George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

What Does the “Special” in Special Education Mean?

Elements of differentiated instruction

December 13, 2011

Quiz of the Day: What does the "Special" in "Special" Education mean?

A. That every child learns in a special way?
B. That every teacher teaches in a special way?
C. That a teacher specializes in educating all kinds of learners?

Actually it's
D. All of the above.

What kind of chef are you? How are you in the kitchen?

If I posed this question to all of my friends, I would receive a wide range of responses. Perhaps I would have one group of people who could barely follow the instructions to make a box of macaroni and cheese. Others could probably make eggs and spaghetti but that is the extent of their culinary expertise. Then I would have this top tier of friends who are so amazing in the kitchen that they make their own sauce from scratch! That's how I judge top notch: sauce from scratch.

What does this have to do with learning?

Well, I would never ask my "macaroni friends" to make their own sauce, nor would I toss a box of macaroni to my top tier friends, when I know they could be creating a divine meal from scratch! Let's apply this idea to the classroom.

Four Paths to Differentiation: Content, Delivery of Instruction, Resources, Product and Assessment

These four ideas are interconnected, but to truly understand how to differentiate instruction, it is more manageable to look at them separately.

1. Content: Content is what we teach. It is what we want students to learn, understand and be able to apply as a result of instruction.

2. Delivery of Instruction: Delivery of Instruction is the how of teaching. This can mean how activities are designed to help students make sense of content. Delivery of Instruction also includes the process of teaching and even integrating different co-teaching models if you have multiple adults in the classroom.

3. Resources and Materials: Resources act as the medium through which you teach students. Resources can include texts, supplies, videos, materials, field trips, etc.

4. Product/Assessment: A product is the evidence of learning. It is how the student demonstrates his or her understanding of an idea. A product is a method of assessment, and in a differentiated classroom there are multiple product/assessment styles offered to students.

One Lesson, Four Differentiations

Here's an example. Let's say that in a differentiated classroom, students are learning about communities.

1. Differentiated Content: Some students may be working on developing an understanding of the term "community" by exploring different books, photos and videos about communities. Others might be working on understanding the difference between rural, urban and suburban communities. Here, the content for each group of students is different.

2. Differentiated Delivery of Instruction: A teacher might teach a lesson about the different types of communities by watching a video and taking shared notes. He or she might then pull a group of students and do a read-aloud activity using a book with vivid photographs that show the different types of communities. Here, the students are learning the same content through different learning activities. The instruction is being delivered differently.

3. Differentiated Resources: A teacher might have three groups of students researching communities. One group might be using a series of easy readers and picture books to compile their information, while another group uses higher-level non-fiction text with chapters and features such as glossary and index. Perhaps there is a third group doing independent Internet research. In this case, three groups of students are using appropriate texts in the classroom.

4. Differentiated Products To assess learning, perhaps some students do an oral presentation of their findings, while others create a poster based on their research. Others design a test and answer key on the subject! In this case, student learning is being demonstrated in different ways.

The Takeaway

  1. In education, one size does not fit all.
  2. All students deserve and are entitled to appropriate instruction.
  3. We can accommodate in small, simple ways that will support growth in all of our students.

If you have any tips for differentiation -- especially small, simple things we can do -- please share them!

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