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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.

Comments (121)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Zac C.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that giving students options is a wonderful idea. I have given students a few options on assignments, projects, or tasks before and it has worked well. The problem I run into is that some students seem to be overwhelmed by even having a choice in the matter. They spend so much time worry about with option they would prefer that they lose focus on the goal. Is there any way to relieve this issue, because I would love to give students options more often.

Amanda Slattery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your reply back. It's great, but not really, to see that there is someone else who is facing the same challenges with the regular education teachers that I face. I feel you when you say the the kindergarten teacher seems to think that the special education students are out of her hands. That's how I feel at times the teachers here think. The teachers are always coming to me complaining about the special education students but when I give them advice, they do not take it.

Do you remember the speaker that came to your school? Does that person travel? Maybe, I can talk to my principal about having a speaker come and talk about differentiated instruction. I know in April, I go to the state conference for special education and I believe on of the topics is differentating instruction. I think I just might go to that part of the conference and bring stuff back as well.

Good luck as well!

Michelle Castellanos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I constantly hear the word differentiated being thrown around. As a fairly new teacher I am not always sure what this entails. I did like reading this blog to get a better understanding of how I can differentiate. I also took away from this that I need to give my students more options, this way they will willingly participate in activities.

Lauren Gamet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I absolutely love the idea of a menu! That is something that can be used across the curriculum. Thanks for the idea!

Lauren Gamet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you! I too feel a little intimidated just hearing the word. It sounds like a lot more work for us! But after reading some of the posts and articles, not only is it necessary to differentiate, but easy--once you get the hang of it. Being a teacher is a consatnt learning experience! :)

Lauren Gamet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In our school I guess you could say that reading is differentiated. We have kids from 1st through 8th grade reading levels switch classes for 90 minutes a day. The whole school moves to a different class and is grouped with kids in their reading level. This means that in my first grade reading level class I have kids in 1st through 5th grade. Another way we differentiate is "Reading Rally". The kids pair with someone at their reading level and they get to choose a book that they love. They read to each other for 15 minutes in hopes of increasing fluency and in turn comprehension. So far they love it! I think this is differentiating because they are with kids at their level and they are rally loving it because they get to choose their own book. This makes them feel a sense of control over what they are learning.

Lauren Gamet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

...something as small as letting a child choose a topic to write about within a topic is enough of a choice to call it differentiation? For example, we are writing newspaper articles right now, and the topic is "News Around School". After brainstorming as a class about school happenings, they can choose whichever they want to write an article about off of that list. I am wondering if this is enough of a choice, or should I be letting them write about whatever they want? I guess I am still a little new to ths differentiation thing!:)

Lauren Gamet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Does anyone know what "(not verified)" means next to everyone's name? Is this a bad thing? It doesn't sound very good to me.

Amy Calley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an elementary art teacher, I have had training in differentiated instruction in 3 different school systems. Most of the training has been similar, and the interesting thing I found was that I already use a lot of differentiated instruction in art. Since most of what we do is visual, verbal, and kinesthetic, the instruction has to be that way also. With grouping, I realized that in order for some students to succeed, I needed to group them based on ability, where I could join a group at a time and instruct more one-on-one. With some classes, I group with varying ability, so that some students can help other students who are having trouble grasping a concept. One of my favorite things was learning how to use different types of graphic organizers to discuss definitions or to further develop a concept. These were methods of learning students were already familiar with from homeroom classes and that they responded well to in art.

Donald Steup's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a high school English teacher in Elizabeth New Jersey. I am in my fourth year. My district has addressed the issue of Differentiated Instruction many times and I am saddened to say that they exclusively put forth the theory of heterogeneous grouping when discussing group work. I have followed this format, as instructed, and just as is mentioned in Ben Johnson's article, the strong students work and very often the struggling students ride along. I have been forced to grade as a group and indivdually just to be fair to the focused students.
I took the articles advice and tried grouping randomly, homogeneously, as well as heterogeneously and the the result was just as the article indicated, struggling students with no one to rely on, with a little motivation, took on leadership roles. I feel a bit ashamed I had not tried this before. It seems so obvoius now.
When giving writing assignments I have always provided options from which the students can choose. It empowers them and gives them a sense of responsibilty for their choice. I recommend it to all educators not currently doing it. It means a little more work up front but pays dividends on the back end when the students take an interest in their work.

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