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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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Terea's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is definitely enough of a choice. Sometimes, I allow students to choose the books they will be studying when we are completing Literature Circles. Students just want choices and it can be easier to start small and work your way up to larger choices. Giving a voice will give the students value for their work. I hope that helps!

stormy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I never learned about differentiated instruction during my teacher education classes for my bachelors degree. I realized after reading these blogs and comments,I have so much more to learn. I work with an after school program,and I recently became interested in different study tips for students working at different academic levels. some strategies just weren't working for the struggling students. I tried flash cards, drawing, and peer group studying. Although there grades have improved, I am still looking for different study tips. Your post really caught my attention, because you found a way to help all students to feel successful. Since these students that I have in my tutoring program are in the same classess, we have been trying to group them together. There are 6 students, two are high achievers, but unfortunatelly the other four struggle to pass their tests. I am just looking for as many strategies as I can to assist them in being succcessful. Should I break up the study guide into parts and only study smaller amounts of information at a time. Have you tried this? Does it work? Thank you

lynda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It sounds like you are a great teacher, and I agree that it is important to get feedback from others and find out information about strategies. The more strategies you have to solve a problem the greater the chance of a faster solution.
Here are some of the strategies I would recommend when working with struggling students.One of the strategies I have tried is giving several examples as well as visual and auditory instruction. If a child is struggling it is important that they are given specific details step by step. I would recommend writing each step and allowing the student to read and follow those steps. The student's progress should determine the amount of information that they can obtain. If a student does well with a small portion begin to increase the amount of information given.
I have tried these strategies and they have been successful. I hope this helps.

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


You are on the right track. The best teachers I know are always looking to learn how to help their students more. You did not mention subject nor grade level for which they are staying after school for additional help. Sounds like elementary school math (flash cards and drawing). Without knowing other particulars it is difficult to help you. You are welcome to email me at ben@eduteks.net.

Here are my initial thoughts. You have identified the skill level of your students from the test results. Do you know why they struggle? Are the tests that they take aligned to standards (ie each question corresponds to a specific standard). Do you have access to their standardized test scores or recent benchmark tests? Before you begin any new strategies, you have to figure out why the students are struggling.

I would bet that their reading level is low. It cannot hurt to give them some improved reading skills: scanning, reading for main idea, deep reading, understanding vocabulary in context...) Writing is usually the other culprit. According to Mike Schmoker, amazingly little real reading and real writing occurs in most schools. (2006, RESULTS NOW) I concur.

In regards to breaking up the study guide and studying parts, it sounds like you are trying to keep all the students together at the same pace. So the high achievers may be bored and the struggling students are frustrated. With only six students there is no reason that you cannot do completely individualized instruction. I agree, that breaking up the guide into small learning segments could lead to small successes, which could build into big ones.

The study guide might be the problem. It could be just more of the same that they are getting in the regular school day. If it doesn't work in their regular class to help them, why would it work after school?

The heart and soul of learning is that the student must want to learn. How are you inspiring the students to find the answers for themselves? What choices are you providing them about their own learning? Does each student have a learning goal they want to achieve from this extra time after school?

It is hard to give advice without specifics, but I think you get the message that it is most likely that there are other issues why these students are struggling and you have to discover what they are before you can really help them. Diagnosis is the challenging thing about teaching. Good luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


Congratulations! Now, just imagine what can happen if you and three or four other teachers put their minds together and test things out! Action Research is what that is called and that is more than just experimenting on your students. This is doing professional-grade research, pre test, test hypothesis, post test. But the real power behind it is that a small group of teachers are doing the same thing and they compare results. The data discussion that follows improves the teacher understanding of their own skills (and weaknesses) and reinforces the search for higher teaching standards. The end product is much better than one teacher could have done by himself. Students win and teachers win, What could be better? Some people call that kind of group a Professional Learning Community. See Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker's seminal work, Professional Learning Communities at Work, 1998)

Keep up the good research!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Carla's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey Ben - thanks for all the great advice on differentiation. I too am struggling to find ways to make it work in my classroom. I have 5th grade math students that are of different academic abilities. Currently, I assess the students with the pretest, then take that information and identify the students that have already achieved the concept. Those students then work in an accelerated math program during those specific lessons while I work with the others on the direct lesson. This has been working well. The higher students are handling the independent study, but I would also like to use other teaching strategies. Please let me if you have any ideas. Thanks! Carla

Devon 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you Ben for the insights into differentiating instruction. I am a big advocate for differentiating instruction and often feel frustrated when some in the field see differentiating as allowing some students off easy. Every individual has different abilities and only by acknowledging that and pushing each student at their ability level, can we as teachers help students grow as learners and succeed beyond expectations.

I enjoy the comment that when you looked back on your early lessons, you noted that you were differentiating with out knowing. While this isn't true for every teacher or every lesson, I do relate to this! It is in self-reflection that we see where we differentiated in past lessons and where we did not. We can pull the good ideas that we used without knowing, and let them help guide us when making new lesson plans that we knowingly use differeniation techniques in.

