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. 

Previewing As a Free and Easy Student Intervention

MagnifyingGlassWhy do we insist on making struggling learners "catch up" when we could just as easily give them a head start by showing them material a little sooner?A little over a year ago, I was sitting at the Association for Middle Level Education’s 38th Annual National Conference for Middle Level Educators in Louisville, KY. It was a sensational conference that I recommend any Middle School Teacher try and go to as often as they can in their education career.

While there, I was sitting in a breakout session where the presenters were explaining their master schedule and some innovations they’d made regarding their intervention and enrichment programs and how they’d been able to turn things around in their school pretty quickly using a variety of strategies. One of these strategies stuck out immediately as so simple, so brilliant and so obvious, I was furious I’d never thought of it myself. I’m not sure if they developed this strategy themselves or if they borrowed it from somewhere else, but it’s a tremendous idea that my colleagues and I stole, adapted and began using almost instantly.  I’ll attempt to contact the presenters and ask if they want to be mentioned here, if not, I’ll let them remain anonymous.

The strategy itself was used as an intervention for students who were behind academically. Most of these students were struggling for a variety of reasons – poor reading level, lack of prerequisite skills, motivation issues, emotional needs, basic needs, etc. And while the school had other protocols in place to help students in these areas (they’re processes really were impressive) it was this idea that could be adapted for any class that struck me as genius.

Students who were identified as struggling learners at the end of a grading period would be placed into a “previewing” intervention, in which they would get an opportunity to learn class material before their classmates viewed it in a regular education setting. Then, when this material was taught in the normal classroom setting, students who were once some of the most “tuned out” and afraid to participate in class were suddenly much more engaged. They already knew some of the answers, and they were eager to show this in front of their classmates. The boost in confidence led to greatly increased participation, which led to greatly increased learning. BRILLIANT!BrilliantIdeaSome ideas are so brilliant, and so obvious, it hurts when you finally realize them.

What’s more, classmates who’d grown accustomed to these kids not usually participating much or knowing the right answers were taken a back by this new found participation. They had to pick up their game just to keep up!

Some will say this strategy doesn’t give kids an opportunity to succeed the first time on their own. I’m sympathetic to that notion, except that if we as wait a grading period – or even just a few weeks – it becomes incredibly obvious to teachers which students are struggling. Typically, these students who are struggling will continue to struggle, so they end up in intervention programs or getting additional time in the form of “re-teaching”. How many times does a student have to end up in your “re-teaching” class before we decide that “pre-teaching” might be a better course of action?

Often times re-teaching is a cycle that can be difficult to break. However, if we use pre-teaching to teach students previewing skills and instruct them how to use this strategy on their own, this intervention doesn’t have to be a life sentence. The previewing skill, coupled with the boost in confidence and increased participation can occasionally turn a student around and make interventions no longer necessary. And isn’t that the point of a quality intervention?

Others will insist that this “isn’t fair” to students who have to learn the material the first time. Pardon? What “isn’t fair” is that we have a portion of our students who for a variety of reasons struggle to learn on the same conveyor belt schedule as everybody else. Is it unfair to give everybody the help they need? The fairness comes in when the students who aren’t receiving the intervention struggle themselves – then they too will be given the help they need. I fail to understand the “fair” issue and I’m reminded of Rick Wormeli’s book “Fair Isn’t Always Equal”. Fair doesn’t mean everybody getting what they want or everybody getting the same – it means everybody getting what they need. And some students NEED to see the material sooner than their classmates.

Some will ask the question of practicality – logistically – how do you find the time to do this with students? After all, even if your school offers a period during the day for intervention and enrichment, often the students who struggle in Science and Social Studies (and would benefit from a previewing class) are receiving interventions in the areas of Math and Science. In the case of my school we found a more unique way around this problem as well.

We talked about it as a grade level team and we were able to identify 14-16 students who struggle to learn “on schedule” in just about all of our classes. We then spoke with their parents and the administration and made the decision to remove these students from one of their elective periods (all students get two at our school, so the students were still given one elective). Since our grade level team has common planning time, we each volunteered to give up one day a week to “preview” material with this class. We would teach them the material we would be covering that coming week. Occasionally we used it for review, but typically it was just to give students an opportunity to get started on projects a little sooner, get started reading a little earlier, etc. So for one day a week, I didn’t have a plan period. But it was EASILY worth it to see the growth in some of those students.

