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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 (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger 2014

Hi Claire and Sandra,
Thanks for highlighting the value of differentiating saving time in the long term, because there is less support needed later because it's provided sooner. The two of you remind me of the adage "great minds think alike." :)

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger 2014

Hi Devon,
Yes, yes, and yes! Teachers like you work so hard on planning lessons so that students succeed. Don't we want the biggest return on learners learning from those lessons? The answer as you noted is obvious, and differentiated instruction makes it possible.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger 2014

Thanks Stacey,
I hope to learn your thoughts about the other articles. The intent of the entire series is to offer a refreshed view of differentiated instruction as something we can do, because the experience and capacity is inside us. Everyone should share their experiences for all teachers to expand their practice and reach all learners. Carry the conversation via #di4all

txghamden94's picture

Reading your article reminded me of a quote I read years ago before DI was was even thought of but could easily apply to DI. It said " teaching is merely the art of awakening the natural curiosity of a young mind." By using the strategies you mention it would be easy to awaken the natural curiosity of a "differentiated" young mind. It's all about how a teacher engages a learner. The more you engage "outside the box" the better the learning experience.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger 2014

That's a good way to approach learners. Your ideas makes me think about the responsibility of teachers to do and try any method or strategy to awaken in students the realization that they "can" do what's being asked. There is an interdependent relationship between the work of teachers and students. Once students understand we will be persistent on finding how all students learn, and students start to believe in themselves and us that they can "do"--the battle is won.

Ismael k. Yusoph's picture

Thanks for including Differentiated instruction in this article which is a great help for us teacher to address the need of the students. How do we divide our time allotment ?. This is time consuming, every day we are allotted 50 minutes then we are to prepare different activities, considering the level of readiness learning style and learner profile of the student. I do hope ill be given more explanation to enhance my knowledge in DI. thanks

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger 2014

Hi Ismael,
It's great how you're factoring readiness for skills and learner profile. Management strategies such as learning centers, think dots, and jigsaws are a few ways to have students work in groups around significant content. Here are more strategies from my other Edutopia articles:
For additional resources try my website at: http://openingpaths.com

LaShondra Jackson's picture

DI is definitely a hot topic in education today. With the onset of Common Core, I feel as though there is even more pressure to differentiate instruction in my room. Currently, I use small group and different ways to deliver instructions and examples. I do rely heavily on technology because the students are most interested in it.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger 2014

Hi LaShondra,
You've hit on one of the biggest reasons for why DI needs to happen more. CCSS raises that need. I'll have to quote you :) when you said, "With the onset of Common Core, I feel as though there is even more pressure to differentiate instruction in my room." Truly words of wisdom. In fact, I'm spreading your wisdom on Twitter now:

Thanks for sharing.

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