Students (like all people actually) have this paradoxical characteristic: they’re all the same; except when they’re not.
They function the same from a physical point of view, they dress annoyingly the same (even when — or especially when — there’s no compulsory school uniform) they all have to learn almost the same things in school and they all use their brains to do that. But when you take a closer look, you notice how different they are. No two students are actually the same.
Students come to school from different cultures, they may speak different languages, they have different academic backgrounds and have been shaped by different learning experiences. They come with different learning needs, learning preferences, and different expectations of what learning at school should be like. All these aspects, and even more, make up the individuality in each of them.
While it’s definitely easier to treat students the same in the classroom — after all, there is but one teacher to 30 students (more or less) — the best teachers are those who understand that students are not the same. And act accordingly, by differentiating instruction to better meet their learning needs.
The concept of differentiated instruction is nothing new. Great teachers have been doing it since teaching has been a profession. The problem with it is that it doesn’t fit perfectly in the standardized one-size-fits all education system we’re all too familiar with. Differentiated instruction is anything but one-size-fits-all.
Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.
— Carol Ann Tomlinson
Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leader in the area of differentiated learning and Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy at University of Virginia. Her research on the effectiveness of differentiation shows this method benefits a wide range of students, from those who are considered to be struggling to those who are considered high ability.
4 Classroom aspects to differentiate
The above definition of differentiated instruction offers enough clues on how to actually do it. There are four main aspects of a classroom that can be differentiated so that students receive a more personalized learning experience. Let’s explore them a little:
- Content — Or what is to be learned. Teachers should work within grade-level standards to provide students with different levels of complexity of a certain subject or lesson that match their different levels of readiness to learn it. For example, if you’re a Maths teacher and have to teach fractions, compile a series of fraction related problems for students to solve, from the most basic ones to the most advanced. Your goal is to move the students through to the advanced ones, but the grade-level standards should be met somewhere in the middle. That way, struggling students will have time to reach the medium-difficulty problems (thus checking the standard) while the more gifted students will not get bored during class as they continue to solve the more advanced ones.
- Process — Or how students acquire information. Teachers should adjust the strategies used to deliver the information students have to learn. Considering that every piece of information students might need is just a click or a tap away, holding lectures is not enough. Opt instead for a repertoire of teaching strategies; besides direct instruction, try inquiry-based learning, cooperative learning, flipping the classroom or information processing models. The point is to give students options in how they access information, how they learn it and respect their choices.
- Products — Or how students demonstrate learning. In a differentiated instruction setting student choice and student agency are a given. Based on their learning preferences and interests they should be able to choose how to prove their learning advancements. Some will thrive at creating a presentation on the subject, others will present it with flair, others will make a model, others will prefer to work alone and write a paper. As long as they meet the predefined success criteria, it shouldn’t matter in what way they choose to demonstrate learning.
- Learning environment — Or where and with whom students learn. The traditional classroom setting is starting to lose ground. An increasing number of schools seek and get funding to design flexible learning environments. Being able to arrange student desks in rows for a lecture but also to group them in two, four, five or more so students can work on collaborative projects, is the first step towards an active flexible classroom. Also, there needs to be smaller and quieter zones for those engaged in individual work. The classroom can and must provide a flexible learning environment that accommodates the needs of all students.
Yes, differentiated instruction means more work from the part of teachers, which we all know already have their plates full.
No, differentiated instruction is not a fad, a whim, or just another thing to be done. It affects student learning and student academic outcomes in a positive way. Take Carol Ann Tomlinson’s word for it.
Practical steps to differentiated instruction
Just as with any theoretical concept, the theory seems nice, but putting it into practice is a horse of a totally different color. So here are some practical steps on how to do it. They may come numbered but their order is not fixed.
Step 0: Understand the theoretical part. Read all you can about how the human brain learns, learning styles and multiple intelligences, and also about all types of assessment. If you are to differentiate instruction, you must first know how your students learn and how to best assess their learning.
Step 1: Assess your students. Assess them formally and keep in mind the grade-level standards. You also need to assess them so you can determine their ability level, learning preferences and their interests. Assessment is the basis of differentiated instruction.
Step 2: Develop a plan. Consider everything you know about your students and think about all the ways you can differentiate content, processes, products and the learning environment. Don’t forget to be realistic in your plan; if you can’t replace fixed desks with mobile ones, there’s only so much you can do in terms of differentiating the learning environment for example.
Step 3: Define the success criteria for learning in your differentiated instruction. Corroborate with state standards and seek support from fellow teachers. Involve your students in this process as well to establish a common goal and make it clear what they have to do to pass the class.
Step 4: Differentiate and monitor. Give a try to tired activities (remember the fraction problems?), learning contracts (find here an example) or choice boards.
Step 5: Assess your students again. A variety of assessment techniques can include digital portfolios, rubrics, performance-based assessment, knowledge mapping, and so on. Pick and choose the most appropriate way to do it for each student. And don’t ignore their feedback.
Step 6: Adjust the instruction. You’ll surely identify things that are not perfect and your students will do too. The same will happen to those that work. So keep what works and change what doesn’t.
Step 7 to 100: Rinse and repeat. You can replace 100 with absolutely any other number you want really. Either you start again from Step 4 or you go all the way back to Step 0, but keep differentiating your instruction. As you probably say to your students, practice makes perfect.
Differentiated instruction has no single formula for success. Each classroom is different and each teacher has a lot of choices. Differentiated instruction means that you have to meet the standards while providing students with personalized learning experiences and embrace change and flexibility while knowing when to stop or just turn. The ultimate goal of differentiated instruction is to create and nurture a learning environment that meets the learning needs of students and puts each of them on their own paths to success.
Livia Bran is Content Manager at CYPHER LEARNING, a company that specializes in learning management systems. Check out her other posts about EdTech for K-12 and Higher Ed on the NEO Blog or follow her on Twitter.