Differentiated Instruction

Powering Up for Differentiated Instruction

Building scaffolds into lessons is crucial, and video game strategies can inspire teachers in the effort to meet students’ needs.

July 3, 2023
RoseStudio / iStock

I spent many happy years of my childhood playing video games. No doubt in an effort to re-create these memories, I recently bought my son a Nintendo Switch. 

Over the last several months, I’ve watched, with mounting awe, the way he has transformed from barely being able to hold the controller to completing levels with increasing skill and dexterity. Where once he gave up within seconds, now he perseveres, a scourge against all “bad guys.” 

It struck me that this gradual, but significant, improvement was no accident. He had an excellent teacher—the video game. The more I paid attention, the more I realized that the video game was deploying, with precise and masterful effect, many of the same pedagogic strategies that teachers deploy in their classrooms. It was a master class in effective instructional design, one in which the game took a novice and turned him into an expert. 

I’d like to share my thoughts about what video game design can tell us in particular about effective differentiation and scaffolding, concluding with specific strategies you can implement in your own classroom. 

Video Games Teach With Differentiation 

Consider the example of Super Mario 3D World, our favorite game. If you die multiple times on the same level, the game offers up an “invincibility leaf.” Now, you can play the same level, but instead of needing to jump around hazards or nimbly attack enemies, you can now just run into them, and pop! they go away.

To me, this is a powerful example of the kind of differentiation and scaffolding we should all be aiming for. If my son finds the level difficult or he doesn’t quite have the appropriate reactions or dexterity, the game doesn’t send him off to an easier or different level. Instead, it scaffolds the game for him by offering a power-up.

The reason this works is the same reason it would in the classroom. With the offering of a power-up, my son’s attention can be focused on the more fundamental controls and mechanics of the game. The extraneous cognitive load of dealing with lots of enemies rushing quickly at him is removed, and instead he can practice, and get better at, the first steps before progressing. Progress is possible because with the support being offered, he is able to practice and refine his skills until eventually he doesn’t need the power-up.

The game doesn’t dumb down for him, but rather raises him up. He’s able to get better at the tasks and experience the success of completing the same level as before, and the support eventually fades because he can do it without it. 

Leveling Up the Classroom With Supports

We can deploy the same basic logic in our own classrooms. Here are two practical strategies I’ve recently used in my literature classes, both a power-up inspired version of scaffolding. 

Index cards: Have the students start working on a task. As with Super Mario Bros., all students are working toward the same goal. 

As students begin, circulate through the room, noting who seems to be struggling. Place an index card next to them on the desk. The index card is the power-up. 

You can write anything on the index cards that you think might help struggling students complete the task. It might be an added question to move their thinking along or a helpful hint. If students are analyzing a poem, perhaps the card suggests that they think about a particular quotation in the second stanza. The card might prompt them to remember something you discussed in a previous lesson, inviting them to consider how it connects to the current task. It could be a sentence starter or complete example, just enough to power up the students’ thinking so that they can complete the task, but not so much that it does the work for them. 

I tend to prepare these cards beforehand, printing them out onto small notes. As I move around the room, stack of helpful hints in hand, I slip them to students who need that extra support: targeted, subtle scaffolding. I explain to students beforehand that I might do this, so that no one in the class is surprised or confused by the appearance of these little white cards. 

As an alternative option, you could also place a couple of cards face down on students’ desks before the task begins. They all begin the same task with the same goal. If they start to struggle, they can choose a card. If they’re still struggling, they choose another one. This works well because students retain their independence: They opt in to the scaffold when they feel they need it. 

Structure strips: As with index cards, structure strips provide an effective way for students to power up their thinking while helping them to experience the same success as every other student. With these scaffolds, I prompt students to think about specific elements of the text and analytical verbs that help support their critical thinking skills. 

Students attach these strips into the front of their exercise book (or binder). This way, they’re always available for students to consult as they write. Placing them at the front encourages students to begin the task, whatever it might be, without their help, flipping to the front when the students feel they require extra support. 

A selection of high-impact sentence stems can help improve student writing. As I’m modeling my own writing, I’ll have one of these slips simultaneously placed under the visualizer. I’ll drag and drop one of these sentences into my work, narrating why and how I’m using it and placing particular emphasis on how the sentence makes my writing better. 

After the demonstration, students can attempt the same thing in their own writing. At first, they might flip back and forth frequently between the strip and the writing, but eventually they become accustomed to using these words and phrases. They’ll rely on the strip less and less. It just becomes a kind of cognitive flex, embedded into their personal essayistic lexicon. 

Game Over Means SUCCESS

All games operate on a paradoxical logic: The game wins when it loses. When you complete that final level and the boss falls to his timely death, the game has worked its pedagogic magic. The game ends because it has succeeded in making you good enough to win. 

Scaffolds are no different. They’re successful when they prove themselves obsolete and students no longer struggle. We offer students ways to power up their thinking until they no longer need to rely on them. Everyone in the class has the same fundamental goal, and everyone is allowed to experience success along the way. 

This is differentiation done right, the Super Mario Bros. way.

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  • Differentiated Instruction
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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