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

Amanda Slattery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's wonderful that the college you graduated from focused on differentiated instruction because it is something that many are unaware how to implement properly. Differentiated instruction is something that takes time to implement correctly and without some type of assistance, I don't think it can be 100% successful. I wish that when I was in college we had more classes that focused on differentiating instruction. Good luck!

Nicole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was a very interesting post. I have been teaching 6th grade special education for three years. Differentiating is a necessity in my classroom, but not always easy, especially this year. Our school has become VERY data driven this year. We have adopted a new reading series and have a schedule to keep of weekly, and unit tests (scores are to be turned in to Admin. periodically). Because of this schedule, it feels like we need to teach the text as the text suggests.

In the past I have tried to differentiate by providing multiple options to some projects, mainly responses to novels. With few exceptions, this was unsuccessful in that most students chose to complete the assignment that was closest to what they were used to doing. Not necessarily what was "easiest" or the best match for their skills, but those that were similar to assignments from previous years.

Laura Burgin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben, thank you for your insight into differentiated instruction. I teach a first grade collabortive class. I am constantly differentiating. It was nice to read some of your ideas. I use to group a higher student with a lower student as well. I started to find that the higher students were doing all the work.
I have also allowed my studnets to choose their performance tasks. After we learn our concept I give a few choices of ways to show what they have learned. I have found that this really allows the kids to enjoy what they are doing, and they take more pride in their work.

Kara McDowell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You have made some excellent points about differentiating instructions for students in the everyday, all-inclusive classrooms of today. I too, find it difficult to differentiate instruction for 20 different students everyday. I have actually participated in trainings with Dr. Carol Tollman and she has taught staff at my school to utilize small group learning time to differentiate by sorting students by ability level into 3 or 4 small groups. As students make progress throughout the year they move groups. Each group focuses on different skills or maybe the same skill just simplified. Your ideas are just something else that will help students to gain the most from their educational experience.

Katie Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the above comments about differentitation. It can sometimes be very overwelming, especially when you often do not have enough support to effectively differentiate your class. I do like the process and idea of differentiation and how much more effective it is for student learning. Knowing that other people struggle with this also really helps me and gives me the encouragement to keep going and keep working at my classroom to make it the best learning enviroment for each and every child.

Katie Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like differentiating my classroom. I feel that these procedures are much more effective for my students to learn. Challenging more advanced students or using easier problems for students that are struggling makes everyone in the class feel successfulwhile all are learning at their maximum level. Personally and professionally I feel that I have accomplished much more at the end of the day because I see so many more of my students succeeding!

Katie Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also have used the tic tac toe boards at different levels to differentiate instruction. I also do that with wha tis similar to spoons. It is so great that all children are succeeding while playing th same game at their own level.

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


Do you realize what an anomaly you are? Most teachers pay lip service to differentiation, but do very little to make it a reality in their classroom. Even the straight forward measures that I listed in my blog are extraordinarily uncommon in today's classrooms. I agree with Dr. Mike Schmoker's thought that the system of teacher isolation "ensures that highly unprofessional practices are tolerated and thus proliferate in the name of...professionalism." pg 24, Results Now. Lack of even intrinsic differentiation is one of those rampant unprofessional practices. Thank you for differentiating!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


Today's all-inclusive classrooms are significantly different than the classrooms of 20 years ago and radically different from the classes we attended as students. Our capacity to deal with these changes has, or should have changed radically also. I am glad that you are going to add my suggestions to your bag of strategies for differentiation. Anything helps. Please also keep in mind that you are a creative individual and if you have your educational philosophy established correctly, you will see that regardless of the type of student you have in your classroom, you can find a way to help that individual perform to his or her max. That is the ultimate differentiation.

It is worth the struggle. Hang in there.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


What you illustrate is the effect of many years of non differentiation and when these students finally get a teacher that differentiates, they reverse the roles and actually choose the non differentiated assignment. Wow, how sad. Kind of like the eagle who was raised with chickens, when given the opportunity to fly away, hopped off and preferred to walk.

The nice thing about data-driven teaching is that it is what teaching is all about! There should be no conflict and there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test as long as that is not all we are teaching (the test is a minimum standard).

Here is another differentiation method that I will be talking about in one of my next blogs. The rule of three. We do not learn names, phone numbers or anything else by being exposed to it just once. We have to use it at least three times in context in order to push that knowledge into long term memory. Students are no different, yet too many teachers teach a concept once and consider it done. It take at least 3 times! But if you delivered the information 3 times in the same way to the student, it would make no difference. But if you allowed the students to interact with the information or skill in three or four different ways, allowing for student skills, strengths and interests, then your are deliberately differentiating and it is more likely that the students will "get it". Data gathering can be part of that if you perform true formative assessments (aligned to measurable standards and students are given an opportunity to take the test again after feedback).

Hopefully that helps.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.