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Back to School: Differentiation for All Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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In every classroom we have students that are as different as condors are to capybaras. A soaring condor's capacity has little to compare with the skill set of the water-loving capybara. Understanding their differences is the first step, but even if we create individual education plans that differentiate instruction for each student, teachers are forced to make choices that affect student learning when it comes to instructing them all at once.

The issue is how do you provide instruction that meets the needs of each individual student? The answer is you can't, but there are some other things that can.

Tried-and-True Tactics

I would like to introduce you to the idea of automatic differentiation. It is impossible for a single teacher to provide 35 unique individual learning opportunities for every learning objective, so as a result, we do the next best thing; we clump student-learning needs into related categories and get as close as we can. If we are able to do three different categories, we feel that we are doing great -- hard, medium, and easy. But, even still, we know we are not meeting the specific learning needs of every student, just some of them. If we take advantage of automatic differentiation, however, then the learning needs of all of the students are met naturally or organically.

The only thing we have to do in automatic differentiation is to start the process and then let it go. Here are some examples of automatic differentiation:

  • Cooperative learning is done in small groups, and students are forced to interact with other students to complete the learning task. In this setting, students automatically choose the task they are most comfortable doing along with the level of participation that resonates best with them.
  • Project-based learning is also an example of automatic differentiation. When given the project and the standard of success in a rubric, then it is up to the student to determine how to meet the requirements. The students automatically choose methods and learning strategies that coincide with their needs and interests.
  • Choice learning is an example of automatic differentiation because students are allowed to choose which assignment they want to complete from a menu containing several equivalent assignments.  An example of this is the elementary concept of “centers.” Students can wander from center to center, engaging in what ever they are interested in doing.

Turning to Technology

An example of automatic differentiation that is highly effective is seen in classrooms where tablet computers are integrated into the learning. The tablet computer is the ultimate automatic differentiating tool because students are the ones using it to learn and as a result, the students automatically work at their own skill level, and automatically follow their own interests and learning styles. This differentiation is facilitated when you have a device designed specifically to help teachers and students in the education setting.

Choosing Your Device

I have used iPads®, the Intel® Education tablet (Amplify® also uses the Intel tablet) and the Kuno 4®. All of these devices have similar features, but the unifying thread found in each device is student exploration.

A tablet is a powerful exploratory learning tool that helps students automatically differentiate their learning according to their particular interests, knowledge, and skills. For example, with a clip-on attachment, the lab camera on the Intel Education tablet becomes a microscope, temperature probe that connects through the headphone jack, and with other built-in sensors, the students can use the Sparkvue® app to perform multiple laboratory experiments. IPads® were the leaders in the tablet wave, but their device is a consumer device and while Apple® has made great efforts to adapt it to schools, many schools have purchase hundreds of iPads and have had to make their own adaptations. What I like about the Kuno 4® and the Intel® Education Tablet is that they were designed specifically for schools and students. I also especially like that these two tablets come loaded with resources, which include a variety of ready-to-use digital content that students (and teachers) need to delve into science, math, social studies, and English. 

As a theft deterrent, one thing that the Kuno 4® has that the other tablets do not have is that it will only work within a school-controlled mobile learning solution (MLS) network called Curriculum Loft®. Interestingly enough the Curriculum Loft can also provide teacher control to iPads® and other tablets. The Intel Education Tablet includes their own MLS called e-Learning®, and like other learning management systems it allows teachers to send individual students, or groups of students, unique learning opportunities to differentiate instruction to their specific needs. This could include access to assignments, resources and apps designed to help them learn. Intel, Apple and Kuno 4® have hundreds of apps on their websites to fit the needs of individual students. One thing I have learned about free apps is you get what you pay for -- limited function and advertisements.

I like that tablets, more and more, are being built rugged for student use and so schools don’t have to worry so much about students breaking them. Additionally schools can relax a bit more because of built-in security features and filtering software installed on these devices. I asked a math teacher who was purchasing iPads® how he was planning to use them. He said he would purchase an app that would allow him to control all the iPads® so that every tablet was on the same page at the same time, all doing the same thing. It was obvious that he was totally missing the point for having these exploratory devices. Yes, these devices can be locked down so students only see and do what you want them to do, but at some point we have to trust their integrity and the acceptable use policy that they signed, otherwise we lose the full utility of the devices to differentiate learning.

