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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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Jacqueline B. Good's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I replied to Devon, I feel teachers fear differentiating not only instruction but asignments and grading. Too often teachers do not realize a student does not have to have an IEP for a teacher to modify or accommodate a student. It is not fair to have the same expectations of all students, so how can it be fair to grade them on the same scale. A classroom environment that fosters understanding and compassion will keep students from seeing this differentiating as unfair. If you are using differentiated instruction you should have lessons that highlight the lower achieving students abilities allowing the higher achieving students to experience both sides of the curve. It is often difficult to find a strength you can play on from the lower achieving students but close study and knowledge of your students, should make it possible. If you are using cooperative learning then each student should bring something to the table. It is often hard to get your high achieving student to let others give input. So you have monitor and stop this tendency to do everything themselves because they don't trust others to live up to their standards. If the students know you are taking abilities into account when grading it lessens the fear of not being the best all the time. I think every aspect of teaching should be differentiated. It takes a lot of work but the results are more understanding and compassionate students, which makes the world a better place.

Equality does not go hand in hand with fairness. Would it be fair to expect me at 100 pounds to lift the same amount of weight as a 200 pound person? Why do we feel we have to have the same assignments and or grading scale for such a variety of learners?

DVogt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your blog reminds me of an analogy I heard at an AGATE(Gifted and Talented) conference in Montana a few years ago. I don't remember the exact wording, but it went something like this:

Imagine a person went to the doctor because of a broken leg. After examination, the doctor replies, "Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning."

Another person goes to the same doctor complaining of bad stomach pains. Again the doctor says, "Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning."

A third person is bleeding profusely. Still the doctor says, "Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning."

If a doctor behaved in this manner, I am sure he or she would not be practicing medicine for long. Why do some people think it okay for teachers to treat all students the same?

Differentiation takes time and effort, but it is worth it!

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


As you do, I believe that technology, if used correctly, has the capacity to make teachers much more effective at inspiring learning, and make students much more effective at acquiring knowledge and skills.

There are several reputable programs that contain curriculum coursework that allows students to "go at their own pace" as they learn. You are right, I only briefly mentioned this in the following post as a Designed Differentiation method. Technically speaking, these programs will test the students and then prescribe course of study based on the results. Teachers are able to adjust this course of study manually, but in my experience, few do. In terms of differentiation, though, having a custom program of learning can't be beat.

There are certain elements of "intrinsic" differentiation in the use of technology. For example, all students can use it at their own developmental level. Teachers have minimal involvement, and students control the pace. The affective filter is very low when using computers and students can explore and investigate. For some students the computer controlled learning is ideal. For others, it will not be as effective.

The draw back is that the computer does not care about the student reaching goals, or being challenged. The computer cannot intuitively provide needed feedback on performance.

Your program seems intriguing and I would be interested to see the results.

I hope this addresses some of your comments.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Carol Ann Nusbaum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ben,

I work in an elementary school that is piloting a clustering model. This is to address the high ability students. I chose not to teach in the high ability class, but teach what I thought would be a traditional classroom. Boy was I wrong.
I teach the third grade, and I had reading levels anywhere from 1st grade level to 3rd grade level. I had to jump into differentiating my instruction fast. I was using 4 different reading strategies, with 4 different levels of reading assignments.
I made it through the year, but I could really use some training on how to make it work smoothly. Do you have advise on a book I could buy, or any tips of your own? I would appreciate it.

Do you think that besides the different reading groups, it is alright to do a whole group lesson on grade level even if some won't get it? Do you feel that the exposure is good for them?

