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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

Jessica Elsenheimer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Personally I use a lot of differentiated insturction in my classroom. I think you have to now a days because students learn a lot different from the way we did. Also, to become better teachers I believe we have to include differentiated instruction into our classroom.
As a new teacher coming into a Title I school, with more and more 504 plans and IEPs, keeping students at various learning levels engaged and onto the pathway of success can be quite a challenge. In my classroom, I teach Spanish so I have students from all levels, low and high reading levels, students who are in inclusion programs, and even Hispanic children who are all on different levels of cognitive ability. In 90 minutes, I must keep them all engaged with differentiated instruction, learning styles, mullitiple intelligences. But this isn't just me it is everyone that deals with this everyday.
Plus, the students of this generation expect learning to include technology with smart boards, computers, PowerPoint projects and let them have choice for different activities where they can use their different intelligences which can all be related to real life experiences. The way to teach is always changing and as teachers we are expected to keep up with all the new and old processes of teaching to help our students succeed.

Nicole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this blog very interesting. Currently I am pursuing my master's degree in Special Education because of this very dilemma. How do we meet the needs of all of our students without leaving anyone out?? I liked the comment about the rough draft and how we can adapt that to the subjects that we teach.

Teaching Spanish at the elementary level, the focus is on communication. I allow my students to play games and sing songs and that allows me to assess their grasping of the concept withut giving them a written test. This helps those students that have trouble with these kinds fo assessments. I think that as teachers, offering opportunities for all children to show what they know is the key. If a student cannot complete a matching test in Spanish, I have the class play charades and see what words they know. I would love to hear about some of the other ways that you differentiate instruction in your classrooms!

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


Thanks for the comments. You are right on target with your comments. k-12 arena has been under huge pressure to get students to meet high standards. Up until recently, we understood that the biggest variable in the equation is the teacher, not the students. However, we are just starting to formulate a different way to look at students as participants in the learning process, rather than just empty vessels to fill with knowledge. If we combine good teaching (including differentiated instruction) with students who know what their role in the learning process is, then we will see great strides in student performance. Obviously, the students are only going to do as good as the teacher, so their has to be great strides in teacher performance too.

Then the students graduate and hit the real world. They go from a very nurturing, encouraging environment into a huge university where they are just a number to the system. Professors lecture every class period and don't care if they do their homework or not. No phone calls home, no one cares if they even come to school.

Are we doing them a disservice in public schools by trying to help them learn in the best ways possible?

No, just the opposite. If we engage the students as participants (given the responsibility of learning) and we teach them strategies to not just be acquainted with knowledge and skills, but to acquire them and make them part of who they are, then we are preparing them to be independent thinkers and self motivated do-ers when they get to college. They will know how to learn despite the notoriously poor instruction in many colleges.

In my book differentiated instruction is mixing things up to provide different avenues to get to the same place. It does not mean to mollycoddle the students and not hold them accountable for their performance. If we protect and isolate the students from challenge, then differentiation is a travesty and ultimately disastrous for the student. So I agree with you 100%. Speaking of that, if a student wants to get 100% mastery on every quiz or test and you agree with it, then there is not an issue. Such things need to be hammered out at the beginning of each class when you set up your roles as teacher and students. It all depends on your tolerance though, and time. If you want to say just one retake, then that is fine, students will still learn from it.

Good luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Sonia Barnes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that differentiated instruction is crucial to help our student's learn. Yes the child in the middle tends to be the one left out. I try to remember the quiet ones while I am teaching but I can admit that I am at fault for not always giving the quiet student's the attention that they need. I do modify my instruction to help each of my student's. For me it is feels natural not to expect the very same outcome from each student or to present a lesson exatly the same to each student I have experienced that all children learn different.

Jenni Schmidt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This blog caught my eye as I am currently a TAG(Talented and Gifted)Facilitator and previously held an endorsement in Special Education. I am always looking for simple ways to differentiate instruction that I can share with the staff in my district. I love the idea of "Do Overs" with the first draft being worth the most. After all, we want kids to reach the end goal, but that doesn't mean they need to get there in the same time frame or the same way. Another differentiation strategy that works well is RAFTs. RAFT is an acronym for Role (of the writer), Audience, Format,and Topic. I found this website useful:

I'd love to read about other great strategies for differention.

Laurie T's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben, I like your line stating that the best teachers always find ways to reach individual students, how true that is! They realize that students are not cookie cutter learners and all students learn differently. Last year I went to a seminar and the speaker made the analogy of educator and doctor. A doctor doesn't treat all patients the same even if they have the same illness simply because the same treatment doesn't work for all individuals. I do find it challenging to treat students differently, but I see that it is necessary. What I am implementing in my classes is the do-over idea. I want all of my students to be successful and I realize it takes more time for some to succeed. I am finding that some students aren't taking the do-over option and others are working less to be successful the first time around. I want them to try their best the first time and not use the do-over as a procrastination tool. Laurie

Anna Branch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree that differentiating instruction allows more students to succeed. My problem comes in with time. It is hard to teach each standard and have time to teach the way that each child learns best. I try to find the way that the majority of my students learn best and try my best to teach using that way and at least one other way.
Also, we are taught to treat our students in our room the same, when in fact, they are all treated differently at home. This also shows they would learn differently. This challenges the way that I find myself doing daily. I catch myself saying "Don't treat them an different". I feel that I need to look at this.

Heather Goss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree, that some students use the do-over idea as a procrastination tool. Yet, at the same time teachers need to differentiate their assessment process along with their instruction process in order to have the most successful classrooms possible. I guess it's a double edged sword. In my masters program I'm reading about the professional teacher, and differentiated instruction is part of being a professional teacher. Beyond differentiated instruction the professional teacher must also have an understanding of neuroscience. An understanding of the different ways that students learn enable teachers to attend to the various abilities in their classroom.

Sandra Garner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a Kindergarten teacher differentiated instruction is very important. At this level the students are faced with new skills in all areas. As the teacher you are learning the students, their behavior and observing how they learn. After observing and learnig certain facts about the students. This will help you as the teacher to distinquish how your students learn. At this level you are going to need to used a lot of differentiated instruction to help meet the need or learnig style of your students.

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a very interesting conversation and a topic that I have wrestled with extensively this year. I am teaching 4th grade for the first time this year (this is only my 2nd year teaching) and chose to have differentiation as one of my professional goals.

I find myself feeling very guilty by spending so much time helping those who need the extra help that I neglect the ones who need more of a challenge. I made a plan, but I haven't found that balance yet. Working with small groups, different levels of assignments, different assessments, I am trying it all and quickly becoming frustrated with the amount of additional workload it adds and not being able to truly see immediate results. I know that I am doing something wrong, yet I haven't figured out what yet.

I am all about the re-do. Partly becuase I feel that I cannot say that student has met the required standard or objective until they can prove it to me. Again I question how to find the balance of making sure every kid "gets it" without letting them slip far behind the rest of the class. I also worry about my students as they move onto higher grades where re-do's are not allowed. I find my students get a great deal of pride from achieving the A. I always give them the choice, and they are always eager to take it on. From the beginning I've set very high expectations and I see that most of my students are starting to realize that they aren't bad in math,just becuase mom and dad are. If it means that much to them, I don't want to deny them that pride!

I've really learned a lot from this discussion and looking forward to reading the other blogs and investgating literature that may help me on my differtiation quest!

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