Active Learning Is Key to Differentiated Instruction | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Active Learning Is Key to Differentiated Instruction

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

When I was a new teacher, I remember looking at my roll sheet and seeing multiple letters after several students' names. I asked colleagues what the abbreviations stood for and soon learned that the common perspective was that they stood for more work and more trouble.

Yet these acronyms were supposed to help me differentiate instruction, or vary a lesson, to meet the needs of these students. I remember struggling to grasp how I was supposed to accommodate for student learning without sacrificing high academic standards. (See this post by fellow Spiral Notebook blogger Stephen Hurley.) I questioned how I could give the advanced student what he or she needed while at the same time fulfilling the needs of the struggling student.

I also remember thinking to myself how much easier it would be to just have the "good kids." It wasn't until later that I fully realized that the reason I wanted to be an educator was not to have an easy ride but to make a difference in students' lives. And the greatest difference I could make was in the life of one of those acronym kids. That's when teaching became fun.

You will be interested in reading more about this from the queen of creating multiple learning paths, Carol Ann Tomlinson. In the book she wrote with Jay McTighe, Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, she makes clear the point that simply having activities that differentiate learning is not enough: "Differentiated instruction focuses on whom we teach, where we teach, and how we teach. Its primary goal is ensuring that teachers focus on processes and procedures that ensure effective learning for varied individuals." Deliberately designing a curricular learning environment in which you can place those activities is the real key to increasing a student's understanding.

I was lucky, in a sense, because I had been trained in thematic instruction, and teaching a language -- I was a Spanish instructor -- lends itself to project learning and performance-based instruction, both active-learning strategies that naturally differentiate. I eventually learned that one of the best ways to differentiate is to simply allow it to happen. I tried to think of all the possible ways to make learning a language interesting and effective.

Looking back at those days, I see that many of the learning activities that I created were intrinsically differentiated -- that is, they encouraged each student to learn and produce at his or her best level without having to do anything extra.

Finding the Right Match

Group projects are ideal for differentiated instruction because the group has to work out what is best for each member to do so that the final product is complete. At first, my training led me to match the advanced students with struggling students so that they could help each other. I noticed, however, that if that was the only way I split up the students, group mentalities would emerge and the struggling students soon ceased struggling. They were content to let the smart kids do the work. So I mixed it up -- randomly, homogonously, and heterogeneously. (See what Robert Marzano has to say about grouping in his book Classroom Instruction That Works.)

Students who would normally not say anything or participate in a heterogeneous group developed leadership and took on responsibility in a way I had never seen before when I placed them with peers of similar skills and attitudes. I eventually learned how to create cooperative groups of students that could tackle large projects such as putting together a dating game in Spanish, re-creating famous restaurants, designing tourist travel agencies, imagining Interpol investigations, reenacting the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, or taking a piece of Spanish literature and transforming it into a radio play.

Give Them Options

Allowing students to choose their assignments is another tactic that automatically differentiates instruction: Rather than creating one learning activity to meet an objective, create several for students to choose from. They will pick the one that interests them the most and, at the same time, self-differentiate according to their capacity and needs. If a student is challenged in writing, then invariably he will choose the graphic novel over the essay. If a student is more academic, then she will select the research paper instead of the television infomercial. The trick is to come up with activities that involve similar amounts of effort and require the same level of learning.

Encouraging student inquiry is another method that promotes differentiation of learning. When a student is asking questions, those questions are automatically going to be at his or her cognitive level. The key is to help the students find the answers at their level.

Looking back, I can divide the differentiated-instruction techniques that I used into two categories: designed differentiation and intrinsic differentiation. Those I've described here are in the intrinsic-differentiation category. In my next post, I will discuss designed differentiation. Meanwhile, go have some fun differentiating for those acronym kids!

But until then, what experiences have you had with creating intrinsically differentiated learning environments? Please share your thoughts.

Comments (121)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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


You are developing a great "bag of tricks" that will help you be a phenomenal educator. You are also using a lot of intrinsic differentiation to help the students learn in their best way. You also seem to be able to mix it up and keep things interesting for the students. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your strategies. You must have an awesome partner too!


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Deborah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a unique teaching assignment this year. I have 15 young adults 18-21 in age. They do go out to job sites (@ different businesses within the community) they all have different developmental levels. I teach Functional Academics & Life Skills. I want to teach using differentiation as much as possible. Is there anyone out there that has any recommendations?
Thank you,

ruthmatts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach art in a title 1 school high school. I was thinking about what you said about grading them on effort. I have students whose work resembles that of a preschooler and these are high school kids! I have been grading them on effort because I dont want to crush their spirits. Maybe that is the reason we are titile one because their teachers in the past were grading them for their effort instead of pusing them to a higher acedemic level. I have been teaching for 14 years in the same school and there is a very noticable different in student performance. Students dont seem to care about their work.

