Perhaps you’ve tried implementing differentiated instruction in the classroom with some success, and you’re wondering what more you can do to make it work better. The truth is that when teachers are equipped with differentiated instruction strategies at their disposal, they are in a good position to best meet the needs of their students. But first, let’s find out what differentiated instruction is.
What is Differentiated Instruction?
Differentiation is a buzzword in educational circles these days. Some teachers argue that we shouldn’t make learning one size fits all, but rather tailor instruction to meet different students’ needs. Carol Ann Tomlinson, an educator and prolific writer in differentiated instruction puts it this way “differentiation is an instructional approach to help teachers teach with individuals as well as content in mind. Differentiation really means trying to make sure that teaching and learning work for the full range of students…”1.
How is Differentiated Instruction Helpful?
There are plenty of reasons for using differentiated instruction methods, including increasing student engagement and bolstering motivation levels. By providing each student with challenging activities that match their abilities, they will feel motivated to achieve success because they will want to progress within a structure that they find interesting and one in which they know success is within reach.
So, how then can you implement differentiation in your classroom? According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, differentiating instruction can be done in four ways: by content, process, product or learning environment2.
Differentiating Instruction by Content
Differentiating instruction by learning content means that your differentiated instruction allows for students with varying depths of prior knowledge or abilities learn a single lesson in multiple ways; each student learns what he or she knows how to learn, needs, and is capable of learning.
For this, consider using the Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide . For students with little or no prior knowledge on the topic, design tasks which are pegged at the lower levels of the Taxonomy and for those who are already somewhat knowledgeable, they could be further challenged through tasks pegged at the level of evaluating or creating. This is done so that all learners stay engaged and motivated. Students should be given clear instructions about their tasks (what, why, how) and expected outcomes. In addition to being clear about expectations, teachers should also provide feedback regarding how well each student is doing.
To differentiate instruction by content effectively, it will be helpful to conduct pre-assessments to ascertain students’ current level of skill or knowledge. This will help you design appropriately challenging tasks for your students. For instance, if a group of students is struggling with basic multiplication, the task given to them could be a set of questions on simple multiplication questions aided by images. Another group who is already proficient in this topic could be given a set of multiplication problem sums in which they will need to apply their knowledge in different scenarios. In other words, different groups of students will be assigned different tasks.
Differentiating Instruction by Process
Many teachers differentiate instruction by learning process, or modality. Consider using movement as a way to enhance one student’s learning process and verbal discussion as a means of understanding for another. Similarly, students with strong auditory learning processes might benefit from listening to a passage read to them instead of reading it, while kinesthetic learners may need ample opportunities for physical activity or a more tactile learning experience.
Teachers can also differentiate by teaching style—one way being group discussions in which all students participate; another is individualized instruction in which one teacher interacts with individual students.
Differentiating Instruction by Product
When choosing between differentiated instruction strategies, consider your student’s learning output. This is essentially a product which demonstrates their understanding of the topic. This can be done by giving students a choice on the deliverable. For e.g students who have a flair for writing could write a summary of the key learning points of the lesson. Students with creative streak could produce a poster or a short video clip. The possibilities are endless!
Differentiating Instruction by Learning Environment
Learning environment refers to both physical and social environment. The ideal learning environment includes technology that is available for students to use, comfortable seating, proper lighting, and ventilation. In order to create a more effective learning environment, you should also consider how teachers can adjust their classroom management strategies. This can be done through a few ways, for example by establishing routines and ground rules so that students know what to expect for each lesson, building rapport with them, affirming good performance or effort made and encouraging those who seem to be falling behind.
Just as important are classroom furniture needs. A comfortable learning environment allows students to focus on learning because they are not distracted by uncomfortable seating or poor temperature control. To differentiate instruction by learning environment, you can create different kinds of spaces within the classroom. For instance, an area with bean bags for students who thrive in a more casual learning setting to aid discussion with peers, and perhaps another corner with individual tables and chairs for students who prefer to work alone. Providing stationeries and flipchart papers for students who need to make their thinking visible as they articulate their thoughts is also an effective way to engage the different senses which can aid learning.
There are many different approaches, learning styles and rates at which we learn. To help students of all ages reach their full potential, differentiated instruction is becoming a popular practice in schools. It aims to level out learning among students by providing them with individualized strategies and activities rather than one-size-fits-all teaching methods.
The strategy also fosters creativity through active collaboration between student and teacher. There really is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to learning — students learn differently according to their age, learning style, and education level or current knowledge base. To excel, you will need to know how to reach each student effectively while striving for academic excellence.
What are some differentiated instruction strategies you have adopted before? Please share your story with us, we would love to hear from you!
1 Tomlinson, C. A. (2017, August 10). FACULTY CONVERSATION: CAROL TOMLINSON ON DIFFERENTIATION. University of Virginia. Retrieved May 3, 2022, from https://education.virginia.edu/news/faculty-conversation-carol-tomlinson-differentiation
2 Differentiated Instruction. (n.d.). Learning A-Z. Retrieved May 3, 2022, from https://www.learninga-z.com/site/what-we-do/differentiated-instruction