I say “some” because like any intervention, it isn’t one-size-fits-all. It didn’t work for everybody, maybe because we were only getting the students once per week per subject. Ideally, this would be done every two days or so as part of a block schedule for students. It didn’t work for everybody, but for a few students, it worked EXTREMELY well to boost their confidence and participation in class. Our data didn’t necessarily reflect success – grades didn’t improve much though they did some for some students – but as  I said, the “immeasurable” categories of participation and confidence soared.

Some have asked in the past if the student who received this head start were bullied or made fun of for being in this “previewing” class? If they were, I didn’t see it. We fought it a little bit at the beginning of the semester, particularly with the boys, who felt they were in a class with “dumb” kids but they soon got over it and learned to benefit from it. Once the student body knew what was going, few of them had much to say about it. If they complained “That’s not fair! He already got to get started on this!” I just told them that if they needed additional time, they’d be given it as well. That stopped most of the complainers. Kill them with kindness – if everybody gets as many opportunities as they need  there’s no discrepancy, is there?

Another thing we found…if a student is REALLY afraid to participate in class and REALLY lacks confidence, use the previewing class to feed them an answer or two to specific questions that you’re going to pose to the class. Make sure they know, and when you ask them in their regular education class make sure you give them an opportunity to shine!

What if the students learn the material in their “preview” class and then don’t have work to do in their regular class? Then I’d say that student probably doesn’t need to be in “preview” – they learned it in one try!

What do you think? Is there any benefit to using “previewing” as an intervention? What are the potential downfalls of an idea like this? How might your school be able to benefit from this? Share your ideas for “Previewing as a Student Intervention” in the comments, or share your ideas with other Edunators on our Facebook page. Tweet them at me (@Edunators) and I’ll re-tweet your ideas for others to share. Good luck, and happy previewing! 

Using Rules of the Courtroom to Improve Student's Writing

If you’ve read my piece on using Eminem and Wikipedia to teach students about research papers, than you know I’m always looking for a fun, creative way to drive home some essential points about non-fiction writing in my classroom. Several years ago, when our school began our C.S.I. project, I stumbled across another neat trick while preparing some young, aspiring attorney’s for an upcoming mock trial.

It turns out, many of the rules of the courtroom that I was asking my lawyers to abide by apply equally to the research projects I’d been asking them write all year. After all, in a court room, lawyers are not allowed to simply say what they think happened. They call witnesses who give testimony as to what they believe happened. Similarly, when writing good non-fiction writing, in particular research papers, students should not simply “say” what they think happened. Instead, they should find sources that support their position and write their work in a way that allows their “sources” to tell the story for them. Their “opening” and “closing” arguments merely sum-up the positions of the “expert witnesses.”

Up until this point I’ve always used their background knowledge about writing research papers as a scaffold to teaching them about courtroom procedure, however, I’m considering flipping some things around and doing a sort of “mock trial” earlier in the school year in an effort to use these five common courtroom objections to teach students about writing.

Below you can find the things I find “Objectionable” as a teacher, both in our mock trials and in their research papers. For the sake of clarity, I’ve written as I would explain it to students. If you’re interested in learning more about our C.S.I. Unit and why it’s the coolest unit I teach all year, CLICK HERE.

5 Common Courtroom Objections & How They Apply to Your Writing

Asked and Answered – No need to repeat the same point over and over again. Once you’ve established a key element in your case, it’s time to move on.

Hearsay – Any source that is claiming to get information from another source is never as good as the original. This is a great opportunity to talk about primary vs secondary sources. In the court of law, only primary sources are allowed, unless the information can be corroborated by someone else. In a good research paper, primary sources are certainly preferred, and if you must use secondary sources, try and find somebody else who draws the same conclusion of the event as your first source.

Assuming Facts Not in Evidence – We can’t jump to conclusions in the courtroom, and likewise, in our research papers we need to make sure that facts we present are properly cited. Make sure you’re getting your information from a reputable source, and use quotes or paraphrase to show your information. Don’t just state a fact and expect us to believe your word is true.

Relevance – Nobody wants to hear a witness in a criminal case talk about a bunch of things that have nothing to do with the case at hand. Likewise, make sure the information you present in your paper is relevant to your thesis. Significant information only, no need to fill up two paragraphs on what Abraham Lincoln’s childhood was like if your paper is about his assassination.

Calls for Speculation – As a lawyer in a courtroom, you’re not allowed to ask witnesses to make a guess. Similarly, you’re not allowed to guess in a research paper. Find a source to support your argument and serve as an “expert witness” who IS allowed to guess. But only if you’ve explained that they are in fact, an expert. Sadly, as a student doing research, you are not an expert. Yet.

Questions or comments regarding this article? Drop me a line on Facebook or Twitter, or email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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