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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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cathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the idea of allowing the children to choose what they want to do. I plan on trying that with my first graders, as I have some very high children and some average children. Thanks for the idea.

Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your blog because as a second year teacher I spend much of my time planning learning activities in which each of my students will be challenged, yet successful at the same time. I have found that the students seem to be most motivated to produce quality work is when they have a choice in what they will be doing. For example, recently students in my class were to demonstrate their knowledge about the history of the Puget Sound region through producing some sort of class project. Students were provided with a list of ideas including creating a diagram, writing a research paper, making an art project, writing an informative song, and developing a puppet show to name a few. Children were also able to demonstrate their learning through any other method as long as they discussed it with the teacher to be sure it would challenge the student and meet the requirements. Students in my class were all very enthused to choose their own project, topic (within the Puget Shound region), and present their work to the class. Additionally, I found that students put forth a greater deal of effort than if I had simply assigned the same task to all students.

Students in my class have also shown that they find a greater feeling of success and pride when they are engaged in hands-on, exploration learning activities. In learning about land and water students have actually created rain in their science groups, made predictions and tested them about why there are landslides, and discovered why river beds and streams have rocks at the bottom, with dirt and lighter material pushed off to the side. Upon discussion with the students they are much more detailed in expressing their knowledge of such events, but they are so enthused that I have had students to home and create similar experiments to show their family members!

Reading your article has only encouraged me to further plan for such activities in my classroom because it allows all students to feel successful, find the fun in learning, and challenge them to take charge of their own education.

Kim S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Nikki,
How do your students move through your centers? Are they in ability groups? Do you rotate after so many minutes? When I was in a kindergarten classroom, the students were ability grouped for literacy centers. Each group went to each center, they would rotate every 15-20min. The centers were differentiated. For example, if the students were using Boggle Jr., the higher ability group had more difficult words to spell. If the students were using magnetic letters, some groups would have to make sentences and others concentrated on recreating sight words. Games were modified as needed to challenge each group. Hope this helps. I would love to hear about your center activities.

Santina Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, Amanda!

I completely agree with you. I am in my third year teaching (third grade in Portland, Oregon) full-time after taking 11 years off. I have learned the most about how to differentiate instruction from our special education teacher. I think, like you, that all teachers should have some professional development in this area. There are numerous accommodations that can be made to help all students. Many of which are pretty simple to employ. I think your idea to include this in an inservice day is great. I am going to mention it to our principal. Thanks for your suggestions.

Don Steup's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I very much enjoyed the blog and would like to share an experience that I had with a co-worker regarding differentiated instruction. I work in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It is an inner city environment and our classes are heterogeneous. Special needs students are present in every class. My co-worker, who has been teaching for 25 plus years and someone I respect greatly, pointed out that a lesson plan properly devised does not need differentiated instruction pre-planned. He referenced a lesson he gave about Albert Einstein. He handed out an article that discussed how his E=mc2 formula had just been proven after 103 years, with the help of a super computer. The article discussed the formula, gluons, dark energy, particle matter, the role of the computer, and just simply the meaning of the formula. Some of it was easily accessible and some of it required a little digging in order to understand. His class accessed it on different levels. Some were intrigued just by the energy equals mass times two times the speed of light, very basic, while others were fascinated by the concept of light's affect on reality. Each student took a different view on the same topic. My co-worker was thrilled that one topic could be accessed by many on different levels. Not all students learn on the same curve but they all found something to connect to. He concluded that differetiated instruction is not a failure if every concept is not understood by every student just that every student understood some part of it.

Nikki's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks Ellen! I too do reading groups and it is just amazing the different levels in my room. We just finished doing the DRA reading assessment with my class. I have kids who are at the lowest level 1 and I have some who are at a 12 which is mid to end of the year first grade. A coworker and I split the reading groups so we can meet with groups more often. I have a pocket chart center as a literacy center. What are some of the things you do in your pocket chart center? Currently, I have picture/word card matches. I am always looking for ideas. Thank you so much!

Kate Amunrud's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an elementary technology teacher in North Branch, MN. Until recently, I have differentiated my instruction by allowing students to have some control of projects and assignments they choose based on their ability. After reading your article, I have decided to include giving students the option of completing projects with a partner. I did not think many students would take advantage of this because they would need to share a computer, but some did and it worked very well. The conversations between partners was appropriate and on task.

Chase's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enoyed reading your article on differentiated instruction. I love the idea of giving students a choice in how or what project they will use to prove that they have learned and understand what has been taught. It is wonderful when we can empower our students to have an active role in their education and take full ownership for the work they are doing!

Amanda Keen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I agree with your reaction to this. I also dealt with children in all levels last year. I had groups both ways, randomly and by assessment scores. It was interesting to see the children work in both groups. You could see the advantages and disadvantages of both ways. I think it is really a great way to motivate those struggling learners and found that sometimes they tried harder to do the same type of work as the other classmates in their group.

Nikki's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the ideas! This year I invested in some games for different literacy centers. I like the idea of the different colored buckets for the levels. I will definitely try to incorporate some of these ideas in my room.


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