George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Active Learning Is Key to Differentiated Instruction

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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When I was a new teacher, I remember looking at my roll sheet and seeing multiple letters after several students' names. I asked colleagues what the abbreviations stood for and soon learned that the common perspective was that they stood for more work and more trouble.

Yet these acronyms were supposed to help me differentiate instruction, or vary a lesson, to meet the needs of these students. I remember struggling to grasp how I was supposed to accommodate for student learning without sacrificing high academic standards. (See this post by fellow Spiral Notebook blogger Stephen Hurley.) I questioned how I could give the advanced student what he or she needed while at the same time fulfilling the needs of the struggling student.

I also remember thinking to myself how much easier it would be to just have the "good kids." It wasn't until later that I fully realized that the reason I wanted to be an educator was not to have an easy ride but to make a difference in students' lives. And the greatest difference I could make was in the life of one of those acronym kids. That's when teaching became fun.

You will be interested in reading more about this from the queen of creating multiple learning paths, Carol Ann Tomlinson. In the book she wrote with Jay McTighe, Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, she makes clear the point that simply having activities that differentiate learning is not enough: "Differentiated instruction focuses on whom we teach, where we teach, and how we teach. Its primary goal is ensuring that teachers focus on processes and procedures that ensure effective learning for varied individuals." Deliberately designing a curricular learning environment in which you can place those activities is the real key to increasing a student's understanding.

I was lucky, in a sense, because I had been trained in thematic instruction, and teaching a language -- I was a Spanish instructor -- lends itself to project learning and performance-based instruction, both active-learning strategies that naturally differentiate. I eventually learned that one of the best ways to differentiate is to simply allow it to happen. I tried to think of all the possible ways to make learning a language interesting and effective.

Looking back at those days, I see that many of the learning activities that I created were intrinsically differentiated -- that is, they encouraged each student to learn and produce at his or her best level without having to do anything extra.

Finding the Right Match

Group projects are ideal for differentiated instruction because the group has to work out what is best for each member to do so that the final product is complete. At first, my training led me to match the advanced students with struggling students so that they could help each other. I noticed, however, that if that was the only way I split up the students, group mentalities would emerge and the struggling students soon ceased struggling. They were content to let the smart kids do the work. So I mixed it up -- randomly, homogonously, and heterogeneously. (See what Robert Marzano has to say about grouping in his book Classroom Instruction That Works.)

Students who would normally not say anything or participate in a heterogeneous group developed leadership and took on responsibility in a way I had never seen before when I placed them with peers of similar skills and attitudes. I eventually learned how to create cooperative groups of students that could tackle large projects such as putting together a dating game in Spanish, re-creating famous restaurants, designing tourist travel agencies, imagining Interpol investigations, reenacting the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, or taking a piece of Spanish literature and transforming it into a radio play.

Give Them Options

Allowing students to choose their assignments is another tactic that automatically differentiates instruction: Rather than creating one learning activity to meet an objective, create several for students to choose from. They will pick the one that interests them the most and, at the same time, self-differentiate according to their capacity and needs. If a student is challenged in writing, then invariably he will choose the graphic novel over the essay. If a student is more academic, then she will select the research paper instead of the television infomercial. The trick is to come up with activities that involve similar amounts of effort and require the same level of learning.

Encouraging student inquiry is another method that promotes differentiation of learning. When a student is asking questions, those questions are automatically going to be at his or her cognitive level. The key is to help the students find the answers at their level.

Looking back, I can divide the differentiated-instruction techniques that I used into two categories: designed differentiation and intrinsic differentiation. Those I've described here are in the intrinsic-differentiation category. In my next post, I will discuss designed differentiation. Meanwhile, go have some fun differentiating for those acronym kids!

But until then, what experiences have you had with creating intrinsically differentiated learning environments? Please share your thoughts.

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Kristin's picture

Thank you for your comments and insights on differentiated instruction. As educators know, differentiation can be a struggle K-12 especially with the time constraints teachers face. I agree with your comments about teaching the "good kids". Sometimes I think about the teachers who teach middle and upper-class students who have a tremendous amount of parental support. Like you, that route does not seem as rewarding as working with a population of students who face challenges that I can't even imagine going through. Teaching the "tough kids" or the kids with huge delays is challenging and rewarding all in itself. Differentiation is challenging though. Group work does work. I've tried it, but next year, I need to set up the management system in a better way. We use GLAD strategies at my school (guided language acquisiton development) and during small groups, the other group members are working on team tasks. Group projects are wonderful and do pull the lower achieving students. Your comments on inquiry-based learning interests me. I look forward to looking into professional resources that goes into more detail about what that might look like in my third grade classroom. Thank you for your comments. They are much appreciated!


