In the last Thursday post, I brought up differentiated instruction (DI) for writing though the use of technology. As I mentioned, it got me thinking more about differentiation in general.
What is it?
How does it work?
What does it look like in a classroom?
I knew the general idea and thought I’d been implementing it, but while people often threw the word around, it seemed like no one took the time to actually explain what differentiation is or how to actually apply it.
Truth or Misconception?
Let’s begin by laying out some of the truths and misconceptions surrounding differentiation. Many of these come from a wonderful infographic about Carol Ann Tomlinson’s book The Differentiated Classroom.
Misconception: Differentiated Instruction is a teaching strategy.
Truth: DI is not a strategy. It is a way to approach teaching that can be used with any strategy.
Misconception: Differentiated Instruction is individualized instruction.
Truth: DI does not mean individualized instruction. It means planning ways to address a broad range of learners. (IEPs and modifications for students with LD are something different.)
Misconception: Differentiated Instruction is only done in ability-leveled groups.
Truth: DI is not centered on ability groups. It is used in whole-group, small-group and individual settings.
How to Differentiate Instruction
Differentiation is about valuing students as diverse learners and providing them with tools and opportunities suited to them. I think of it in the same way as I think about fitness and exercise: not every type of exercise is suitable for every person, although all people do need some form of it. For example, I enjoy high intensity yoga routines but not high impact activities like running; my dad bikes instead of playing racquetball because his knees aren’t in good shape; my mom is starting to get more exercise by walking the dog. DI works in the same way: not every student learns the same or has the same abilities, but they all need to learn the content. DI is about planning for this and packing your teaching tool box appropriately, so that you have options and can pick the proper tool for each student.
How will you know which tool to use? In order to know how to differentiate instruction, you need to know your students (their abilities, how they learn, and their personalities) and the content. Data from formal and informal assessment should provide information on their skills and abilities, as well as what they need to improve and focus on. Experience and getting to know your students will give you the rest of the information you need. Look for patterns in your students learning needs and styles; then plan for how you will address those differences for the specific content you’re teaching or the task you’re assigning. This is how DI can be used with every strategy. It is a way of looking at teaching, a lens as this fantastic article by John McCarthy words it.
Since differentiation is not a specific strategy or planning different lessons for different groups or modifying the curriculum for individual students (remember IEPs and modifications for students with LD are something separate), there is not a simple list of steps to follow or strategies to use to implement DI. It is a way of teaching effectively that can be developed. Schools expecting their teachers to differentiate should provide plenty of guidance and professional development to help teachers use DI effectively. I know in many cases however, teachers are expected to implement DI without much guidance or training. Try taking small steps to more effectively incorporate DI into your teaching. Start with one lesson or task and follow these steps to plan for differentiation. The more conscious effort you put in to planning DI, the more natural it will become.
- Gather information on students’ abilities and learning styles.
- Look for patterns of learning needs.
- Thoroughly review the content and learning objectives.
- Plan ways to address different patterns of need within the lesson or task.
Please share any ideas or resources you have for DI!
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