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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.

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Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Karen. I teach art K through 12 in a charter school in Galloway, NJ.
I feel that most of us would like to make a difference in our students' lives. I sometimes feel that those acronym students are the most satisfying to teach. I teach art. I think that art is a subject that is naturally differentiated. Students can work together to help each other come up with ideas and to solve problems. In the charter school where I work, we have 4 10 week themes. I have to incorporate art into the 4 themes for each grade which are each different. There are some students who just don't want to do the work, so I now ask the students what they are interested in. I try to incorporate what they like to do with the theme. Sometimes there may be a couple of different projects going on at the same time. When everyone is doing the same project, they do it to their ability level. Some of the students who don't like art might just do exactly what I ask of them. Some will figure out ways to go beyond what I have asked them to do.

Tom Nelson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Keep up the great work on this subject. Teachers all over the country are struggling with the mandates of No Child Left Behind and the attendant tendency to "lock step" the curriculum. As a teacher of teachers (GATE Certification in Monterey and San Benito Counties, CA) I continually stress that meeting the needs of gifted kids is to meet the needs of all of the students.
Tom Nelson, Pacific Grove, CA

Alicia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved this article. I am in a district that uses the inclusion-based approach. I have children with of all levels in my classroom. I am a first year teacher, so I am finding it particularly challenging to meet the needs of all these students. Some of the ways I was accommodating before was with group activities, however, I was pairing advanced and struggling students together, much like Mr. Johnson was at first. I have been growing frustrated by the lack of response from the struggling learners. I always thought it inappropriate to group randomly, etc. However, now I can see where the random grouping would not only work, but also increase self-esteem. And allowing the student to choose their activity is a great way to increase their motivation.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading your article, Mr. Johnson, I look forward to giving my students more options on their assignments. I have always struggled with providing differentiated instruction. I thorougly enjoyed reading your comments as you have provided me with some great ideas to implement in my Spanish I and II classrooms. Thanks.

Terra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher of honors students, I am learning quickly how most of my students have hidden talents. For instance, I have a student who struggles with the content in science. He is always unorganized and rarely has his work done correctly. However, doing a solar system project I discovered that the student was an excellent artist. He drew amazing posters of the Hubbles space telescope and the NASA space shuttle. Aimed with this knowledge, I try to design lessons that will allow him to display his artistic abilities.

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed this blog. It gave some good sources and great advice.

Emily's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like giving my students options at their reading and math centers. It's interesting to see what choices each student makes and well they perform. I am intersted in reading your next post.

Kari's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the past two years I have been asked to teach the gifted and talented students in 2nd grade. This has proven to be quite a task. I have learned that these children are very emotional and the words we choose will either get them moving in the direction we want or it will cuase that student to shut down. I am thankful for the support I have in this area. It has kept me from causing a child to shut down.

Michael Callahan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your article on differentiated instruction. I am also a Spanish instructor and I too feel lucky that the very nature of world language class easily allows for project learning and performance-based instruction. I also feel that world language lends itself to differentiated learning more so than many other classes.
I have always grouped students based on who I perceived would benefit from the help of higher-level students. I am going to try to mix-up my groups of students differently and see if the lower-level students can be more responsable and creative.
I also liked your idea of giving students options. I have the tendency to expect the same work from all my students. Why not let them take different paths to the same destination?

Kacie 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed this article because it provided ideas on how to implement differentiated instruction in a classroom. I have students of all different levels in my classroom and have been looking for ways to provide differentiated instruction. This is my first year of teaching so I am still learning all the ways I can meet each of my students'needs at the same time.

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