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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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Nikki's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a chart with different choices. I have the kids in groups of two. Each group has 2 centers they must do. At the end of the day, we move each group to their new choices for the next day . It takes about 10 days to get through all the centers. Once they are in the center, the center is openended. I do not assign specific tasks in each center. I think my big goal is going to be getting centers with more specific tasks so I can differentiate them. I never thought of Boggle Jr. I think that is a great idea! Thank you so much!

Rachel Demers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first time blogging... thank you for the reply!

You are right about it making our work less stressful, but I also think the material becomes truly meaningful and worthwhile for the children too. From what I see, it's almost as if differentiation helps to self-motivate children to want to learn. It' Awesome!

Terea's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Whenever I create projects for my students, I keep in mind that choice creates ownership. I have found that students will try to do just the "easy" ones. I have expectations that they can only complete one writing assignment. Students think the writing assignments are easier, but they genuinely rush through it.
I had the personal experience to learn under Carol Ann Tomlinson. She is amazing and her work gives teachers great ideas for differentiating instruction. I personally love the tic-tac-toe boards. Thanks for the great article.

Rachel Demers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a third grade teacher at a charter school in Pontiac, MI.

I just wanted to comment on your project idea. I give choice for my spelling homework for the week, a tic tac toe box with choices. I really love your idea though for the project ideas. I have always wanted to try that with my students but I feel that they're too young and need more structure when it comes to projects. I'd like to know how that went for your class, and what grade you teach so that I can guage my trial of this great technique!


Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate your comments on differentiated instruction. I am fortunate to work at a school where we have four literacy specialists (of which I am one) who pull small groups of students for intervention throughout the day. This allows time for us to differentiated instruction for struggling readers, and also "frees up" the classroom teacher to meet the needs of the rest of the class during that intervention/enrichment time.

Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey again Nikki,
I have made up sentences that go along with our unit. I use sentence strips to make the sentences (fairly inexpensive). The sentences are cut apart and students have to piece together the sentence so that it makes sense. I usually have a picture that relates to the sentence so they know what the sentence is about. I also have done rhyming games where students match rhyming pairs. You could do this with opposites too. In the next couple of weeks, I am going to place sentences on there that are mispelled or have mistakes in it. The students will have to change the sentences so that they make sense and have the correct spacing, capitalization, and punctuation in all of the right places. Just some ideas,

Heidi Goulet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly enjoyed reading your blog. We, my colleagues and I, are working very hard to ensure that our students are receiving differentiated instruction, especially in reading. However, I feel other academic areas need to be differentiated as well. The suggestions you posted inspired me to strike out in a different direction.

I often group students together where a struggling student is placed with a more advanced student. I have always looked at it as the struggling student will emulate the advanced student's behavior and academic success; but I can certainly see how the struggling student could and would give way to the advanced student.

Further, giving students options and letting them formulate questions regarding their project makes so much sense! Even though there are objectives that need to be met, is there not more than one way to reach those objectives?

Thank you for your post. I am eager to make a few changes and create a more active learning environment.

Bernard Harding's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read through your Finding the Right Match and Give them Options I was reminded of a teacher at my site. This teacher found that students were always trying to find the easiest way to complete the project. In his 4th grade classroom he would have the students make missions and then report on them. Most of the time the students would come with a mission that was purchased and put together by their parents. He started to get tired of the same old mission reports and decided to change. The next years students were given an option; 1. Go to an actual mission, take pictures of yourself there, write captions next to the pictures and post everything on poster board. 2. Make a mission without purchasing the kit and write a report. 3. Write a report about a mission. He made sure this was given at a time when the students could go to a mission (vacation time). It is really important to give students the choice so they feel comfortable doing the work. This also gives them the buy-in that is needed.

Alicia Reaves's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for sharing. When thinking about differentiate instruction I have never thought about giving students different ways to present the same information. You are right they all have different strengths and giving them the opportunity to use their strength to show what they have learned will insure their success and boost their confidence.

K. Balog's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While working in Durham, North Carolina at a wonderful independent school, I was immersed in differentialed learning. Most of the students came from well educated parents, often of the neighboring universities. Although these children had strong educational backgrounds they were not always the best students. I found that by second grade they were ready to give up on those things that were not 'easy' to learn. Through differentiation I was able to tap into their streghths but also stretch them in ways that would challenge them. Through differentiation they learned how to learn, not just to 'do' their assignments. Valuable lessons I have since learned some of them appreciated through eighth grade graduation speeches I was able to hear. I balked at differntiation when it was first introduced to me, but have found the hard work associated with it has given my students more than I could wish for.

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