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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.

Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Marwa's picture

Hi John,
I really enjoyed reading the article, you organized the idea in a sequential way that facilitates the flow of information. Besides you offered a lot of details that always keep the teacher on track.
What I need to know more is if I have a below level students in my class, should I lower learning expectations for them and grade them accordingly? or is there any other way that enables them to master the required knowledge and skills?
Thank you!

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

Hi Marwa,

Students who are below level in skills need scaffold support to raise their skills. Non-graded assessments are intended to get formative feedback to provide strategic support. Graded assessments that target the standard-level expectation should not be reduced in quality. Instead, as students learn at different rates, allow the "grade" to be updated when students demonstrate the skills. Timelines should be student-focused not adult convenient. Break down the skills in a way that allows students to strengthen skills. Sometimes this is based on readiness instruction. Other times it's based on interests within a mix of heterogeneous grouping.

Feel free to send me more info via email or twitter: @jmccarthyeds

Jillisa's picture

Thank you for the reminder of the importance of differentiation. I find that I differentiate in my classroom pretty well for my ELL and IEP students, but my gifted students are not challenged enough. That is something I am working on this school year. Thank you for the strategies that I can implement into my classroom very easily. I have been using jigsaw with my gifted students. I also use Think-Pair-Share and partner talk in my classroom. I am going to start using the Save the Last Word with my class today. Thanks again!

Ang Gramly's picture
Ang Gramly
Life Skills Support Teacher, Mifflinburg PA

I think differentiated instruction is so important. Our school district is including our learning support children almost full time in the general education setting. This requires special and general education teachers to work together to come up with different strategies and techniques to use to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of all learners. I do agree that integrating technology whenever possible is so important because the kids love it. I have a smartboard and use it all the time.

Monica Perez's picture

Differentiated Instruction is important to help students with different learning capabilities. I have incorporated the Think-Pair-Share strategy in my classroom, but find it difficult to get responses from students with IEP's. This has been my greatest challenge. The ideas shared within the conversations of your post have given me ideas that I can incorporate as I plan my lessons. You have given me options that are within my reach, and I am going to use your technique to reach higher to reach all the learners that come into my classroom. Thank you.

CT's picture

Monica, I agree with you. I think it's important to incorporate a variation of strategies so ALL students have the opportunity to understand the skill or task being learned, however Think-Pair-Share is probably one of the most effective. By creating a trusting community and building connections, students are able to comprehend and remember what they read or learned. One of the great things is that you can apply this strategy to any lesson.

Isabella's picture

Great article! I am a preservice teacher and recently have been introduced to think-pair-share! I think this activity is a great way to get students thinking independently and collaboratively. It gives students a chance to fully engage in the topic!

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.

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

#DI4ALL will be a Twitter conversation on 11/17 at 8 pm cst. It's every 1st and 3rd Monday.

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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