George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Students Matter: 3 Steps for Effective Differentiated Instruction

June 10, 2014 Updated May 20, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

Differentiated instruction (DI) is a vast system in which it is difficult for many teachers to find a foothold for supporting students in a meaningful way. Teachers want and expect everyone to succeed, yet the means to that end can be foggy at best. How can we ensure that planned learning experiences have a significant and positive impact on student learning? We can answer this question with three important guidelines that will transform student learning experiences through meaningful differentiation.

Evaluation, Buy-In, and Strategic Diversity

Know Your Students' Strengths

Effective differentiation starts with knowing the students' academic strengths, interests, and perspectives. Formative assessments, thinking styles inventories, and surveys help to construct lessons and scaffolds that strategically meet needs. Often we gather data about the content and skill areas where a student struggles. However, this data lacks a well-rounded view of the student. For example, a good student writer knows how to craft coherent messages, and could benefit from seeing the big picture of a math chapter before following the sequence of chapter sub-sections. He or she begins to see the components in context of a larger purpose. By drawing from one academic strength, a student builds needed confidence to tackle deficient skills in another topic or content area. Learning profile cards present a method for gathering data about students' academic strengths, interests, and perspectives on subject areas. Once they complete the cards, the teacher has a mechanism to differentiate learning experiences.

Involve Students in the Planning Process

Students, like adults, are more likely to commit effort when they're included in the decision-making process. Giving choices is one approach. Deeper differentiation occurs when student voice is nurtured. Include their input for how outcomes are learned and demonstrated. A key step is to give students the academic criteria used to assess the targeted content and related concepts. Using the academic criteria as a guide lets them decide how to demonstrate deep understanding. For example, on the topic of cells, the focus may be that students understand the structures and functions of cells through a three-dimensional model. Students may choose to use fabric scraps or food items, or they may want to build the model using Minecraft, Claymation, or through a method that the teacher would never conceive. If the learning targets are clear and can be met, the materials used should not matter. What is important is that the student, having proposed the idea, will commit him- or herself to more hours of building and revising in a medium that he or she is passionate about.

Leave Ego Outside of the Classroom

What makes good teachers is a dogged determination to help students succeed. Using all of one's resources to find what will work is admirable, but can be limiting. As discussed before, students can be a rich resource for additional tools. Another source is other educators. While it's not difficult to ask colleagues for helpful ideas, the more subtle need is sending students to colleagues for direct support. How one teacher communicates critical concepts may be just different enough that a student makes connections. For example, the way I learned how to simplify quadratic equations seems to frustrate my own students, no matter how I break down the steps. Yet when a different teacher explains it using a different strategy, they understand. Writing is another example where author's craft, such as voice and word choice (see 6+1 Writing Traits), may be difficult for some teachers who lack confidence in their own writing. Another teacher or local author can be a rich source of support. Sometimes students need a voice and perspective that is different from the main teacher in order to be successful.

Understanding Works Both Ways

In Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit 5 is: "Seek to understand before being understood." This principle captures the core for planning and implementing differentiated instruction. Lesson planning is about preparing experiences that help all students succeed. They all process and learn differently, and many of them may not best succeed through the learning strategies that reside in the teacher's toolbox. Opening ourselves to what students bring to the classroom informs us for how best to meet their needs, and expands our instructional toolbox to help other students. That source of support may come directly from the teacher, the student, or other stakeholders and experts.

Students matter greatly in the equation of teaching and learning. The more we know about the learners and the more we include them in the instructional dialog, the better equipped they will be to succeed. Effective differentiated instruction begins with the student in mind, and following these three guidelines will have a significant and positive impact on their learning.

How do you approach differentiated instruction in your classroom?

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