George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Updated 01/2014

When I lesson plan with teachers, out of earshot from their fellow teachers and their principals, I can't tell you how often I'm asked, "what exactly does it look like?" when it comes to differentiated instruction.

In the education world, differentiated instruction is talked a lot about as a policy or as a solution, but rarely do educators get opportunities to roll up their sleeves and talk about what it looks like in practice.

The definition begins with this: Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need. Approaching all learners the same academically doesn't work. We have to start where each child is in his learning process in order to authentically meet his academic needs and help him grow. With a classroom full of children at different stages of learning, this certainly sounds overwhelming, I know. So I'd like to suggest a place to begin and provide some examples.

Start with the Student

If a child in your class is really struggling with reading, writing, organization, time management, social skills or all of the above, the first step is to find out as much as you can about her educational history and anything else. This includes learning about her interests, cultural background, learning style, and something about her home life (The youngest? Foster care? Single parent home?)

The fact is we are mainstreaming a larger number of our students to general education classes, who, 15 years ago, may have instead been assigned to a special education class. That's good news in so many ways but makes a teacher's job more challenging. This is also one of the reasons why differentiated instruction has become such a hot topic.

Several years ago, in one of the general education language arts class I was teaching, 8 of the 34 students enrolled had an Individualized Education Program (IEP). When a child has an IEP, it is required that all teachers provide accommodations and modifications to assignments and instruction for that student. Speaking of overwhelmed. I definitely was, to say the least.

So, I learned. I spent many of my conference periods combing through student files. It's amazing what you can discover about a child from doing this. For instance, I had a student with perplexing behaviors then I learned he suffered from schizophrenia. How did I find out? Looking at his file. I was a much better teacher for him after gaining this information. Of course, he had an IEP, and someone should have told me in the beginning of the year, but we all know how things -- and children -- fall through the cracks of large public schools in enormous school districts.

A Classroom Example

Making an assignment, task, or objective different for one student than the rest of the class is meeting that child where they are in their learning journey. It's okay, you don't have to feel bad or feel as if you are being unfair, or lowering the bar. You are the child's teacher and you spend enough time with her to understand what she needs. And remember, equality is about meeting the needs of the individual.

Here's an example from my teaching:

It's a high school language arts class, and students are reading a novel. The daily objective is practicing inference and application of this skill. They are writing a brief essay predicting what the character Crooks from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men might do next. They must pull textual evidence from the book to support their predictions and claims.

But Diana is seated over there, frustrated. She is struggling with the concept of inference, partly because she is reading below her grade level. Knowing this about her reading abilities, and other challenges indicated on her IEP, do I expect her to stay the course, or do I admit that success for her with this assignment as it stands is not likely? I decide to give Diana the task of listing five adjectives to describe the character Crooks. She has to find one quote from the character in the book to prove one or more of the words she has chosen. There are similarities to these two assignments, but different enough to ensure a higher probability of success -- and learning -- for her.

A Matter of Fairness

Differentiated instruction for Diana, and for other struggling students, may mean providing a handout with sentence starters or a graphic organizer to help them with constructing meaning. It may mean providing extra time to complete an assignment, giving directions again, reducing the length of an assignment, or offering alternate assignments or projects altogether. You can also provide struggling students with leveled text -- less difficult reading that contains the same content.

(For more differentiated instruction ideas and examples from the classroom, check out this Edutopia group discussion on the topic.)

Do I pre-plan variations of an assignment? Not always, but when I know my struggling students and their challenges well enough to predict road bumps ahead for them, I'm ready.

One way to be ready? Create file folders filled with various graphic organizers, visual aides, and sentence starters for different types of thinking (cause and effect, chronological, compare and contrast, to name a few). You can quickly pull out one of these in a pinch. If a student finishes a differentiated assignment with time left, then assess if it was too easy, and add a step. If a differentiated assignment is too difficult, break down the directions even more, give them one-on-one time with you, or remove a step.

I've heard teachers suggest that making an assignment less difficult for one student is not fair to the others. But I ask: Is it a matter of what is fair, or what is right?

What are ways you differentiate instruction for the grade level and content you teach? We look forward to hearing from you!

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Lynda Linley's picture

Thanks, Rebecca for your article. It was extremely insightful. I too, am a special education teacher in the resource room setting. Many of my students would have been self-contained years ago, however, with the new mandates for inclusion, they are in the general education setting for the vast majority of their day. Presently, I am doing all the differentiation for my students, as well as any other struggling learners in grades K-4. However, this year with the huge caseload I was just given, I informed the teachers that they would have to do their own differentiation. I will be doing a workshop for them in the fall, and I want to share your article with them regarding differentiation. For some reason they have this huge fear that it will consume all their time, and that the students will complain that things aren't fair...neither of which are true. Your suggestions are excellent and easy to fit into the classroom. I love how you stated that in order to do the best differentiation you need to find out about your students' interest, culture, learning style, and home life. I think general education teachers often don't realize the importance of this. So I am going to recommend they do a student survey at the beginning of the year to find out all they can about their students. They also don't realize the importance of "leveling the playing field" when it comes to learning. As you indicated, equal is not all students getting the same, but getting what they need. I think some teachers avoid differentiation because they either don't know how, or don't realize how necessary it is. Either way, differentiation is crucial for student success and it is our professional obligation to make sure it is provided. Thanks again for your insight.