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate this discussion about differentiated instruction. I find that in a first grade classroom, this can be quite difficult as students have difficulty challenging themselves. One way that I've found to encourage this is to offer lots of creative opportunities during their "free time". By giving them a variety of activities in all subject areas that encompass a wide range of ability levels to do independently during their free time, such as after finishing their work, I find that students learn to challenge themselves and grow on their own. Some students prefer the hands on activities, while others prefer listening, creating, puzzles, art, reading, etc.. This is one way that I can push each child individually even when I'm not available to lead or guide instruction.

Jenna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am working with two other teachers in flexible math groups. We used pretests to determine the placement of our students and created instruction based on the needs of our students. However, all of our assessments are different. For example, the advanced learners are getting challenging assessments, even going beyond grade-level standards, the middle group is getting the book test (the one used with the math curriculum), and the small group is getting an assessment that is simplified. I know that differentiated instruction is not about grades, but I am having a hard time explaining to parents that their gifted math student is receiving a B because they are doing harder problems, while the small group learner is getting straight As. s far as assessments are concerned, I feel that they are unfair. What should we do under such circumstances?

Jorge's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with DOI as the most effective way to target and develop students from their level of comfort to mastery of objectives on grade level. Even, if the rigor of GT students work is very high, they are over performing at their level. Therefore, an A seems to be fair. On top of their regular work, it is perfectly valid to challenge this students, grading their advanced projects with a different "honor" scale, without affecting their report cards. On the other hand, grading effort of students on tutoring and intervention with A may promote enhancement of self of self esteem, willingness to come to school but also, may give the sense that mediocrity is just fine. While their report cards should reflect mastery of objectives, it is just showing their effort trying to achieve the objective. Will you be fine but getting paid less because you are overqualified for your job? Would it be fair to see that inexperienced teachers get stipends for the effort to become better teachers with your mentoring? While we teach, we also prepare students for the real life.

robinz's picture

I was looking for something like this. Thanks! fx15 Fx15 siteniz sizlere fx15 ile ilgili bilgiler sunuyor

fx15 orijinal fx15,fx15 nedir diye soracak olursaniz sizlere fx15 satisi derim.. bilin ki fx15 kadar fx15 satisi da onemlidir

biber hapi biber hapi satisi,biber hapi,aci biber hapi

saglik saglik,domuz gribi hakkinda sitemizde ayrica saglik konulari sizlere bilgi veriyor. Biligoysunuz ki oksuruk ve oksuruk tedavisi cok cok onemli bir konudur. Her turk gencinin bilmesi gereklidir.

The afternoon saw very active participation of the Open Source community members and the effort put in by the speakers was mind blowing. Attendees all the way from Vijayawada and Solapur came in to attend the event. The atmosphere was so full of energy that even the attendees delivered impromptu talk sessions on the technology or the project of their interest.

Michelle Minick's picture
Michelle Minick
Elementary Physical Education teacher from Ohio

My physical education lessons are designed around using linguistic, visual, and kinesthetic instruction simply due to the nature of p.e. I use mixed-ability groups when I utilize station work; the students with the lower level of motor skill ability are then able to see what their peers can do physically and typically try to emulate their performance while the higher skilled students enjoy helping their classmates achieve success. I build challenges into my stations by giving the students a choice as to how far away from the target they stand, how high to throw the ball, etc. My students love station work, and I rarely have behavior issues when we are using stations.

Christine M.'s picture

I have to admit, I felt a bit out of practice when reading about intrinsic-differentiation. I guess after so many years doing the same thing year after year in my classroom, I haven't given as much thought to differentiation as I should. What a great refresher! I look forward to applying as soon as possible!

Discussion Grant Wiggins on Edutopia

Last comment 9 hours 41 min ago in Education Trends

blog Inspiring Progress Toward Learning Goals

Last comment 5 days 22 hours ago in Brain-Based Learning

Discussion End the Year with the Best. Final. Ever.

Last comment 6 days 20 hours ago in Student Engagement

article New Teachers: A Primer on Assessment

Last comment 2 months 6 hours ago in New Teachers

Discussion How do you overcome the challenges that come during standardized testing periods?

Last comment 1 month 1 day ago in Community Bulletin Board

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.