No two students are the same, including their academic strengths and the way they learn best.
That’s why many educators seek to adopt more inclusive instructional practices, one of which is differentiated instruction – a broad term that often refers to an approach to teaching in which instruction is tailored to meet the needs, interests and strengths of all students.
“When you take a one-size-fits-all approach, it connects to your upper grades and some intermediate learners. But it doesn’t connect to some of your lower-level learners. So this way, we’re able to capture all levels of learners,” said Dave Steckler, principal of Red Trail Elementary School in North Dakota and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “Differentiated instruction has enabled our students to succeed, which promotes a love of learning.”
How differentiated instruction works
Differentiated instruction may look different for each classroom, grade level, school or district. But according to experts, teachers can differentiate instruction in four areas: content, process, product and learning environment.
Becky Pringle, a secondary science teacher for 30 years and current president of the National Education Association, says content differentiation is when teachers provide learning activities based on students’ academic profiles, and process occurs when teachers differentiate learning modes. The largest teacher unions.
For example, it may be difficult for students with dyslexia to listen and take notes at the same time. David Arencibia, principal of Colleyville High School in Texas, says differentiated instructional approaches may adapt the process by distributing copies of class notes for students to follow.
Product differentiation refers to the way students demonstrate what they know through different assignments, projects or exams. For example, students might be given several options to show they understand a book read in class, such as writing an essay, drawing, or creating a poem.
The physical space and feel of a classroom can also affect learning. A differentiated classroom might have flexible seating. for example, Arencibia says, students in English classes have the option to go to other areas of learning, such as the library, and read in a more comfortable place if they wish.
“Think of yourself as a reader,” he says. “Do you want to sit at a hard table with a specific type of lighting and feel a little uncomfortable, or would you rather sit on a couch with special lighting? We even differentiate our learning environments to really facilitate really getting the most out of our learning for our students.”
Differentiated Instruction and Alternative Approaches
More “traditional” learning methods typically involve a teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom with a PowerPoint presentation that requires students to listen and take notes.
Children in different classrooms are also working toward the same learning goals, says Carol A. Tomlinson, professor emerita at the University of Virginia’s School of Education. But “they’re not going to do the same work in the same way with the same support for the same period of time.”
Teachers may use rotating workstations to divide students based on skill level so that students complete assignments that are relevant to their academic level and needs. This can be done confidentially, such as through color coding, to ensure that students can’t differentiate between their levels, Arencibia says.
How to know if differentiated instruction is doing a good job
While many experts say differentiated instruction can be beneficial, it can be challenging to implement in the classroom – in part because teachers must really know the ins and outs of each student.
“It should be something that all teachers should be doing anyway, but sometimes it gets automated and you just teach there, go out and then go home,” says Joseph Larson, professor of practice and director of the online program in the Department of Learning and teaches at the University of California, San Diego. “You have to take the time to get to know your students to best help them.”
Teachers also face tremendous pressure when it comes to standardized testing, Tomlinson said. “They feel like all they can do is walk into the classroom, start covering the material, cover it as fast as they can, and at the end of the year say, ‘I did it, I passed.’ We don’t have any reason to believe that’s effective teaching or learning.”
Experts say parents should be comfortable with differentiation if children can explain their learning goals, show enthusiasm for learning, talk about working in a variety of groups and have options for assignments.