Kristin's picture

Thank you for your comments about differentiated instruction. As a new educator, I hear this phrase a lot and sometimes feel overwhelmed with the idea of meeting the needs of all my learners. At the beginning of my career, I thought about teaching at a school where the majority of the students were the "good kids". The school's test scores were always amazing and the parental support was huge. Then I reflected about why I went into teaching. I began to find myself enjoying the challenge that comes with the students who are experiencing things in their lives that I couldn't even imagine. They face some huge struggles. I enjoy being there for them and setting a good example in their lives about learning and growing.

I appreciate your comments about group work. I've read pieces by Marzano and have really been enlightened by his research and words. Next year, I do need to do a better job of setting up the foundation of group work. We do GLAD (guided language acquisition development) strategies to teach content at my school. While I pull small groups, the other students are working on group projects. I've seen tremendous growth and confidence gains in my strugglers by this group work.

I'm interested in learning more about the inquiry approach you talk about. It sounds extremely beneficial to all levels. Thanks for your comments. They are much appreciated!


Nicole's picture
Subsitute Teacher and Student

I am new to teaching and have not yet had a class of my own. I was also trained in thematic and project based intruction strategies. I have noticed how these methods differentiate on their own as well. I can not wait to get a classroom of my own so I can put these suggestions into practice.

Tracie's picture
Fourth Grade Teacher

I am also excited to try these ideas out. I have always put one high achieving student in every group. Not next time. I am going to try placing students together randomly and see what happens. I am also going to place some low children together in a group and see what happens. I also like the idea of giving groups choices.

jessica's picture
Second grade teacher

I enjoyed reading your blog about differentiate instruction. I feel that the way we group kids can have a huge impact on their success. Also, giving students a choice to pick topics of interest and work collaboratively in groups fosters a passion for lifelong learning. I look forward to reading your future post related to this topic. Well done!

SharonBarga's picture
Kindergarten Teacher

Ben, thank you for the great post about differentiated instruction. I do a lot of group activities during my station time with my kindergarten students, and you gave me some great ideas about how to group my students. I have never thought about just randomly placing my students in groups. I began with pairing a low student with a high student, but I soon found out that my high student would take control and do the work. Recently, I have been grouping my students by similar academic levels. I do struggle with knowing for certain if I have the right students together in a group. How often do you do assessments with your students to see what level of understanding they are at? Do you do pre and post assessments for each lesson that you teach? I feel like I never have enough time to do all the assessing that I would like to see what level my students are achieving at. Any suggestions would be helpful!

Ellie Hallquist's picture
Ellie Hallquist
Kindergarten Teacher from Otsego, Minnesota

Thank you for the reminder about how important differentiation is as well as how even as a kindergarten teacher I can do some of these things in my classroom. I find at the beginning of the year it can be overwhelming with two new groups of students (I have every other day kindergarten) to figure out what their level is and how to challenge some students while still meeting the needs of ELL and some of my 'low' students, too. I know a second grade teacher in my building has differentiated by building a 'tic tac toe' board so the kids can choose 3 things in a row to work on, some independently and some in a group. I think this is something else anyone can do and alter so the kids are having choice but as the teacher you can still give guidance of what you want covered.

Brandon's picture
K-8 Spanish teacher

I've read your article and it describes me so well. I love teaching, but trying to differentiate for various grades and and classes is overwhelming. I am Spanish teacher at a k-8 school, but I only see k-5 and 7th grade. Most classes I see only once a week, some I see 2 or 3 times a week. I'm at a lost to how I'm suppose to differentiate between so many classes in a week when the expectations are so different between each grade. Someone please help me make this not so overwhelming because as the semester goes along I'm slowly loosing my go juice.
Any wisdom and/or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Jose Solis's picture
Jose Solis
Teaching Credential Student

I think it's a good idea to give each student encouragement to learn and produce at his or her best level without having to do anything extra. By giving the student choices of activities to choose from, students can achieve their goals and allow the learning process to work in the best way they know how, by discovering their own cognitive level of performance.

Melissa's picture
First Grade teacher from Ohio

Our school has been holding discussions regarding differentiated instruction. I have been trying new ideas out and have had success with one way I differentiate instruction. I give assessments that have a certain criteria, but the outcome is decided by the students. For example, the students made monsters using two-dimensional shapes. This enables me to decide if they know the material and it allows them to have fun at the same time. They are instrinsically motivated to do their best work since it is something that they are enjoying.

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