Differentiated Instruction (Part 1)

Put simply, differentiation is about meeting the needs of different learners so that all can be successful in the learning process. Differentiation acknowledges that students are unique individuals with diverse needs. Differentiation acknowledges that one size does not fit all. Differentiating your instruction provides multiple ways for students to access information and practice skills. 


*What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching - not a single strategy or program. The idea is to get all of your students to the same end goal by allowing them to take different paths, rather than forcing all of them down one singular, preset path.

Differentiation is not, however, a free-for-all. It does not mean letting go of expectations or high standards. Instead, it means being more purposeful and intentional in providing students with multiple means of getting where they need to go based on their individual needs. It does not mean letting struggling students off the hook or giving gifted students more work to do. It does not mean struggling students get boring, repetitive or easy work while higher achieving students get to do all of the “fun stuff." It just means that you uniquely meet both groups where they are.

Fair is not equal, right? Equal means everyone gets the exact same thing. Fair means everyone gets what they need in order to be successful. Differentiating your instruction is about giving students what they need in order to be successful in your classroom. What one child needs is likely very different from the next!


*Why Differentiate Instruction?

Have you ever heard the saying, “Mama knows best!”? In the case of differentiation, the answer to “Why differentiate?” is about similar to this familiar saying – “Research knows best!” According to any research you will find ANYWHERE, differentiated instruction is powerful and effective.

From ASCD: "Compared with the general student population, students with mild or severe learning disabilities received more benefits from differentiated and intensive support, especially when the differentiation was delivered in small groups or with targeted instruction (McQuarrie, McRae, & Stack-Cutler, 2008). Tieso (2005) studied 31 math teachers and 645 students and found that differentiated instruction was effective for keeping high-ability students challenged in heterogeneous classrooms.” [http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb10/vol67/num05/Differentiated-Learning.aspx

From the International Journal of Education: "The use of the one-size-fits-all curriculum no longer meets the needs of the majority of learners (Forsten, Grant, and Hollas, 2002; McBride, 2004; McCoy and Ketterlin-Geller, 2004; Tomlinson, 2002; Tomlinson and Kalbfleisch, 1998)… Addressing student differences and interest appears to enhance their motivation to learn while encouraging them to remain committed and stay positive (Stronge, 2004; Tomlinson, 2004b). Ignoring these fundamental differences may result in some students falling behind, losing motivation and failing to succeed (Tomlinson and Kalbfleisch, 1998). Students who may be advanced and motivated may become lost as the teacher strives to finish as much of the curriculum as possible (Tomlinson and Kalbfleisch, 1998). It would further appear that students learn effectively when tasks are moderately challenging, neither too simple nor too complex (Tomlinson, 2004b)." [http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ854351.pdf]

As a personal reflection from my experience in my own classroom, I’ve also learned that differentiating instruction has benefits beyond just student growth, motivation, and achievement. Differentiating your instruction draws you into a closer and more meaningful relationship with each of your students. You’re forced to get to know them better as the little people that they are when you seek to learn more about their individual needs as learners. You’ll find yourself interacting with each individual more and forming more personal relationships with them.


*A Little Honesty: Challenges of Differentiation

There is a reason why every teacher in the world is not differentiating his or her instruction. Practically speaking, differentiating your instruction is one of the most challenging things you can do as a teacher. There is no preset formula for how to best differentiate because your students are such dynamic readers and thinkers. For example, you may have two students who are on GRL M, but they may have completely different levels of interest in and motivation to read. They may have the same reading abilities, but you’ve got two totally different readers on your hands, and you have to figure out the best way to serve each. 

There is no pre-planned roadmap that can perfectly account for both of those different learners. For that reason, differentiation is always a work in progress - it is ongoing. You will have to continually assess and reassess your students to see where they are and how you can help them move forward. That’s not an easy pill to swallow for us type-A teacher planners who like to follow a 3-step program. But, according to research, it is what is best for the students as individual learners(Go back and re-read the section on research if you need to! I know I had to read it a few times when I was first swallowing the differentiation pill.)

Differentiation may be more challenging to adopt, and it may be the road less traveled by the majority of teachers, but don’t we often tell our students that the challenging tasks they face are the most rewarding? There is nothing like the growth you will see in your students when you serve them exactly where their needs are. They’ll feel more successful and be more motivated to work. You will draw into a closer relationship with them as you focus on getting to know them better as learners and people. The “just right fit” instruction they receive will allow them to grow and thrive as learners.

The reward is great. Are you up for the challenge to differentiate?