Just what is differentiated instruction?

Debbie Collins from Albemarle County Public Schools is a saint; the Director of Elementary Education and Facilitator for Gifted Services at that Virginia district, Debbie is very, very busy, but she still agreed to be my first guest blogger, helping me with a question that I got from a friend and parent: Just what is differentiated instruction (DI)?

Carol Ann Tomlinson is DI’s guru, and much can be found at her website; there’s also a University of Virginia-developed site called Differentiation Central that has even more resources, including video.

But back to Debbie: here’s what she had to say about some basic questions about differentiation in the classroom.

What is DI?
Differentiated Instruction (DI) is a teacher’s response to students’ different learning styles, achievement levels, and preferences. Knowing your students well is the first tenet of differentiated instruction. It’s not enough just to know the achievement levels (what they know, understand and are able to do); you must know the student as a learner. Teachers who are great at differentiation understand how their students prefer to learn and how they prefer to produce. They plan their lessons with students in mind – not just the content.

How does it help students?
A student’s personal response to learning is an integral part of teaching. If the lesson is constructed to involve the student in the material at his or her achievement level or preferred learning style, then it’s more likely that the student will be able to engage in the information so that he or she achieves more. This is not to say that students who aren’t on grade level do not receive grade level instruction; it means that if a student is not on grade level in reading, for example, the teacher might select different materials for the social studies lesson, rather than have that student read a book. Having a student watch a video on American West culture in the early 1900s would be more beneficial than giving a slow reader 15 pages to slog through. It needs to be about the learning and figuring out how all students in the classroom can master the material.

What does DI look like in the classroom?
In most classrooms, DI looks like small group work. If I walked into a classroom with a teacher “doing” DI, I would see a variety of work stations or small groups working together, all of them on the same unit of study. For example, in a 4th grade math classroom, everyone might be studying fractions, but one group might be cutting and rearranging parts of a whole, members of another group are teaching each other how to do equivalent fractions, and a final group is making a fractions video to share with classmates. And these are not random groups; the teacher created them very intentionally, building on her knowledge of her kids – what she knows they know and how best they might learn the material.

How do teachers plan for it?
Careful planning is a key component of DI; without it, DI is too difficult to pull off on a day-to-day basis. A teacher can not just come to class and expect that having students work in groups will be enough. Because knowledge of each student is critical, formative assessments are crucial as the learning progresses. In addition, being able to move students in and out of groups is imperative; assessments assist with this flexible grouping.

Here’s a video that speaks to the importance of planning:

How does a teacher know when it’s working?
As with any instructional strategy, a teacher knows DI is working when her students are engaged in learning; the students are able to articulate questions and even offer suggestions on how activities might be structured, so that those activities are helpful to them. Teachers that are interested in making DI work always seek student feedback.

Does DI work at all grade levels?
Absolutely, DI works at all grade levels – with all students.

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3 Responses to Just what is differentiated instruction?

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  2. Alan Stange says:

    I think it is a helpful explanation. I am determined to transform my practice in a number of ways and differentiating instruction is a key element in that transformation. It is going slowly and I have made a number of mis-steps along the way. I think I will get there. It is increasingly clear that this is the way I need to go.

    I originally took Collins stance on differentiation. She thinks you have to know your students well and that differentiation cannot be done daily. Meeting student’s learning needs and preferences through differentiation is reduced to an occasional practice. I’ve risked taking a different approach to differentiation.

    By no means am I claiming to differentiate every activity in the classroom. I don’t believe that is an appropriate goal. Students need to practice all learning styles and learn to collaborate in a variety of ways. Differentiation does need to happen most of the time in our classrooms and the way to facilitate this is to trust the students more.

    Formative assessment is crucial as Collins reminds us. However it seems to me that is partly based on the premise that the students are not sufficiently self reflective on their own learning styles and preferences. It assumes they need a teacher to direct them. How does this connect with our common inquiry and project practice? Tomlinson suggests developing tiered activities that offer students choice. I think this is the way to implement differentiation. Offer the students more autonomy in their learning.

    Contracts are important. You need a negotiated agreement that provides a degree of autonomy in learning. It would include choice on content, conditions, and product, along with a criteria for completion. Amidst all my mistakes and confusions I have come to value my students as autonomous learners. At this point, I am realizing that it is my own weakness at conveying to the student’s the learning outcomes and their indicators. If they know the goal and have a rubric to guide them they can do it.

    I am seeing this in the culmination of my current social studies projects with the grade fives and sixes. As they are sharing their differentiated projects I realize I did not adequately tier the inquiry or present them with rubrics for consuming, producing and publishing. Shame on me for launching it unprepared. With a scaffold for inquiry, a rubric for assessment, and suggested alternatives, I think my students could have learned more and shared better. I’m working on that now.

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