George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jenny's picture

This is great! I have been waiting for someone to put into words what I have been thinking about and struggling to do for several years as an educator. In fact, this is what finally made me settle on a Master's program. I love, love the reference to baking and how everyone differs in their strengths in a kitchen. The separation of ideas is broken down so simply that this some thing I would like to bring back to our school's instructional coach for use in trainings on differentiation and co-teaching. This also made me look at a few things I do that I could do better with instruction delivery. I am constantly reexamining my instruction, lessons, and assignments to identify if they are connecting with ALL my students.

Kandi Kopel's picture
Kandi Kopel
Center Based DCD teacher

This article was a great concise description of how areas of learning can be modified and differentiated to appropriately meet the educational needs of a variety of learners. The instruction, materials and product can all be altered to be the best fit for the particular learner. It's important to remember to consider all of the unique needs of the students we may service.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Thank you for this clear, concise and creative discussion of the myriad of opportunities teachers have to expand the learning in every class for every student.

Kathryn's picture
Intervention Specialist

Thank you for sharing! I love how you gave the example of cooking in the kitchen. Everyone has different talents, it's a matter of focusing on differentiating in those four areas you addressed to find/highlight those areas. I like that you make the "special" in special education not sound scary too!

I am exited to share this article with my staff!

Ophelia Ma's picture
Ophelia Ma
Masters Student, Harvard Graduate School of Education

I absolutely agree with you, Marisa. Student-centered learning is something that should be applied in all classrooms, and the skills it take special edu teacher has to cater to many different needs is something that all teachers should think about! In that way, special edu is ahead of the game.

I saw this really great blog about engage a variety of different students in a special edu classroom: you might be interested as well.

Jordan's picture
Seventh Grade Math Teacher

Thank you for posting the cooking analogy! I've been getting better differentiating in my 7th grade class, but I know I still need to get better, and do even more individualization and grouping similar needs. I have many students with IEPs in each section I teach, but the differentiating is still being used for my students without IEPs who are struggling with the math. I love how you laid out the four major areas to differentiate in just one lesson, and it opened my eyes to new ideas. Thank you!

AMC1843303's picture

Thank you for your post! It provided a helpful breakdown of differentiation. It also served as a great reminder for me that we can support the growth of all children. This is something that I know and believe, yet it is amazing how in the daily "grind" it is easy to feel uncertain of this one. It is tough having a frame of reference as a teacher of a specific grade with expectations related to curriculum and standards. Some students may not be there yet, and while we wish they were doing better, they're not and that's okay - we can still support them where they are and with what we have.

Christi's picture

I really like how you discussed the 4 areas of differentiation. I try very hard to meet the needs of all the students in my classroom but tend to just focus on the content delivery. This gives me new perspectives on how to meet the various needs.

laurenm's picture

Thank you for sharing this helpful yet straight to the point of the 4 areas teachers can differentiate. A lot of times teachers, like me, focus only on one area and figure out how we can differentiate it for my various learners. This post made me realize I can differentiate in many ways. It also gives me new ideas on how I can challenge my students who grasp the content and may be more advanced. I don't want to bore these students or hold them back from performing at their highest potential! This article helped a lot! Thanks!

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