What Is Differentiated Instruction?
Differentiated instruction is a process that recognizes students' varying background knowledge, readiness, learning styles, and interests and then crafts experiences for students that are responsive to those differences.
The intent of differentiated instruction is to maximize each student's growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is and designing instruction that matches students' needs. That sounds good, but the challenge for teachers is to actually accomplish that goal. There are a number of resources available to help meet that challenge. From noted educators like Carol Ann Tomlinson to researchers like Ruby Payne, there are guides to help teachers meet that challenge.
This is an examination of the rationale for the classroom differentiation process as well as some concrete help for planning instruction that is differentiated to meet student needs.
Anyone who has spent any time in a classroom knows that all kids are different and each has his or her own unique set of talents, gifts, problems, and needs. Definitely one size does not fit all. The strength of differentiation is not only that it is the practical thing to do to ensure student success. It also is the moral and equitable thing to do. By differentiating instruction one is providing all students with access to all curriculum. "Teaching to the middle" means that most students are left out in the classroon, Differentiation is planning for instruction that accepts the challenge of truly meeting student needs.
Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of "The Differentiated Classroom", says, "Differentiated instruction is a teaching philosophy based on the premise that teachers should adapt instruction to student differences. Rather than marching students through the curriculum lockstep, teachers should modify their instruction to meet students' varying readiness levels, learning preferences, and interests. Therefore, the teacher proactively plans a variety of ways to 'get at' and express learning."
How Does Research Support Differentiation?
Brain research indicates that learning occurs when the learner experiences moderate challenge and relaxed alertness -readiness. Unless one plans for students at different levels of readiness, it is impossible to be meeting students at their optimum levels where they will actually learn. Many students in a whole group setting are under-challenged or are stressed because work is too difficult. Either way they are not ready to learn.
Psychological research also reveals that when interest is tapped, learners are more likely to find learning rewarding and become more autonomous as a learner. This supports several differentiation practices including incorporating student choice into assignments and using student interest inventories to guide instructional planning. My personal experience also supports this clearly. Often letting students choose a research topic rather than assigning one resulted in amazing student products into which students had poured energy and creativity. The key in these cases was student engagement that resulted from tapping their interests.
"Students miss much of the original data (up to 50 percent) when the cognitive strategies were not fully or partially developed." (from "Building Learning Structures Inside the Head", Ruby Payne, Ph.D.) This idea of building cognitive structures supports the idea of scaffolding assignments for students as necessary (one type of differention) based on student readiness.
What Differentiated Instruction is NOT
There are many misperceptions about differentiated instruction so here are some things that Differentiated Instruction is NOT--
DI is NOT:
-Individual instruction (It's not writing an IEP--individualized instructional plan-- for every child).
-Chaotic or new (Good teachers have differentiated since the days of the one room school house).
-Just another way to provide homogenous instruction (You DO use flexible grouping* instead).
-Just modifying grading systems and reducing work loads (Differentiation should have all students working hard at appropriate levels).
-More work for the "good" students and less and different for the "poor" students (Differentiation doesn't "punish" good students with more busy work and doesn't give less able students coloring sheets to keep them busy).
*Flexible grouping here means that the groups are NOT like the unvarying "red birds", "blue birds," and "yellow bird" groups of earlier days that clearly were ability grouping. In a differentiated classroom, groups are formed for specific purposes and vary based on the rationale for the grouping and the activity. Groups may be formed and reformed, even within a class period, or they may be longer term for a specific project.
A Planning Guide for Differentiating Instruction
The following steps will aid you in planning instruction that meets the needs of varied learners:
-Create goals. What do you want students to know? What are your objectives?
-Create assessments. (Begin with the end in mind. How will students show you that they have mastered your objectives?)
-Unit plan. Plan the pathways that will help students reach your goals.
-Pre-assess. This necessary step lets you know what students already know or can do.
-Differentiate based on data. Use the information gained from pre-assessments to decide what scaffolding, tiering or other differentiation will be necessary for specific students.
-Use formative assessments along the way to guide instruction.
-Give summative assessments (formats may vary (including scaffolding); what cannot change is the KUD (the Know, Understand, and Do from "Understanding by Design" (see Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's works for this concept). Remember that there are a number of ways to assess student knowledge. Alternative assessments using well-crafted rubrics can be an important tool in instruction.
Points to Remember When Planning for Differentiation
Some Thoughts on Learning Styles and Preferences
Learning styles, modalities, and intelligences are preferences; all of us can and do learn in more than one way. Using available learning style inventories can provide you an understanding not only about individual students but also about the range and variety of learning styles that are present in your classroom.
The knowledge that students have different learning styles should shape your teaching to try to incorporate more variety. This can also be helpful in reaching students with whom you have not been successful in other ways. But, there is no way to teach to every preference every day. That is not the intention of using learning style inventories.
The relative difficulty of the skill or objective can help us determine when differentiation is worth the time and effort. Differentiation is not about showcasing one's abiltiy to develop multi-faceted lessons. It is about making good professional judgements about how to successfully reach and teach children.
