3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners: What Teachers Do | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and crew are so intimidated by the Wizard's enigmatic personality that they struggle to talk with him on equal footing. Fear and frustration overwhelm them as they blindly accept a suicide mission to slay the Witch of the West. In return, they each received a treasured prize, a heart, a brain, courage, and a way home. Ironically, they already had these gifts -- metaphorically, which they only discover after unveiling the man behind the curtain, posing as the grumpy wizard.

Differentiated Instruction (DI) casts a spell on educators as to how it meets all students' needs. The skillset required to differentiate seems mystical to some and incomprehensible to others in this environment of state standards and high-stakes tests. Where does one find the time? The reality is that every teacher already has the tools to differentiate in powerful ways for all learners. Some elements were revealed in my two previous articles, regarding myths and assessment fog.

The DI elements were first introduced to me in How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms by Carol Tomlinson, and my understanding later deepened thanks to my friend and mentor, Dr. Susan Allan. The core of differentiation is a relationship between teachers and students. The teacher's responsibility is connecting content, process, and product. Students respond to learning based on readiness, interests, and learning profile. In this post, we'll explore the teacher's role for effective planning of DI, and in the next three posts, we'll look at how students respond.

Content, process, and product are what teachers address all the time during lesson planning and instruction. These are the areas where teachers have tremendous experience in everything from lesson planning to assessment. Once the curtain is removed for how these three areas can be differentiated, meeting diverse needs of students becomes obvious and easy to do -- because it's always been present.

Differentiating Content

Content is comprised of the knowledge, concepts, and skills that students need to learn based on the curriculum. Differentiating content includes using various delivery formats such as video, readings, lectures, or audio. Content may be chunked, shared through graphic organizers, addressed through jigsaw groups, or used to provide different techniques for solving equations. Students may have opportunities to choose their content focus based on interests.

For example, in a lesson on fractions, students could:

  1. Watch an overview video from Khan Academy.
  2. Complete a Frayer Model for academic vocabulary, such as denominator and numerator.
  3. Watch and discuss a demonstration of fractions via cutting a cake.
  4. Eat the cake.

Differentiating Process

Process is how students make sense of the content. They need time to reflect and digest the learning activities before moving on to the next segment of a lesson. Think of a workshop or course where, by the end of the session, you felt filled to bursting with information, perhaps even overwhelmed. Processing helps students assess what they do and don't understand. It's also a formative assessment opportunity for teachers to monitor students' progress.

For example, having one or two processing experiences for every 30 minutes of instruction alleviates feelings of content saturation. Some strategies include:

Of these three DI elements, process experiences are least used. Start with any of the shared strategies, and see long-term positive effects on learning.

Differentiating Product

Product differentiation is probably the most common form of differentiation. Teachers give choices where students pick from formats, or students propose their own designs. Products may range in complexity to align to a respectful level for each student. (I'll discuss readiness in my next post.) The key to product options is having clear academic criteria that students understand. When products are cleanly aligned to learning targets, student voice and choice flourish, while ensuring that significant content is addressed.

For example, one of my favorite practices is providing three or four choices for product options. All but the last choice are pre-developed for students who want a complete picture of what needs to be done. The last choice is open-ended. Students craft a different product idea and propose it to the teacher. They have to show how their product option will address the academic criteria. The teacher may approve the proposal as is or with some revisions. If the proposal is too off-focus, then the students work on developing a new idea. If they cannot come up with an approved proposal by a set date, they have to choose from one of the pre-determined products.

Reach Higher

Content, process, and product are key elements in lesson design. Fortunately, educators have many instructional tools that can differentiate these core areas of instruction, which sets the stage for students to respond through the next three DI elements: readiness, learning profiles, and interests -- the next three blog posts.

I do an activity where I ask participants to stand and reach as high as they can. Then, I ask them to reach even higher. They do. When considering your students' needs, reach even higher in your practice -- that extra stretch is inside us all -- and students will benefit.

Differentiated Instruction
When it comes to how students learn, one size does NOT fit all.

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Snookjen's picture

I enjoyed reading your post and how you demystified differentiated instruction. It does seem overwhelming at first but as you pointed out, many of us already have the tools and techniques in place. If I was asked how I was differentiating my instruction, I would not be sure that I was. But as I read your examples I realize that I am already doing many of these things. By offering content through several avenues: verbally, video, handouts, and visual examples, I am able to reach learners of all types whether they are visual, auditory, or another type of learner. One area that I was not familiar with is the Think-Share-Pair and now I will be integrating this into my classroom as well. This will give everyone a chance to discuss and digest the content and students will benefit from discussion with others. Thank you for a thought provoking post.

Ms. Genama's picture

Thank you for this post. I am always looking for new ways to differentiate within my classroom. As you stated, the one aspect I usually leave out is differentiating the process. It is my goal to make it a point to use more of the strategies you suggested to give students the opportunity to discuss their learning with their peers. This will be especially beneficial for my English language learners. Thank you for reminding me of the importance. One way that I differentiate product is through the use of choice boards. My students LOVE it when I create these units. They seem to work best for science and social studies topics. I create a board of 9-12 different ways to show their learning that students can choose from. The choices allow students to use technology, art, writing, and reading to show their learning. The results have been incredible and have inspired me to find more engaging ways to differentiate learning.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hello Ms. Genama,
Thank you for sharing the kind words and your strategy for choice boards. Students are more motivated when they have influence on their learning. Here's an article that has more strategies that engages choice options http://openingpaths.org/blog/2014/08/five-good-tools-di/ Hope to learn more about your story and the work you do. :) Thanks again.

kathycoker's picture

Thank you for your great article! DI seems so much less overwhelming when one realizes they already differentiate the content as you've described. I realize I don't give my students enough time to process the content as I should, and am looking forward to implementing your suggestions such as Think-Pair-Share, Journaling, Partner talk, and Save the Last Word.

Karin's picture

Thank you for your article. I have actually returned from a conference day today where I was thinking through the Myers/Briggs personality tests and I was so challenged by how I can cater for all personality types when I am teaching. I have followed some of the links you put in your article about Think/Pair/Share and it has given me some ideas about how to cater for those extroverted personalities who are often not given many chances to 'think and talk' through their ideas with others in a classroom setting. I was even thinking I could try this with younger students if my questions were simple and specific and if I was working with parent helpers in small groups to facilitate this interaction. So thanks again for helping me in my thinking about best practice for all personality types!

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Karin,

Thanks for sharing your journey. I'm glad that this article was timely in your thinking. ASCD has a DVD on Differentiated Instruction and assessment that shows kindergarteners doing a 4 quadrant personality inventory. Another tool to consider using is Learning Profile Cards http://openingpaths.org/blog/2014/01/learning-profile-cards/ It's a way to organize the details. Would love to know how it goes when you proceed with the good work with your students.

Mabel Bertomen's picture

This article is very useful especially to us students who is taking teaching course. Strategies you shared are very helpful for future use. Its good that,as early as now, we are learning from experienced teachers the strategies in motivating childs learning.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Mabel,
I'm deeply moved. When future teachers such as yourself find value in these articles, that is the highest complement I can hope to have. I wish that I'd had these supports when I started teaching. I'm glad that my writing is serving appropriately :)

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Kathy,

Thank you for your kind words. It's important that you're finding that the power to differentiate already exists inside you. This is true for all teachers. It means even better learning experiences for students. :)

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Isabella,
Welcome to the Teacher world. The more tools you have the better able you'll be to help students succeed. Thanks for highlighting think-pair-share. Hope you're finding lots of uses for formative assessment. Have a great pre-service experience.


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