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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

J. Jackson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is my goal for all my students to successfully master the aspects of my course. However, time for students to do things over again is limited by the need to cover the material required for SOL's. Some subjects, such as chemistry required the constant building and addition to previous material that does not permit a lot of lag time before we add to the concepts. I have found that if other students have the assignment in there hands that those that have not completed the assignments or are given additonal time frequently copy someone else's work and gain no benefit by having the additional opportunity other than the grade. If more planning time was available alternate assignments that cover the same material could be given as an option.

I also have found that some students do not see the need to learn the material the first time around if they can get a do over. I am willing to work individually with any student that will come in for extra help but if they goof off in class and don't do their assigned work to begin with I don't feel they should be given unlimited chances. At some point, in the real world we don't continually get do overs.

Bridget Reichert's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the author about the importance of differentiated instruction and feel that most effective teachers already use some form of this technique without realizing it. You can not deny that for some students/classes instruction must be modified to help them understand or keep them engaged, but it is often difficult to remember to tailor instruction for the students who are not at either end of the spectrum. I feel it is the quiet, well-behaved students who sometimes suffer because of the focus on differentiating for the extremes in the classroom.

Bridget Reichert's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your ideas and understand the importance of mixing things up in the classroom, but sometimes feel there is not enough time in the class period or room in my curriculum to use all of the strategies necessary to truly differentiate the instruction. You are so right about understanding the background of the students and what the rest of the day is like for them outside of school- that can make all the difference when you are trying to reach a student who needs help.

Bridget Reichert's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So what is the solution? It is not ok for the top to fall so that the bottom can rise and we certainly can't leave a child behind, but the poor group in the middle really doesn't stand a chance.

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

J. Jackson:

The nice thing about being a teacher is that you get to make all sorts of decisions. Now if you have students that are abusing the system that you have set up, it doesn't make sense to keep the system static. Shake it up a bit. There are some easy, intrinsic ways to motivate students to 1) do their own work and 2) do their best job the first time. If we remember that any learning activity we ask students to do should provide opportunities for the student to acquire specific new knowledge and skills that align with our particular standard of learning, then we have a basis to start from. Kids know if it is busy work and they know when teachers are assigning grades or collecting the work just to raise the level of urgency to make them do it. So it helps if the learning activity, is authentic and relevant.

Here are some policy ideas that will help. The first draft can be worth 100%, second draft worth 89% (not an A), third draft is worth 79% etc... This helps them do their best on the first draft.

How do you keep them from copying someone else's paper? Although it is a pain to keep track of, it is fairly simple to do, you can give different versions of an activity on different colored paper. One nice thing about this is that once you show them you have caught on, every time you give them an assignment on different colored paper, they will assume each one is different, even if they aren't.

Now, none of the above will work, if you give them the learning activity, and then go sit behind your desk. You have to be monitoring, roaming and encouraging learning by proximity. You also need to enforce the rules of honesty and fairness. Students should get a zero on a paper and a parent conference if you find out they are cheating.

One other thing that you need to keep doing is to encourage the students to follow the learning cycle. Sometimes we as teachers, never spell out for the students exactly what they can do to learn anything. Show them how you design your lessons and why you ask them to do certain things. Students should be as familiar with the learning cycle as you are with the teaching cycle. Students are not simply vessels that we attempt fill up with knowledge and skills. They are active participants, and when students learn anything, it is because they felt a need to do actively do it.

Hopefully, this helps. There are many other creative ways to encourage students to want to learn on their own. Have fun discovering them!

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


Time is either your enemy or your best resource. The important thing to remember with time is "flexibility." I wrote a few bloggs earlier about how to use time in productive ways and how to reclaim normally wasted time, but all of the ideas revolve around our willingness to be sensitive to time and being willing to shift gears as necessary. The most important thing about time is how the students perceive that the teacher honors, values and utilizes time. A teacher must have a sense of urgency and transmute that to the students (not only is this important, but we need to do it as quickly as possible). If the students perceive that the teacher will not waste their time, then students will tend to not waste the teacher's time.

Sometimes in order to find more time, learning has to extend beyond the classroom's allotted time, especially if it involves re-learning.

As you stated, at the end of the day, sometimes we cannot do it all, we just do the best we can to hang in there.

Good luck!
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Tricia Patterson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't agree more that allowing "do-overs" keeps students motivated. I'm glad to know that I am not alone in this thought. I need to know that the students understood the concepts. By throwing the assignment away or giving a bad grade doesn't help the student learn! I never thought about "do-overs" as differentiated instruction! As a Language Arts teacher, my time is 'crunched' to get everything in and conference with each student as well as taking a solid amount of time for reading instruction. Sometimes, I do feel time is not on my side and I 'missed' a student one day or the next! Differentiated learning is so important to students' needs.

Susan Rodriguez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in total agreement. Students come into our class at different level and each ones success depends on the gain in knowledge from beginning to end of the school year. I have seen students make tremendous advances when they realized that I was trying to "catch them up" rather than teach from a point where they were uncomfortable. The grading system needs to be mended to reflect the advancement of the student not necessarily if they are able to complete homework or do well on tests. You can measure their improvement with other creative techniques.

Rob Culpepper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a high school teacher, one of the things I hear often from students is that some of their teachers do not care about them at all. I think a teacher using designed differentiation would minimize the number of students that would think this way. If it's clear the teacher is going out of his/her way to reach students with different learning styles it seems like they would get more effort in return.

The problem I see with designed differentiation is that students also need to work on their weaknesses to be successful down the road. If a student has trouble with auditory learning and all their teachers try to "reach" them by giving them the material in multiple mediums, they are never forced to work on their weakness. What will happen when that student has a college professor that gives tests based primarily on lectures? What about when they have a boss that gives oral instructions and does not write everything down? If we baby a weak auditory learner too much we will end up with a person that cannot even stop and ask for driving directions.

Lisa Metzger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with many of the issues presented in the previous conversations. I agree that differentiated learning is a great idea. I do admit that those who make the most noise are the students who receive the most attention. It is very difficult to ignore or quietly eliminate those attention getting behaviors and pay attention to those students who are quietly sitting in our classes and doing their work adequately. However, the time is not always available to give each student multiple attempts at an assignment. If we do give them multiple attempts, I do agree with the lowering the percentage of the grade in order to show students that doing the assignment correctly the first time is best. However, how do we determine who receives a second and third chance and who does not? Do all the students have the opportunity to redo their work, or only those with lower scores? What is considered a low score? Not allowing the student who scores a 99% on an assignment a chance to improve their score could definitely create an atmosphere of that is not fair.
I feel that a large part of our job is to teach our students "life skills," in other words, how to survive in the big world. I agree with Rob Culpepper when he presents the argument that creating activities that always focus on each student's strength does not allow them to improve their weakness. I do not feel the real world will be so kind. I think the true challenge is to create a learning environment that develops a sense of confidence in students that has them wanting to learn and do their best.

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