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Active Learning Is Key to Differentiated Instruction

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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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Rachel Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a a first year, second grade teacher in Chatsworth, Ga. After reading the blog, I was racking my brain for ideas about varing my assingments to allow each child feel that they are taking on a task that is interesting to them. Great idea with the tic tac toe boxes. The majority of my students hate spelling.
Rachel W.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your blog about differentiated instruction. I am a second year kindergarten teacher. This year I also teach two students with special needs; therefore, differentiation is extremely important. I believe in challenging each student, but on his/her level of learning. I love the idea of giving students the opportunity to choose their assignment. I will definitely try that in my classroom.

Erin G.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Last year I worked with students who were titled as "Gifted and Talented" and basically were the "good kids" of the school. What I found was that there was a huge gap in my students' abilities. I used differentiated instruction as a way to meet all of my students needs. I would create different groups (homogeneous and heterogeneous) but also created individualized spelling lists and a spelling menu. Basically it was set up like a regular menu and the students had to choose one activity from each of 4 categories during the week. It allowed the student the option of choice and the freedom to let their true abilities shine through. Now, I teach 3 year old special education preschool and we differentiate our small group plans. We provide modifications when needed and change questioning depending on the cognitive ability of the students. Once you understand how differentiation works, you will see the benefit of it, and the time it takes to create good quality assignments. You will truly understand what good quality assignments are and it will change the way you view teaching in the classroom.

Brittania Morris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand what you mean about pushing students to do their best when they are content to "just get by". I have had huge problems this year getting my students to turn in homework. I created a classroom chart to show 100% homework. The idea was to get each period to compete with each other for 10 days for 100% homework; it is not working. Now I need a different strategy only I have no idea what to do. If anyone has any ideas let me know. I am desperate.

Jennifer Sloter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I differeniate all of the time. It is so important to meet all of the needs of my students. Not all students learn the same way. I learned this myself. I have test anxiety really bad but if you asked me to do the same test without using pen and paper I would probably do fine. We need to remember as educators our students are the same way.

Sarah Lux's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also a strong advocate of differentiated instruction. I attended Carolyn Coil's Differentiated Instruction trainings and actually became a trainer in D.I. I have led professional developments within my school on how to start integrating D.I. into the classroom. She has many books, but the one I use religiously is Successful Teaching in a Differentiated Classroom. In this book she already has lessons planned and shows you how to make different lessons for the multi-levels within a classroom.
I am currently in my fourth year teaching. I have taught kindergarten, first, and second grade and am now back to teaching kindergarten. Throughout each year I have also used thematic units. It is the best way to integrate the many standards that need to be taught to make it fun and relevant for the students, as well as challenge them at their level. I also use literacy centers and readers workshop in the classroom. It is amazing the difference they make in the students' learning. I teach two half-day sections, which makes it difficult to fit everything in. We move at a very fast pace, so using many different strategies to target all the different areas is key to successful learning.
I really enjoyed reading everyone's blogs about the use of differentiated instruction within the classroom. I love learning talking to other teachers about their methods and strategies because I feel we all have so much to learn from each other. Thank you for sharing!

Jessica Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just begun taking classes for my master's degree. My assignment is to blog. I have had very little experience with blogging. I am interested in the topic of Differentiated Instruction. I have enjoyed reading some of the earlier posts. I am in my fourth year of teaching and have had special education students, regular education students, and challenge students all in the same class. It is difficult to meet each student's needs. I found that small group instruction works really well. After reading the article, I am going to give students more choices about assignments to complete. I would love to hear any ideas or suggestions!

Bridgette Wendt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your blog! I do love to differentiate instruction. I believe it really gives students a chance to excel! When I presented to students that they had a choice of what they could do for an assignment, I think at first they were confused at first because they had never been given a choice as to what their assignment would be. It was amazing how the students performed and they really enjoyed themselves. I enjoyed teaching with differentiation, the students enjoyed the choice in assignment, and what was great was that the students were able to retain the information better.

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on differentiated instruction. As a teacher, I find this one of the hardest things to accomplish in the classroom. I teach in a school that has a great deal of Title 1 support. For an hour everyday, I do guided reading and centers. During this time, my lowest students are taken out of the class in order to receive additional support in the area of reading. While they are gone, I am able to meet with the rest of my class in small groups and focus on areas of need. This also allows me to challenge my higher level students at the same time. In addition, when I'm meeting with one group, the rest of my students are working independently on self-directed, inquiry-based centers. Many students have told me that this is their favorite part of our day because they can choose what they want to learn or work on each day. I have quite a few students who thrive with independent work and this is their time to shine.

I found what you wrote about finding the right match very interesting too. So many times, I have paired a lower level student up with one of my higher level students only to find what you mentioned. The lower student sits back or zones out while the higher level student does all the work. I have found my higher level students, many times, enjoy this as they get to be the "expert" and not be challenged by their partner. They complete the task quickly and then they get to move on to something else, often independent reading. Reading your blog has really made me reflect on my teaching practices in regards to how I differentiate instruction. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Kristi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I graduated from college last May and remember being so sick of the word differentiation! All of my professors and advisors did such a great job of teaching the concept and importance of differentiated instruction. Now that I have started teaching in my own classroom, I am so glad that they prepared us so well. I was in some classrooms during my student teaching where the teacher did not use groups or different assignments to differentiate her lessons. I believe that meeting the needs of all of your students is so important and necessary for the students to be successful. I liked your idea of letting the students choose their assignment of choice. I can see how that lets the students be creative and confident in their work. This also lets the teacher get to know the students better, which is also important when trying to meet their needs. I am looking forward to using that idea in my classroom.

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