Differentiation is a “hot topic” in education right now. As class sizes grow exponentially, teachers face the daunting task of teaching all levels of student in a single class. Teachers must stimulate and engage intellectually gifted students, while simultaneously scaffolding curriculum to support lower level learners. This delicate balance is what many argue separates the best teachers from the herd.

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction “is the practice of modifying and adapting instruction, materials, content, student projects and products, and assessment to meet the learning needs of individual students.”

Differentiated instruction involves assessing student knowledge in a given content area, then using a variety of strategies to effectively create curriculum that is, in effect, individualized. Designing curriculum of varied complexity, using a variety grouping strategies, modifying outcomes and product expectations, tailoring delivery, and providing tiered projects are all critical elements in differentiating instruction.

Learning Cycle and Decision Factors Used in Planning and Implementing Differentiated Instruction

diagram credit: www.efdlrs.com/~crown/di/act-1890.html

Why is it important?

Differentiated instruction excites the brilliant student to uncover deeper layers of learning, while simultaneously structuring curriculum to support lower level students or students with learning disabilities- both identified and unidentified.

Pairing students to allow for peer teaching is another method of reinforcing the strong student’s understanding of material while providing a struggling student with a peer instructor. This reciprocal learning style is another way for teachers to utilize the strengths in their classrooms to create this differentiated instruction.

Just as consumers know that a one-size-fits-all won’t work when buying a pair of jeans, educators know that one standard approach to teaching will not meet the needs off all- or even most- students. Without an attempt to vary instruction to meet the individual needs of each student, the curriculum is bound to bore some and baffle others.  Differentiating instruction is the key to reaching all students.

How can technology help?

The plethora of online tools available to educators can help make the seemingly impossible task of individualizing instruction possible. Teachers can use online discussion tools to present questions that are tiered, encouraging stronger students to answer the more complex nuances of the question asked, while allowing struggling students to answer a simpler question and learn from the responses of their peers.

For example, a tiered question would consist of multiple questions that build on one another and vary in complexity allowing students the freedom to answer questions they understand or feel confident responding to.

Read the article “Spilled Oil” from the June 28, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, then identify and evaluate the bias. What is the bias present? Where does this bias stem from? How does this bias impact the way the content is presented? Was your impression of the oil spill, BP’s financial responsibility or President Obama’s handling of the crisis influenced by this bias? Is it possible to avoid bias in writing?

Questions that are tiered offer students a variety of angles from which to answer questions. Students who are advanced might focus on the larger implications of the bias in this article in relation to society and government, while lower-level students might focus on discussing whether they believe bias in writing can be avoided. The trick is to give students the freedom to choose how they respond to a question by layering more complex questions on top of simpler questions.

How can I use online learning teams to successfully differentiate instruction?

Learning teams can be easily assembled online using the Google Suite to facilitate asynchronous or synchronous student collaboration and work on projects, assignments, etc. Online learning teams and group work allow instructors to assemble students by skill level, interest, or preferred learning style to achieve desired learning outcomes.

For example, I am currently teaching a unit on Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I am using my Collaborize Classroom site to create character groups. The novel is focused on three mother-daughter pairs. Each character tells two stories. Students find it challenging to keep the mothers and daughters straight-not to mention all of the secondary characters.

To support students in their comprehension of the novel, I am breaking them up into mother-daughter focus groups. I have designed the groups so there is a balance of stronger students with lower level students. The stronger students in each team will focus on the mother’s story, while the students who tend to struggle will focus on the daughter’s story. The mothers’ stories, many of which take place in China, are more complex, while the daughter’s stories are more accessible.

This will allow me to challenge my most capable students, while supporting my lower level students. The mother-daughter focus groups will also allow students in each group to ask questions, clarify events, and share thoughts on their characters.

The flexibility provided by an online learning tool allows differentiated instruction to transcend the 60- or 90-minute class period. Teachers can design activities, projects, research tasks, and creative assignments that extend beyond the physical classroom and allow for varied levels of performance.

This practice of varying curriculum to meet the needs of a diverse population of students is increasingly challenging as the number of students rises and an increasing number of programs are cut, but technology has the potential lighten the load for teachers.

6 Responses

  1. My son’s school groups according to reading ability. Can you explain the difference between what seems like “tracking” students and differential instruction?

    • Typically, tracking refers to how students are grouped in classes (by level). Whereas differentiated instruction is the adjusting of lesson activities and tasks for students in a single class who are at different levels.


      • Differentiation does not even have to have anything to do with levels. It can be used according to learning style (visual, hands on, versus written capabilities). I can have students who like to write papers do so for a final assignment, while others create a product or model, and others design a presentation. It can differ on the levels, learning style, product, process, and much more.

  2. […] Consider our elementary schools. It used to be that math was only taught in one way: a teacher droning away in front of the class while drawing symbols on a chalkboard using a meaningless and confusing formula. Come to find out, this isn’t effective. Some kids have managed to squeak by with it, but it’s well recognized now that this not the way to teach. Some students are more visual, while others are auditory, and others are hands-on. The best teaching approach isn’t the one that works best for the teacher, but the approach that best fosters a student’s learning.  Thus, our schools have swapped out memorization and ruler slaps for the methodology of differentiated instruction. […]

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