Tania Cajamarca's picture

I agree that it is important to know our students' background in order to have an idea of his or her needs. All students are different, and we need to be prepared to apply strategies appropriately in order to address to their needs. I believe that DI is a matter of fairness as well as equity. Providing all students the same opportunities is not providing what they really need to be successful in learning. The main goals are setting challenges to our students according to their level and making them reach the finish line at the same time. Teachers also need to motivate students to be critical and responsible about their own learning, too.

Maria's picture

Thanks for sharing your experience as a teacher! I am a teacher, and I am beginning this journey about differentiation. I think that we need equity in education. It means give each child what they need. I agree that it is essential to know our students' histoyry before instruction. As a teacher, I have pre-assessed my students considering the dimensions of the Biography Driven Instruction since in this way, I have a complete and real information about all my students. We can use this data to differentiate instruction. I like the way you differentiated Diana by using the tiered by outcome strategy where students use the same resources, but their tasks are different according to their learning levels, learning styles or interests. Also, I like the idea to think ahead and prepare different level activities for students. I believe that all students have the opportunity to learn and succeed when teachers differentiate.

Paolo Fabre's picture

It si true that most of the time we are told how beneficial DI can be to enhance our teaching and students' academic achievement but not always we are exposed to how it looks like in real practice. I agree with your statement that in order to apply effective and meaningful DI, first educators must understand each students' background, learning styles, prior schooling, family structures, identity, and others aspects of students' life. This information will guide teachers to differentiate content, process, and product according to each students' individual strengths, preferences, and struggling. I really enjoy your idea of creating a "File Folder" to have enough material for students. This will save us some time and give us a great storage of activities to use in future similar cases. However, it is important to remember that each student is different and brings something new to the class, so most of the time some adaptation to the activities will be needed. On the other hand, I do not think making assignments less difficult may be an effective mean of DI. It may work better if we provide more scaffolding and support to struggling students. Therefore, they will acquire the same quality of education and content that the whole class.

Diana Gonzalez's picture

Thank you for the article. I am an English teacher in Ecuador. I am learning about the importance of applying differentiated instruction in the classroom by using a variety of activities and stratigies that meet each of students' need. However, as you mentioned in your article, it is essential to preasses our students, not only academically but also in other aspects such as their learning preferences or interests, and their sociocultural background too. In this way, we can plan and design activities that focus not only on students' needs but also in their strengths and weaknesses. So students' engagement will increase too because they are developing activities that go according to their interests or preferences. Every student is a different world, who needs different tools to achieve the different learning outcomes.

Jose Boroto's picture

Thanks for the article, it brings some interesting ideas to the table. I've been trained to see education as a job, and not as an activity that requires passion. Equality in education is a challenging (yet rewarding) activity that constantly challenges the teacher to become more engaged and active in education, and involved with the students processes at at a deeper level. The idea of adapting education to fit students needs, but mostly to fit their potentials, is new to me in the sense that I have received previous instruction on the use of DI, but always as a strategy to use when working with specific learning related problems (eg behavioral problems or physical disabilities) but not as a way to improve the students learning experiences in the class.
I like the idea of having a database of possible adaptations and tools, while at the same time being able to adapt those strategies to address individual needs and evolve the activities for the future.

Jorge Vinan's picture

What caught my attention was the question about fairness and righteousness. That made me think about what really matters. Jamie commented about the importance we give to scoring, and we forget the true learning. Most of us believe that DI is incompatible with standardized state testing, but that is a myth. When we prepare lessons in a correct way we prepare our students to grow and learn for a lifetime, not only for a test or for the administration. Other things in the article reminded me the number of myths around DI that have to be faced and solved. One more thing, this article is a good stater for whom is starting with DI, it goes from the simpler to the more complicated.

sushma sharma's picture
sushma sharma
Lecturer Govt Girls School Jabalpur India

Thanks for giving this chance to share your experience. It is true that we support this differentiated instruction, as we find students running on the same track but meeting different kinds of hurdles. And we need to help them with the kind of support they need.

SGraham's picture

Differentiated instruction is a hot topic in my school district. As we work to implement TKES (Teacher Keys Effectiveness System), teachers and leaders alike are striving to determine what effective differentiation looks like in the classroom. Rebecca, I like your beginning definition, "Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need." Meeting students where they are and using appropriate strategies to design lessons that take students to the next level will ensure all are progressing. The idea of using differentiated note-taking, like with tiered graphic organizers, is a great way to ensure all students are able access the required information. The key is that we create various access points for students. This does require deliberate planning coupled with the ability to change direction if the planned activity is not working. I like your idea of having various backup strategies at hand. Thank you for sharing your experiences with differentiation.

NSt.Clair's picture

Differentiation is a challenge of mine in my own classroom. Thank you for sharing your experience. I totally agree with what you said about fairness. It is right for us to change the assignments based on how our children learn, while keeping the content the same across our entire class. For example, in math I differentiate by changing the numbers that I use- for example if I am teaching greater than and less than I use different numbers based on what numbers my students know :)
Your blog is awesome!
Keep posting!!

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