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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.

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

nelson Guizzo's picture

I will say that I have tried the "redo" but it has bred laziness into some of my lower students. I get questions like" If I don't do well, can i re-write it?" It is difficult to know when to give back a paper because of effort or content problems. Also, is it doing them a disservice considering there are no do-overs in the real world? I find it a slippery slope these days....

Achieve3000 Differentiated Instruction's picture

There are a lot of teachers and schools that preach differentiated instruction but either do not have a firm grasp on what it means to differentiate or simply do not have the tools necessary to implement differentiated instruction in the classroom or through cross-curricular learning. My recommendation is to seek our resources that can help schools model effective differentiated learning solutions.

Ashley Mishlanie's picture

During my semester of student teaching and time spent as a substitute teacher. I have come across many times where I am unsure how to handle students with different learning needs. Over time I have came to the realization that I needed to change the way I was teaching in order to get all my students to reach the level of success.

The school districts that I have worked in are very diverse. Being exposed to diverse learners has taught me a lot about teaching and that there is no one way method. There were often times when I had to change or re-change my lessons to make sure I was meeting all students needs.

I do feel that with this type of exposure I have learned a lot about myself as a teacher and are more aware of student needs. When I have my own classroom I will be able to take with me what I have learned through experience as well as ideas from this blog regarding ways to reach students and help them achieve their highest success.

Holmes's picture

Differentiated instruction is an interesting concept in education today. As educators, we must meet the needs of each student in our classroom. A true differentiated instruction model increases our chances of accomplishing this goal. I recognize the relevance of DI. However, there are two strategies that I do not consider true DI. In terms of grouping students, some educators simply pair accelerated students with lower performing students. I am aware that peer tutoring is a powerful tool. However, I do not agree that we should stick our accelerated students in these DI groups. Of course the lower performing students may benefit, but we are not meeting the needs of the accelerated students. In the urban schools, this is an underrepresented population. The main goal of Differentiated Instruction is meet the needs of each individual student. I do not agree with administrators using DI as an excuse to misplace students. I have had classes of students that were level 1 through level 5, ESE, and ESOL levels 1 through level 5. Rather than correcting or rectifying this issue, the administration affirms that I must use Differentiated Instruction. It becomes an escape goat rather than a methodology.

Lana's picture
Lana
Pre-K Teacher

Last year was my first year as a lead teacher and I had to differentiate my instruction in Pre-K. It seemed as though the process would be simple, but differentiating takes a lot of time. I felt I didn't do enough to meet the many needs in my class. This year I am seeking additional resources to help me with these needs. I had many behavior issues on top of learning difficulties and the year was extremely challenging. Pre-K is important for students because it sets the tone for the student's learning career. If a student starts kindergarten behind, often they will stay behind. I appreciate all of the suggestions and websites that have been posted. This is so helpful to someone like me who wants to reach all of my students, even in Pre-k.

love4teaching's picture

The posts have been very helpful for me to 'hear' the worries from other educators. I believe that differentiating instruction is key but how do I accomplish this task. How do I get myself organized with materials and such? Which group should get my attention everyday and which group should I see once a week? I keep track of the data the best I can but when all the information is clipped together then how will I monitor progress? I have attempted to read a few books on the subject but with different points of view I seem to get overwhelemed. Has anyone found a wonderful 'guide' for planning and organizing differentiated instruction?

Anquinette's picture
Anquinette
3rd grade self containded teacher

I currently teach all subjects within a 3rd grade class and I'm struggling with effectively implementing DI. My biggest challenge is monitoring the different groups in the class. I try to independent groups while I meet with the lower performing students. Sometimes I find myself not challenging the advanced students. I'm currently grouping students according to their needs after biweekly assessments. Any suggestions?

Tracy's picture
Tracy
Secondary Science and Maths Teacher

I find this topic extremely interesting and relevant to my professional development. As a teacher in a multi-cultural school I have become increasingly aware of the need to differentiate. Therefore, one of the most important questions I have been asking myself is: How will I address this issue? How can I differentiate to meet the needs of all the students?
What I have learnt throughout my time in education is that no-one wants to stand out, so with this thought in mind, I must ensure the task I set, is similar, and by using some of the strategies you mention I should be able to achieve this whilst differentiating to meet the needs of my students.
I know that I need to create a respectful, active and challenging environment whereby students feel confident to take risks and become active participants in their education so any suggestions on how to achieve this would be appreciated.

Miss Marriott's picture
Miss Marriott
Student teacher

During my teaching rounds, I have come across many times where I am unsure how to handle students with different learning needs. Over time I have came to the realisation that I needed to change the way I was teaching, in order to get all my students to reach the level of success.

The schools that I have worked in are very diverse. Being exposed to diverse learners has taught me a lot about teaching and that there is no one way method. There were often times when I had to change or re-change my lessons to make sure I was meeting all students needs.

I do feel that with this type of exposure I have learned a lot about myself as a teacher and are more aware of student needs. When I have my own classroom I will be able to take with me what I have learned through experience as well as ideas from this blog regarding ways to reach students and help them achieve their highest success.

KMSG's picture
KMSG
fourth grade teacher from New Jersey

Differentiation is key in meeting the needs of all your students, It does not have to be done in a way that makes students stand out, but rather focuses on the needs of each child. In my class, I announce that I have several different versions of a test out so that children do not feel like they are being singled out. Everyone gets something different geared to each ones needs, focused on the same material.
One size does not fit all and I believe that teachers understand the needs of all their students and work very hard to meet those needs.

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