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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Active Learning Is Key to Differentiated Instruction

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (121)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Elizabeth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this article. I am currently working on my master's degree and we are talking about what makes a good teacher. I think that a good teacher is one who can differentiate instruction. Thank you for you wonderful article.

Sophia Francis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really ejoyed reading your blog. As a mathematics teacher I encounter students with different learning styles and though I try to plan my lesson to meet the needs of all my students it does not always work. I am eager to try your idea of given them options. I think this would be a goood way to allow students to show their true potentail. I have used grouping in my classes however, I find that some of the weaker students do not always readly accept the help given by their group members. As an effective teacher I will continue to work on these students and try to boost their self-esteem as I think this is a crucial factor to learning.

Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach middle school and have the students choose what type of reading comprehension assignment they want to complete. The assignments include different learning styles based on Gardner's multiply intelligences. I enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for more ideas.

Rueanna Campbell 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach high school math at T L Hanna in Anderson, SC.

When I read the section on giving students opinions, it reminded me of a project that I use to do in my classes. My students had to pick one chapter out of the book and create a review for it. They could write a poem, song or play; create a game, poster, or power point. They also had the option of working in a group or alone. I tried to give options that would reach every learning style or talent. My students loved the project. Of all my projects, I got the best work out of this one.

I found the section on finding the right match educational. I rearranged my room this grading period, so my students sit with a partner. I also often play group review games in my class. I am always putting advanced students with struggling students. My husband, today, asked me if I thought that was fair. Now, I have read your blog. I may have to change my strategy next time.

Nikki's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I currently teach kindergarten in Mineral City, Ohio. My class attends all day, every day. I am trying to differentiate my morning literacy centers to accomodate various reading abilities. I have children who can read well into a first grade level and some who are working on learning letters and sounds. I do not have specific tasks assigned to each center, but I am always looking for ideas. Personally, I feel differentiated instruction helps make a great teacher. I know I do not do it enough in my classroom. If anyone has any ideas, I would love to hear about them. Thanks!

Amanda 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your article about differentiated instruction. I am a special education teacher and try to use a variety of instructional delivery methods to reach my students. I think that giving students a choice is a good way to switch things up. With different options, students will feel that they can choose what works best for them. We recently had a speaker who suggested using a restaurant menu style where students had different food (assignment) options. Giving options gives students the opportunity to show what they know through their own methods of learning.

Amanda Slattery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Amanda Slattery. I currently am teaching K-7th special education at TCCS in Tidioute, PA.

I really enjoyed reading your blog. It made me think about the elementary teachers that I am currently working with and how they do not differentiate thier instruction. Similar to what you stated, I think that these teachers just want to teach the "good kids". I'm not sure if they don't know how to differentiate the instruction, or if they just choose not to because it will be extra work. Being the special education teacher, I work with these teachers each day. I give them copies of the students IEP's and they still do not follow the adaptations and modifications found within the IEP. I've spoken with them several times and even stated that I would make the adaptations and modifications myself and they do not take me up on it. I think that they need to have someone sit down with them or maybe they should attend a conference on differentiating instruction and how important it is to the success of the students they work with. I mean, these same elementary teachers are using the same lesson plans they had from the first year that our school was opened, which was 4 years ago. We are in the process of possible purchasing a new reading curriculum so maybe that would make the teachers differentiate their instruction a little more. There are sections in the curriculum for various ways to differentiate the instruction so they do have some ideas, they just choose not to use them. I feel that these teachers are hurting our students in some ways instead of helping them out.

Rachel Demers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Rachel and I teach 3rd grade at a Charter School in Pontiac, MI.

I just wanted to say that I am a differentiated instruction advocate. I have been to two professional developments now on the strategy, and I am slowly adding it into my teaching practice. Although choice is one of the easier ways to incorporate DI in your classroom (which I do with almost every subject), there is so much more to it. There are grouping strategies, time management strategies, self-assessment tools to use, and the list goes on. It is almost overwhelming at times, especially after the binder of ideas I received at one workshop. Like any other teaching strategy though, our speaker told us to choose wisely, and make "one gourmet meal a week". In other words, don't try every strategy at once, but take your time, and try one with all of your might each week to see what works best for your students. I encourage all teachers to use and discover this wonderful best practice.

Kristen P's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was very informative and helpful. I am a Spanish teacher and I am actively looking for ways to further differentiate my lessons, especially since I often have many levels in one class. Thanks for the ideas.

Rueanna Campbell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am Rueanna Campbell and I teach math at T L Hanna in Anderson, SC.

I also find it hard to differentiate my actually lessons for my students different learning styles. After all math is math. To help me out, I just had my students do a journal on what learning style they thought they were. They also had to give me an activity they thought would help them learn better. I have started using the different activities in my class.

I also do group activities. I usually group high with low also. Next time I put them in groups or partners I am going to follow Ben Johnson's idea of homogenous group. Hopefully working with students of the same ability will get those students to work instead of just copying work and they will feel more comfortable sharing.

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