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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.

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Rueanna Campbell 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am Rueanna Campbell and I teach at T L Hanna in Anderson, SC.

Are you attending Walden University online and working on your Master's in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment?

I ask because I am in the program. Though it has taken up a lot of my free time, I have enjoyed our first class. I think it is great exchanging ideas with teachers all over the country.

I groaned when we were asked to join a blog, but I have enjoyed this assignment also. I have learned a few things that I have already started using in my class.

Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson,
I enjoyed your insight on differentiated instruction. I feel like I try to accomodate for all of the students' needs in my classroom. The biggest challenge I find is to create an atmosphere conducive for this. I am encouraged by your article to give students different tasks to reach the same goal for the skill. We all learn best by doing different tasks. Why not create different projects for students to choose from? Thanks for inspiring me to do this in my classroom.

Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey Nikki,
I am also a Kindergarten teacher that tries to differentiate my literacy centers. I think it is also difficult to provide tasks that meet the two extremes: children past a kindergarten reading level/students coming in still working on letters and sounds. I have done heterogenous groups and homogeneous groups. I try to use homogeneous grouping when doing my guided reading groups. In doing this, I am able to change the activities based on who I am working with to focus on specific skills. I feel like this is differentiating the instruction. For the different learning centers, I usually group them randomly. I have eight different centers that students complete throughout the week. I haven't tried letting them choose which center they go to, but after reading this article I might try this. I use different centers such as a pocket chart center, read around the room, ABC center, writing center, reading center, theme center, and overhead. The students work on tasks such as manipulating letters, sounds, words, and sentences. It has helped improve my students reading and writing skills.
Just some ideas. Hope this helps,

Kelly Mae's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for the article! I teach 2nd grade and really enjoyed how the article helped me see different ways to use differentiation in my classroom. I think that this is key, especially due to the inclusion push in education these days. I agree with Kacie that being a first year teacher this is definitely an area where I need to grow. I have already learned different strategies, but new ideas are greatly appreciated. I think it is key to understand the different ways that my students learn! Thanks for the post.

Kimberly S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for the informative post. I am a new teacher who has been struggling with differentiated instruction. I like how you said that it can just happen naturally by giving students lessons that were project based and active so that it helped each student learn and produce at his/her best level. You also really made me think about grouping. I also thought it was always good to group higher ability with lower ability. I never thought about differing ability students having more of an opportunity to shine when placed with students of the same ability. I am looking forward to your next blog on designed differentiation so that I can learn more. Thanks.

Amanda Watson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Amanda!

I also teach kindergarten and first grade special education and see the same things happening. Some teachers don't follow the IEP accommodations and it is their job. Even for the students who are not special education students, you shouldn't be using the exact same lesson plans for that long, especially with how different students are. I currently work with a kindergarten teacher who has been teaching for about 30 years and she doesn't think outside of the box often. I think she feels that because the three students I work with are special education students and have a IEP, that they are out of her hands. She is a great teacher otherwise, however, full inclusion of our students is quickly becoming the norm, so I agree with you that someone should sit down and talk with teachers about how to differentiate their instruction to meet those students' needs. We recently had a speaker come on an in-service day. She gave us many ideas on how we could differentiate within the classroom. Maybe that could be a suggestion for your school. It truly seems like you care about getting the instruction that your students deserve. Don't give up and good luck!

Teddy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved reading your blog and found much of what you said very interesting. I guess I am one of the few that started teaching not wanting the "good kids". When I graduated from my high school there were 70 different nationalities present and I was the minority. It gave me such a love and appreciation for other's culture experiences. They say variety is the spice of life and I loved all the different spices my world was full of. When it came time to pick a school for where I would teach, I worked very hard to be able to teach at a Title I school in an EIP classroom with students complete with acronyms and a variety of baggage but I absolutely loved it. This year has been very difficult on me because I am teaching a class of fifth graders categorized as "average" based on test scores and performance. My students now are capable of exceeding standards and meeting high goals but are completely satisfied not. They are happy to inform you that they don't want to be on the other end its too much work. This year has been such a strange experience for me I am so use to students who are frustrated and mad because they cannot understand or achieve certain things that they want to because of various obstacles. I cannot understand students that have parent support, no attendance issues or in need of special support but still barely get by every semester. I enjoyed so much my other students that I would support and fight with overcoming obstacles versus now pushing and pushing only to feel I am back at square one.

I am a huge advocate of differentiating everything. Sometimes I feel like I swing too far to the differentiation side because my students never know what I am going to do. For my own sanity, I like to change things up and utilize all resources. You may walk into my room and we are singing, dancing, sitting on the floor, at our desks, in groups all around the room, outside on the grass or sitting on our desks playing a game. If I'm not having fun and learning how can I expect them to? I also tailor many things such as behavior strategies to individual students' needs versus putting them all into one box. Parents as well as students have seen the benefits of this. It is never easy differentiating as much as I do for 27 students but if it works I have no other choice.

Angela Dungan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 3rd grade as well. I teach an inclusion class and it is important for me to differentiate. I have found that is it less stressful on me and the children when I introduce new things slowly. As teachers we attend many workshops and learn lots of strategies. You are right about choosing wisely because it would be too overwhelming to try every new idea you hear about.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching 1st grade for 5 years, and I completely understand the importance and necessity of differentiated instruction. Every year I have had a heterogeneously mixed group of students-from gifted to students with IEP's. How could someone not differentiate instruction? I do have to mention that I think it is more work to differentiate, but I think the more experience you have, the easier it gets-it becomes a second nature for you. Of course it would be easier to plan the same lesson for all students each day, as opposed to developing lessons based on the needs of the students. I really liked the idea of having the student select an activity. What a great way to allow students to have ownership in their learning!

Jami's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Nikki

My name is Jami, last year I taught all day kindergarten at a pi school. In my class I had children who did not speak English to children that were reading. I dedicated almost 2 hours of my day to differentiated instruction in what we called workshop. My self and another colleague both came up with activities and worked really hard at coming up with a system, that for us, worked well.

In my class had three different levels. I had three different colored buckets in which the children got their tasks. In each bucket there was a "must do" and then different choices for "may do's" the key I believe is in the choices. I personally have ivested a lot in Lakeshore, a company which has great educational games already made. My colleague made her own games. I feel games are the key. If a child wants to "play" they will learn. Those games have to be at thier level and able to do on their own or with partners in their group. I have also found that variety and choice are also important. It is a lot of extra work but I feel that is where I get the most bang for my buck. It also gives me the opportunity to meet with each child every day, which is very valuable.

I hope this gives you some ideas. Good luck, you need to try different things until you find what works for you.


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