Recommended Books - Try one of these by Carol Ann Tomlinson--
Carol Ann Tomlinson is definitely the "guru" of Differentiated Instruction. All of these are great user friendly books that offer practical help for both the novice and the veteran teacher. She is truly an inspiration.
Learn More About Differentiating Instruction
- Tiered Instruction
Tiered instruction is a means of teaching one concept and meeting the different learning needs in a group through varied assignments, tasks, or learning strategies.
- Tiering Assignments with Examples
Tiering can be based on challenge level, complexity, resources, outcome, process, or product.
- Differentiated Instruction with UDL | National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials
This is a scholarly article on differentiation, but provides not only the rationale, but specific examples of how to differentiate.
- Alternative Assessment
Information on different forms of assessment--a great tool for differentiation.
Activities to Use in a Differentiated Classroom - Online Resources
The following are some activities to use to provide multiple pathways to learning. These can be offered as centers or enrichment or used with whole classes while still allowing student choice and varied pacing.
- You Be the Historian
Students study the articles of everyday life left by a modern family and examine them through the lens of a future historian.
- Amusement Park Physics
Use this interactive site to apply the laws of physics and design a roller coaster.
- GSH GeoGame: Project Description
This is a geography game for which the teacher would need to register the class. It offers multiple opportunities and pathways for students to expand their geographic knowledge and thus is ideal for a differentiated classroom.
- ThinkQuest : Think.com, Oracle Education Foundation, Projects | Competition | Library
ThinkQuest is a protected, online learning platform that enables teachers to integrate learning projects into their classroom curriculum and students to develop 21st century skills. (This is the main site, but there are many thinkquest projects that
- Wonderopolis: Wonder of the Day
Emphasizing intriguing topics for kids; this site adds daily content with cool ideas for further exploration.
- ABCya.com | Kids Educational Computer Games & Activities
Free kids educational computer games and activities for Kindergarten through elementary school--Games and activities include: alphabetical order, upper-case and lower-case letters,counting numbers, connect the dots, numerical order, shapes, e-storybo
Use Technology Resources to Differentiate
Technology has broadened the teaching possibilities in amazing ways, yet many of us are still hanging on to our horse and buggy methods. I am constantly amazed at the new resources available that make it possible to reach and teach so many different kinds of students in one class. If you have not done so before, you really need to do some research on the tools made possible through using technology including SmartBoards (or Promethean or other brand names---all essentially interactive white boards). Skilled use of this resource will let you make your lessons not only visual and auditory, but also interactive allowing you reach many types of learner with the same lesson. Another benefit of this technology is that there are numerous prepared resources you can use or adapt for your own use which saves time in lesson prep which sometimes seem daunting when trying to differentiate. There are also numerous classroom applications of iPad and iPod technology for differentiating instruction. Explore some of the links here for more on these topics.
- Shift to the Future: Teachers teaching with SMART Boards
This teacher site incorporates both text and video to give a look at how one group of teachers took the journey to learn the technology and fully integrate it into their classrooms.
- SMART Boards for Special Needs Students
This Blossom Learning SMART Board interactive white board professional development information section lists information about how SMART Boards can be used to help special needs students (ranging from ELL students to those with ADHD, autism, or other
- 100 Apps for Tech-Savvy Teachers
A listing of web and iPhone tools with brief descriptions of how they can be used in the classroom.
iPad for the Classroom
Explore the features of the new iPad and its classroom uses. Have you been wanting a document camera? Skip that. Buy an iPad, download an app for less than $5 and project your students' work onto your whiteboard for immediate class feedback. Do a demonstration, dissection, or art project while students see every detail on the whiteboard projected from your iPad being used as a document camera. This is just one tiny example of the multiple uses an iPad could have in your classroom with just one of the many, many available educational apps. (And think of how much fun you can have with the iPad when your're not using it for your classroom.)
Alternative assessment is an important tool for teachers in the journey to differentiate instruction appropriately for students. One challenge in differentiation is recognizing that just as "one size fits all teaching" is not effective for many students, neither is "one size fits all" testing. In order to assess students whose verbal or reading skills are not strong, alternative assessments should be considered. The term covers a number of different things, but is often used to refer to more project based teaching and assessing. In developing this type of evaluation, it is important to be clear on exactly what you want students to know and understand. Then consider the variety of ways other than paper and pencil tests in which a student might demonstrate that they know that concept or skill. This is valuable for all students but is vital when dealing with students such as English Language Learners, or students with reading disabilities (dyslexia, etc.) Here are some tools to help you in developing and using alternate assessment strategies.
- Alternative Assessment
Different forms of assessment for the new age of education.
- Rubistar--The coolest tool ever for creating and/or customizing rubrics.
RubiStar is a tool to help the teacher who wants to use rubrics, but does not have the time (or maybe the experience) to develop these. This is my favorite free teacher site!
Please let me know if this information has been helpful or if there are suggestions for more content.