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What Parents Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction

Updated on October 16, 2008

I had never heard of differentiated instruction until my son entered the fifth grade. The first week of school he bragged about the easy math problems at the back of his book. He knew how to do them all. The next week he came home excited about the new handouts his teacher had given him and a few others. These had more advanced math problems. Essentially, this is differentiated instruction. In other words, giving children what they need in order to learn best.

Why Differentiated Instruction?

No two students are alike. They learn at different paces and in different ways. While a standard curriculum may suit most students, classroom techniques and material must sometimes be varied to suit to the individual needs of all children. To differentiate instruction, teachers create multiple paths for students of different abilities. This gives students more opportunities to absorb concepts in the way that’s best for them. It also allows students to take greater responsibility for their own learning and allows for peer teaching and cooperative learning.

Typical differentiated learning environments provide three or four different options for students in any given class (not 35 different options). Because readiness, ability, learning styles and interest vary between students and even within an individual over time, a differentiated classroom offers students equally engaging learning opportunities.

Four Ways to Differentiate Instruction

Teachers can differentiate learning by varying content, process, product or environment in the classroom.

Differentiating the Content/Topic  Content refers to the knowledge and skills children are learning. Differentiating content requires that students are pre-tested so the teacher can identify the students who do not require direct instruction. Students who understand concepts can skip the instruction step and proceed directly to applying the concepts to the task of solving a problem. This is often called ‘compacting the curriculum’. Another way to differentiate content is to allow students to proceed at an accelerated pace, working ahead independently on some projects.

Differentiating the Process/Activities   Differentiating processes means activities or strategies are varied to provide appropriate methods for students to learn. This addresses different learning styles such as visual, kinetic, and auditory. Students may use graphic organizers, maps, diagrams or charts to display their comprehension of concepts covered.

Differentiating the Product   Differentiating the product means that students create products of varying complexity. Students working above grade level may be asked to produce work that requires more advanced thinking. It can be motivating for students to be offered choice of end product.

Differentiating By Manipulating The Environment   This type of differentiation is based on different personality types and how they affects the way children respond within the learning environment. Some classrooms offer limited opportunities to alter lighting or sound levels, eliminate visual distracters, or to provide a more casual seating arrangement for students. The strategy of varying teaching techniques means that all students will sometimes learn in their optimal mode.

The Bottom Line

Curriculum is no longer defined in terms of what a teacher will teach. Instead it is defined in terms of what a student will be able to demonstrate. In order to move students forward we need to understand how each student learns best. We also need to spend less time in review and more time building on what kids already know. I’m thrilled that my kids’ teachers are taking proactive steps to ensure the best education for all their students.


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  • profile image

    Richard Jaks 8 years ago

    In my district Differentiated Instruction means giving slower kids higher grades for doing less work. We had a girl with an IQ in the 60's graduate in the top 10% of her class. I think Differentiated Instruction is a good tool for Elementary School, but should be used with discretion after 6th grade. In high school we have students with lower abilities sitting in higher level classes and killing the pace of those classes. Our administrators think we should just give these students easy 5 question quizzes when the rest of the class get 20 more questions that are harder. The lower students end up with higher grades. And who determines whether a student is low or lazy or both? It is difficult enough to teach high school without this. What happened to placing high school students in groups by ability and prior results where the class can move at an appropriate pace? Differentiated Instruction is speeding up the dumbing down of America.

  • Christian Walker profile image

    Christian Walker 9 years ago from Maryland

    Differentiated instruction can be a just as dangerous as it is good depending on how it is used. In our district it consists of dumbing down the curriculum by degrees so that every student can achieve some type of success. Unfortunately this success is short lived because the county and state evaluations are not differentiated and those students who have been taught at the "lower" levels can't compete on the exams. Differentiation must be a means to an end and not the end itself. Life does not, by and large, differentiate with in the same task expectations. i.e. They don't widen the strike zone for poorer pitchers in MLB.

    However, if differentiation is used to achieve the same ends with in the same task expectations then it is a good thing.

  • sheryl c profile image

    sheryl c 9 years ago from canton ohio

    Another great hub Lela wish they had this when my kids were in school Thanks Sherylc