George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

There's No Time to Differentiate: Myth-Busting DI, Part 2

Make time for differentiated instruction with small learning teams, daily formative assessments, and managed activities that differentiated content, process, and products.
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The microwave oven is a great timesaver for getting any food on the table. Yet it's a taste killer. The more I use the grill and oven to cook meals for my family, the more I experience the diversity of tastes that come from grilled or baked salmon, chicken, and burgers, plus sautéed vegetables. A microwave oven dries everything out, and thus limits the tastes. There are days when I get home exhausted with work still to be completed, but I bypass the microwave most times. I value my family's need for flavorful meals over dried-out, tasteless food that I nuked just to check off a chore.

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So why would I not do the same for my students by differentiating based on their needs, instead of using one-size-fits-all methods?

Does one-size-fits-all really save time if students haven’t learned? The learning quality of differentiated instruction far surpasses anything that a single-delivery model can provide. If differentiated instruction is viewed as part of the planning process, the additional planning time is not noticeably different. If managed well, differentiation becomes a seamless part of instruction that does not add time. Instead, it enhances the existing learning experiences by ensuring that students build understanding and mastery sooner.

In an earlier post, I looked at a few common differentiated instruction myths. Now, let's focus on some myths about DI and time.

Myth #1

I teach 180 students across five classes. It's far easier to differentiate with small class sizes. How do I differentiate when there are too many students to teach?

The greater number of students means there is a higher urgency to differentiate. When class size is small, it's easier to find common connections among the students. Differentiation exists, but the scale appears easier because the overlap between common understanding and needs can be found. Larger class sizes mean more groups of students with a greater number of learning perspectives. On the surface, this appears messy, overwhelming, and indecipherable.

Solution: Put students into small learning teams.

Use learning profile cards to form groups based on students' readiness of content concepts. Mix in different teams that are heterogeneously grouped, based on common interests or cross-trained learning profiles. These small groups are treated like classrooms with a small roster. Change the makeup of teams every unit or 5-10 weeks. This keeps the teams fresh and helps students learn global competencies like collaboration and influencing across networks with different people and groups. The jigsaw classroom is another means to put students into temporary learning groups to tackle complex tasks.

Myth #2

My curriculum is so packed. With so much to cover, how do I find the time to differentiate?

We need to change the dialog from content coverage to content learning. Coverage is an adult need to check off a list of standards to present. Learning makes students the focus for all decisions. If students have not learned the content, we need to differentiate in another way.

Solution: Use daily formative assessments to inform learning experiences.

The primary purpose of formative assessment is to understand where students' skills exist so that we can diagnose gaps (and extensions for gifted), and develop and implement a differentiated lesson that meets each student's needs -- and then repeat the cycle. Some daily K-16 strategies include:

If students learn and process at different rates, formative assessment helps us monitor their growth. Providing feedback, not grading, helps students build self-awareness. Grading would be unfair to students while they are in the learning process and because they learn at different rates. Leave the grading to those milestones in the unit where students are ready to demonstrate that they understand content and skills, and are ready to move on to the next unit or level of complexity.

Myth #3

The class periods are short. I've barely started teaching when it's time for the next class. Where do I squeeze in differentiation without it feeling like one more add-on that I simply have no time for?

Just as teachers struggle with time to instruct, students struggle to get what they need in the limited time. Efficient use of time is critical. Differentiation gives students the best chance for learning, and teachers the best chance of meeting the expectation that all students achieve.

Solution: Manage activities that differentiate content, process, and products.

Differentiation occurs in whole-class, small-group, and individual activities. Review the core outcomes of lessons based on the content, process, and products (formative assessment), and consider how to differentiate one or more of these areas based on readiness and interest. Explore learning centers. These prepared stations immediately involve students with significant content at the start of class, maximizing learning time while the teacher quickly takes attendance and then turns to coaching. Other helpful tools include Think Dots, Task Cards, and Learning Menus.

Use Time Wisely

Avoid the microwave oven approach. Differentiated instruction is a necessity if we hope to ensure that all students will learn. The main course of lessons requires quality time for students to consume learning outcomes, and for teachers to coach and guide. How we use our time can allow learning experiences to marinate with students long after the lesson is finished. The key to meeting students' needs is differentiating when time feels limited. As educators, we are highly qualified professionals who have the tools to be innovative chefs of our time frames. If we don't meet learner needs, who will?