that they appreciated it.
For those with experience in do-overs,
- Would you adjust the grade of the "unacceptable work?"
- Do you leave off grades often and give feedback, like Ben suggests?
- 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?"
- 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?
How should this work:
- Should students with a high-earned grade be able to work towards higher? Like their co-parts?
- 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 kept the grade, would they understand "the point" of them working to fix their papers?

I want to be "fair" to the other students, and I do not want anyone to think that they can have a second shot at an assignment and "go through the motions" the first time. I do not want to discourage initial first attempt or lose the full effort. I am aware that some students may take advantage, but I hope to encourage all students that I believe that all of them can be successful and that's why my expectations of them are so high. I hope that support will deter conniving attitudes. I want them to know that I care about them and hope that they can build pride in themselves with their own efforts. The ones who get the chance to make corrections, I hope, will appreciate the fact that I am concerned enough to make sure that they understand the material.

Please post your responses so that I may get an insight to what actual teachers thing of such do-overs.
Ben: Thank you for triggering this post.

Johnathan Ogg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the post on the differentiation of student learning. I teach at the high school level in Ohio and have many students that are being brought to my class for inclusion. These students normally have some type of learning disorder or are a part of the special education program. I am a social studies teacher for freshman and sophomores and find that applying different strategies for the different learning abilities allows for all to learn. There was a point that was made about "treating all students fairly does not mean treating them all the same", and I feel that this is a great point. Each student comes into our class with various way of learning, whether it be auditory, visual or kinestetic there are many ways to incorporate all these ways of learning into your lessons. The trick is making sure that the activities and information that the students are either recieving(Teacher Directed) or discovering (Student Directed) are complying with or accomplishing the goals of that lesson. I would love to get some newer and more up to date strategies in which teachers around the U.S. are modifying their lessons to accomplish the goal of differentiated instruction. Any suggestions?

Molly Dobozy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Emily.
I am only a second year teacher, but I allow all students to complete do-overs. I do adjust their grades for these works and give half credit for the work they complete. I let them correct it only once, but then I give another test later on and most of my students pass the second time around. Most students who pass the first time do have a problem when the students that correct it get a higher grade than them, but I let everyone correct their tests and quizzes, so if they chose not to, then they have no-one to complain about but themself. I feel this is a fair method because it gives each student an equal chance to improve thier grade and understand the material better.


Carol Barnes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just begun my Masters Degree in Special Education to enable me to help each child in my class. I think it will help me to treat children as individuals, to know them better. Differentiation is a topic that is always coming up in staff meetings. It's not a new topic but it is an area where all teachers strive to do better.

Allison B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have enjoyed reading the comments posted on this blog. It is so necessary to hear the perspectives of other teachers working though the same difficulties and struggles as you are. I am a reading specialist, and I teach the full spectrum of students. It is absolutely necessary to use differentiated instruction in my classroom, otherwise a large majority will not be successful. I, too, strongly believe in allowing students to resubmit work so that they have an opportunity to see what it looks like to master a standard. Since our state tests focus solely on displaying mastery the standards, we are doing students a disservice if we do not allow this practice. One of the things I have found to be effective is station work. In groups of 3 or 4, students rotate through various stations. I try to create each station using different strategies while attempting to meet the various learning needs of students. It is important to take into account different learning styles and construct the stations around their needs(consdering multiple intelligences, and my beliefs about how students learn). Although it takes much time and effort to prepare for station work, I fel like the students' needs are being met. Like many of you, I am continuously trying new things, and have a strong desire to better myself as a teacher. We all certainly feel frustrated at times, but I think it is because we are conscientious teachers who want the best for our students.

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