I use a lot of group activities in my classroom and enjoy watching the group dynamics as you mention. You're right: it is amazing watching a student who may not be a leader in another atmosphere take charge, delegate responsibility, and help other group members. I do agree that students will tend to go towards what is most appealing to them (what they choose usually goes with their learning style too) and that therefore they differentiate for themselves. As a teacher, one just must put time and consideration into choosing which activities they are offering to make sure that they are reaching each individual's needs.

Thank you again for advocating for differentiated instruction!

ben Johnson (Author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You are already ahead of the game because you recognize and do something about students with different skills in math.

I am working with the Texas State University in a special program for 6-8th grade teachers that might interest you. It is called Mix-it-up and it is designed to help teachers of science and math to use each other's disciplines to strengthen the teaching in their own. As far as I am concerned, the math teacher has a lot more to gain from this.

You might be able to talk to your science teacher and come up with some joint activities that would bring your students together, and still allow differentiation. The key is to give the students a reason to use the math that they are learning. Science has many opportunities to do this.

Another thing that occurs to me is team math competitions. Math problems have several steps. If as a group, each person in the group needs to do only one step. You can try this with giving help to each other or without giving help, but you can give up your turn to correct a mistake or add something missing. The team with the first correct answer and correct procedure wins. If the answer or the procedure is incorrect, the teacher sends them back to fix it. Kids love this and it is good practice for all ability levels.

Remember the rule of three. It takes at least three chances to manipulate information or skills before they can be acquired. Direct instruction is one, individual computer practice is another, and competitions or experiments could be the third.

Keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Peggy Villars Abadie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am way out of my league interjecting myself into your discusssion, but I am seeking and came across it. Believing in the concept of Active Learning as the most productive venue for maximizing student achievement is the easy part. The district where I work, Orleans Parish School Board aka New Orleans Public Schools, embarked on a program in January 2007 to address the need to adjust the instructional model in classrooms in such a way that student outcomes would be maximized as a result of providing student centric/learner-led/problem based instruction differentiated to the highest extent possible.
The overall design was constructed around a three part solution. (1)Assessment to enable the classroom staff to define the students both formatively and adaptively. (2)software and hardware tools to allow instruction to be designed and delivered to whatever number of learners/learning communities existed in any given classroom. (3) Professional Development to empower classroom staff to gain competence with the wide array of tools made available in a way so that the tools were in fact tools made available not only to the classroom staff but to the students in their pursuits of their own learning.
When I look at the discussion above I am intrigued at the lack of suggestion on the part of you and your contributors that one of the ways a teacher might be successful in meeting the highly varied needs of the students in their classes is through the integration of technology onto the mix. Can you address the absence?
I will share that our project has encountered two unexpected outcomes thus far. (1) Although the portion of our project devoted to professional development was many times over the committment of past programs, we discovered roughly a third of the way into the effort that we were only providing about a third of what we now realized we will need to provide to get the classroom staff from the current practice to the desired outcome. (2)The difficulty of maintaining the focus of upper management and site leadership on the original goal until we have a chance to bring the project to fruition is beyond expression. This is true even though from the beginning the project was planned to take until 2009-2010 academic year end to produce measurable data.

Jacqueline B Good's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Too often teachers don't realize they can modify work for every student. By this I mean teachers think they can only make modifications or accomodations for students labelled and with mandated requirements per the IEP. This is not true. A student does not have to be labelled so a teacher can give different work, be it more or less work. We talk about expectations all of the time. Expectations should not be the same for all students, so why would the work they do be the same? One of my higher achieving students could easily do some of the work my struggling students have a hard time with. So should the struggling student not get an "A" for less challenging work when they have put so much effort into completing it? No, effort and ability should both be taken into account when giving assignments. It is no more fair to a high achieving student to not challenge them more. Teachers have to balance fairness and equality. I like to say do not confuse fairness with equality.
Most definitely teachers should be differentiating instruction but also differentiating assignments and how they are graded. It would not be fair to grade on a standard that puts too much emphasis on everyone getting the same outcomes. Some things may just not be attainable by some students. So if they are doing the best job they can, they should be rewarded with a good grade too. And your classroom environment should be such that, the students do not see this differentiated work - grading as not fair. Teachers should be fostering an environment that encourages individuality and an understanding of what each individual brings to the lesson. If teachers start the year off with different standards for different lessons, students will come to expect and accept it. Realistically this should benefit all students because at some point, your high and low achieving students will change places, if you are using differentiated instruction. Then it will seem fair. Of course you may have to reach deep inside you head to find a lesson that you know will highlight the lower achieving students strengths, but your point will be made. This approach highlights individuality and group adhesiveness by fostering understanding of each other strengths and weaknesses.

It is great to read dialogue on being flexible. I find it refreshing.

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