Blue Classroom

Three Easy Ways To Differentiate Instruction

Differentiated Instruction is a popular buzzword in many education circles, and while some teachers pass it off as “chaotic” or “too much work” the true Edunators amongst us have learned how to embrace this as one of the essential Weapons of Mass Education.

While many teachers use Differentiated Instruction to provide more targeted instruction where kids need it most, usually after some bit of formative assessment,  it can also be used as means of delivering initial instruction. There are essentially three ways in which teachers can easily differentiate instruction, give them a once over and see if there’s anyway you can tailor your instruction to meet the needs of the individual a bit more in your classroom.

1)  Differentiate how students learn necessary course material.

Whether it’s by taking notes during a class lecture, playing a game, reading a textbook, or watching a video at home, there are a variety of ways students can come to “know” course material. The basic premise of Differentiated Instruction is that in most cases, teachers shouldn’t care one way or the other HOW students come to know the information, so long as they do in fact learn the material. People who subscribe to the various “learning styles” models first presented in the 1970s often differentiate in this method, as do those simply looking to offer students some choice in their coursework, granting the illusion of control over classroom situations and perhaps aiding in classroom management.

This is perhaps the most common method of differentiation because it’s viable in virtually any subject area, at any grade level. If an objective in Science is to learn to learn the various parts of a cell, it should be of little consequence to a teacher how a student obtains that information, so long as it’s reliable.  Even in the more skill-based subjects like Language Arts, where for example the final product may be to produce a persuasive essay, the essential elements of what make constitute a quality persuasive essay may be obtained by any means necessary.

Beyond the appeal to learning-style advocates or those wishing to grant students more freedom, differentiation in this manner is particularly useful when dealing with special education students who may struggle to comprehend things in a certain manner. Likewise, it is beneficial in helping reach English Language Learners, at-risk students or non-readers.

2)  Differentiate how students demonstrate understanding of course material.

This one is tricky in the skill based subjects such as Language or Math. If the objective is to solve a multi-step equation, well, sorry little Timmy, you’re screwed. I need to see you do that. Similarly, if the objective is to cook something in Family and Consumer Sciences, writing about cooking just isn’t the same, is it?

In the knowledge based classes though, this is certainly not the case. If the objective is to “Explain the Historical Significance of the Civil War” it just doesn’t much matter how a student demonstrates that understanding. Maybe she creates a poster about it, passes a test, or explains it in oral defense grading. Again, it shouldn’t matter to the teacher how a student demonstrates mastery of an objective, so long as he or she has mastered the objective.

3)  Differentiate what students learn.

In some ways, this is the opposite of the previous example and a second-cousin to the first. Suppose I’m teaching a knowledge-based class, like Science or Social Studies. I may have a little bit of wiggle room, but for the most part the curriculum dictates what it is students need to be learning about, from George Washington to Issac Newton. It’s tough for me to differentiate exactly what is being taught.

However, in a more skill based class this gets a bit easier. Suppose I’m a Language teacher struggling to get kids to write. It shouldn’t matter to me WHAT they write about, so long as they’re WRITING. The subject manner can easily change in Art class to be more customizable to student interests, whereas in Civics it gets a bit more specific. Students need to learn fractions in Math class, but a great Math teacher can make fractions relevant to just about any student’s interests. The objective doesn’t change, students still need to exhibit a skill, but what they learn about while they exhibit that skill can vary wildly and according to student interests.

This is more hypothetical then relevant, but suppose a student just showed up to Class [x] and we said “What are YOU interested in learning about?” Helping students find their passions is great in theory and sounds awesome in a brochure for a really expensive charter school with a fancy name, but in the high-stakes world of standardized testing and “Learn or Else!” governing, it’s unfortunately seldom a reality. 

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