Perhaps most importantly, as I expressed in an earlier blog, with each of these tablets teachers need to have access to professional development that offers more than showing teachers how to use the technology. Teachers need to be shown how to use the device to design lessons that integrate the technology and take advantage of the natural differentiation inherent in the device (as an example of free training, see the Intel® Teach Elements site). Now combine tablet learning with the other types of automatic differentiation and you have a powerful combination for students to learn.

So even if you have condors and capybaras in the same classroom, a tablet computer can provide effective differentiated instruction and also the intense exploration and discovery that effective student learning demands. What are your experiences with automatic differentiation? 

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sha's picture

I really like the thoughts of turning to technology and using project based learning. I am getting to learn more about technology and with math. I taught science last year so the type of programs I used last year is different from what I am using this year. We use a tablet called MobiView that I am not comfortable with using yet but I am sure once I get the hang of it I will become more comfortable.

Kendra Grant's picture
Kendra Grant
Learner, Teacher, Parent, Entrepreneur, Volunteer, SOOC Designer. UDL informs practice, process & product. It's all about Transformative Learning.

Thank you Ben for promoting the idea of automatic DI. As a classroom teacher, I used technology to create an "All Access Classroom" meaning I used it to provide learners with multiple ways to access, process and produce information to meet their learning needs. For example, there was always more than one-way to "read" text or more than one way to "report" on a topic. However, to create this level of automaticity requires intentional design. Just as my car has an "automatic transmission", I recognize the gears don't shift without a lot going on under the hood. The same applies to cooperative learning and project based learning. To create automatic differentiation requires intentional design. If we just have students work "cooperatively" on a task without them understanding what this looks like and sounds like, it often results in one or two students dominating or students always assuming the same roles. Teaching students how to work in cooperative groups and (self) assessing those skills will help students recognize and understand their strengths and needs and apply this understanding to cooperative group work. The same is true for project-based learning. I don't believe "The students automatically choose methods and learning strategies that coincide with their needs and interests" without explicit instruction, candid conversations and self-reflection. In Universal Design for Learning, the goal is for students to develop metacognition: to become self-reflective thinkers that understand how they learn; who can then work cooperatively and productively with others.
In any classroom I believe there are two additional learning goals beyond planning what students will "Know, Understand and Do". They are Connect (How will students help build, and work within, a community of learners?) and, Reflect (How will students develop metacognition?) As students better understand themselves as a learner within a supportive community of learners, then cooperative learning and project based learning can be effective vehicles to support automatic differentiated instruction.

Wowzers's picture
Wowzers offers online Game-based Math curriculum for Grades 3-8

Great post, Ben. Love your "Turning to Technology" section. The advent of mobile devices and adaptive, personalized learning technology has really opened the doors for educators.

To learn more about using digital learning tech to help personalize your instruction, be sure to check out our digital pamphlet, "Personalized Learning Article Three-Pack" at

Tim's picture

You provide some good information about differentiation and bringing technology into the classroom. As a high school teacher, I can relate to differentiated instruction and the importance of meeting needs of all learners. I use both cooperative learning and project-based learning, but do not always see students choosing an area they are most comfortable with. I like students to work outside of their comfort zone and develop the important 21st century skills society expects of them. The technology you discussed sounds very beneficial to the classroom teacher and the way a teacher can differentiate instruction through the e-Learning feature. Advances in pedagogy are accepted and implemented by many educators, but technology still lags behind and is slow to implement. Technological advances are not slowing down in society, so maybe it is time for school's to invest more in technology so students can be better prepared to enter the workforce. Technology is a win-win for both the education system and the student.

Ken Wong's picture

Hi Ben, thanks for your post. We are designing a training program for teachers on differentiation incorporating technology. I'm looking for some sample ideas and programs perhaps from this site. Thanks again.

Jodi's picture

Hi Ben! Thanks for the technology ideas. I don't often turn to technology, but I can definitely see how it will be my friend for this year and meeting the needs of all my kiddos.

MorganBeth's picture

This article was a great resource to remind us that differentiation in the classroom can happen in multiple ways. I love the ideas that are given and that using technology will naturally allow differentiation. I am so pleased to read such a refreshing article after struggling with how to reach some of my highest learners.

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