Thank you,
Carol Nusbaum

Angela H's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I glad that you came to understand differentiated instructed as a good thing. As a Special Education teacher, you always have to differentiate instruction. In the 2 years that I've been teaching Learning Support, I have never had a group of students on the same level. Yes they were all considered Learning support and had a learning disability, but they were all different. Out of my 6th graders this year, their reading levels range from 1st-6th grade. I have 3 different groups in my classroom of 8 students. They all learn the same material but in different ways. As a co-teacher as well, first year, I wish that some of the regular education colleagues I work with with realize this as well. No students learns in the same way or at the same pace. Great blog!

claire stieff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Having just finished teaching for the year, I found your article very interesting. In May I did several group projects both in English and history.In history, I mixed the students with different abilities together. I too found that the under achievers relied on the over achievers to do most of the work. The over achievers also were control oriented and wanted to do all the work. So, next year I plan to mix them more according to similar abilities. In English, I did literature circles and found that worked better with similar abilites because they were able to read at similar paces and read more than one book. The slower paced ones felt more comfortable together. They choose their own homework assignments which was interesting to see who pushed themselves more than others.
What I learned this year is that I need to do more of this differentiated learning throughout the year.
It is interesting to read other teachers responses. Thanks for sharing.

Pattipeg 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am working hard to incorporate more differentiation into my Spanish classroom, and find it important to recognize that students come to the table with different backgrounds and abilities. But coming to teaching from the world of business, my take on grades is a little different. When I started teaching, I graded my students based as much on effort as on mastering specified content. This made them feel good, and student would progress to the next level of Spanish expecting to be successful. Unfortunately, by the time they hit Spanish III or IV, they were so far behind that I could not longer differentiate successfully for them--their content knowledge (writing skills, ability to conjugate verbs in any tense, etc.) pushed them out of the loop. Grading them based on effort gave them a false understanding of their own abilities in the subject, which was ultimately very unfair to them.

When I think of grading based on effort, I think of a doctor botching an operation, but keeping his license, because "at least he was trying;" or a pilot crashing the jet because of poor skill (and killing passengers) but keeping his license because "he tried to do it right." In most of the real world, reward is based on competence, not on "trying." I think we hurt students in the long run if we don't allow them to learn that lesson while still in school.

Samantha Bradshaw's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like the idea of giving students choices as a way to naturally differentiate. I work with small groups of struggling readers. These intervention groups have children from the same grade level and they all struggle to read and comprehend grade-level text. Beyond this, however, they each bring very different strengths to the table. It is so crucial to give them opportunities to make choices within lessons to increase their motivation and level of success in an area that is particularly difficult for them.

Jamie Doane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Being a newer teacher, I have been fortunate to learn through my partner how to differentiate in most lessons. We have found in math, breaking students into small groups to play on each others strengths has been helpful. Some children are visual learners and love using manipulatives to help cement their learning, where as others need repetition and revisitation. Also, letting students partner with each other allows them to showcase their abilities to their peers versus always showcasing it to us.
I found that having the readers broken into groups (at times) with other students the were at a similar reading level, their confidence peaked through and my expectation were different for each student. Giving them three assignments to choose from allowed each student to display what they took away from the reading and the assignment. At other times, it has been nice to do whole group reads and discuss what is happening in the story versus writing it. Also, drawing pictures and writing predictions has allowed me to get a sense of what each student is pulling out of the material. Grading also comes into play here. This year, I have found that creating assignments with the same premise, different working and various expectations has allowed my partner and I to allow children to feel successful and
As a teacher, I am constantly learning how to develop new strategies. In doing so, this allowed me to reevaluate and realize that I have some methods that really work, and others that need to be thrown in the trash. It's a work in progress always.

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


To answer your questions, yes there are some good books. Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote the Differentiated classroom. She has some good ideas.

In terms of teaching a whole group lesson, when a student "doesn't get it" do you just keep teaching or do you try to help them "get it"? Of course you help them. You stop what you are doing and you deal with the needs. The real question is how do you know if they are getting it or not? While you teach, what evidence do you gather to help you know whether you are reaching them or not and to what extent? We can't afford to teach the whole lesson and then ask,"Any questions?"

You have to be probing the students all along, pausing for them to manipulate the information or develop a skill, and then constantly checking for understanding and acquisition of knowledge.

Just because you are doing a whole group lesson doesn't mean that you can't break into pairs or small groups for differentiation. Remember choice is part of differentiation too! Let the students choose some learning activities. Also remember to take advantage of all the intrinsic differentiation techniques I described in my previous post.

Most of all, have fun with it.

Good Luck

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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