Table of Contents
- Where it all Began
- Modern Day Classrooms See a Need
- Six Examples of Differentiated Instruction
Table of Contents
Printable Infographic Included!
Differentiated Instruction is a huge buzzword in education right now. So what exactly is it? How is it different from regular class instruction? And what is driving its popularity in the current school climate?
I heard about this some time ago but didn’t think much of it at the time. Then I did some research and realized that I had been exercising principles of differentiation for many years in my classes.
In this article, I will answer all of the above questions based on my history of working with kids and research for lesson planning this year. Then I will explore some helpful examples of differentiated instruction as it pertains to elementary and middle school literature.
It is my hope that with differentiated instruction your classroom will come alive and your students will be excited to come to school every day! I promise it’s possible–I’ve seen it in my classes and kids clubs!
Where it all Began
Even though differentiated instruction seems like a new concept in education, it actually began back in the 1600’s. Because classrooms functioned for all ages with only one teacher and limited resources, teachers automatically had to improvise. Picture the traditional one-room schoolhouses here. They needed to find a way to keep all of the students occupied at the same time throughout the day. They also needed to provide material that was beneficial to all of the different levels of learning. And they had to do it without the ability to research the best ways or resources to make their job easier. They had to invent it all themselves. If we could just interview those teachers, we could find a whole world full of helpful examples of differentiated instruction! They were the masters without even realizing it. They were just trying to make their classroom work the best it could for everyone.
For a really interesting and much more detailed history of differentiated instruction, click to read this article from Bright Hub Education.
Modern Day Classrooms See a Need
As time went on education became more specialized. Educational experts thought that they had eliminated the need to “be all things to all students.” Because classrooms were filled with students that were the same age living in the same geographical location, it was mistakenly believed that they could all learn the same amount of information at the same level of learning in the same way. Subsequently, it didn’t take long to learn that nothing could be further from the truth. On the classroom level, most teachers knew it all along.
So, regardless of the style of classroom, ages, and abilities of the students, research was compiled that streamlined the ability of teachers to reach all of their students. Surprisingly, a good amount of that research showed us that those one-room schoolhouse teachers really knew what they were doing!
So now let’s get to some helpful examples of differentiated learning in the classroom that you can implement fairly easily. Soon you will start seeing results in your students’ learning curve and enthusiasm in the class immediately.
Six Examples of Differentiated Instruction
Differentiated Instruction Infographic (Click to print.)
This is one “quiz” that your students will love to take. What you do with the results will make their experience in your classroom so much more rewarding.
You will want to keep most of the questions specific instead of open ended. Kids, especially in the younger grades, will not be able to come up with answers without a definitive guide. You can ask questions such as:
- Which way do you prefer to learn: hearing, seeing, reading, or doing a project?
- Choose all of your favorite activities: games, crafts, books, writing, or movies.
- What are two (or three) of your favorite school activities that you have done in the past?
- What are your 2 most favorite subjects and your 2 least favorite subjects?
Keep in mind that all students will have more than one favorite way to learn. A good way to see this is by having them circle all of the choices they prefer. One of the best benefits to this is that they will get lots of reinforcement in their favorite ways.
As for the last question about most and least favorite subjects, you can pair their least favorite subjects with their favorite learning methods/activities. What an amazing feeling of accomplishment you will have if by the end of the year, your students’ least favorite subjects have become some of their most favorite subjects!
One thing that can help students really come out of their shell on this activity is sharing with them what your strengths and weaknesses are. It helps you come across as human and approachable. And it makes them more comfortable working with someone who is willing to invest in them in a personal way.
You can also use this “interview” to seat like-minded students near each other, further enhancing their classroom experience.
While this is a really good idea for learning in the classroom, admittedly, it takes a lot of planning and work towards execution. It is well worth the extra time spent. Once it is set up, refreshing the materials for the upcoming lessons does become streamlined. This is especially true of the teacher that has been using it for some time.
So here is what this looks like: have a few smaller table or carpet spaces that a few students at a time can comfortably fit at. Then have instructions posted that allow them to use the station and develop their skills in that area. Some ideas would be along the line of puzzles, simple artwork, short videos (a few pairs of headphones would be useful in this station to avoid distraction in the classroom). Really, the possibilities are as endless as the teacher’s imagination. And whatever the kids gave you for ideas in their quiz! Another great advantage to this idea is that the students get practice at following directions.
Survey of Student Goals
This is very close to the interview in example #1, but it is actually more open-ended but in a way that students can think of an answer. You ask them to write a few sentences describing what they would like to have learned or would be able to accomplish by the end of the year. Then you get a whole lot of insight in a very small assignment. In younger grades where the kids aren’t comfortable writing yet, the teacher can call each student aside or to their desk to ask them, then write down the answers to keep on file. They will most likely need to guide the younger students’ thoughts as well. Younger kids don’t really think about long term goals. But when you give them some valid choices, not only will they start choosing the choices they like, they will most likely take the thoughts and run with them.
If the students in general are having a hard time coming up with something, you can suggest that their thoughts can be about improving in a certain subject (or all of them), improving an artistic skill, learning to read harder material, or any other suggestion you can think of. This could actually be a good way to help your goals to align with theirs, as you are able to share what you are thinking and see how they respond.
Also, make sure you give them some time to think. Most of them are not going to be able to think of these kinds of things on their feet. If they need to take some time to think about it and come back to you, that is fine! They will appreciate your being sensitive to their needs.
Allow Students to Choose Their Own Project
For the younger grades, you can make a list of 3 or 4 projects with preset guidelines. For the older grades, make the first assignment a plan they have written explaining what project they have chosen and how they plan to execute it. As with the younger grades, make sure that you have given them guidelines so the project doesn’t veer too far off the course. You could actually have some completed objects on display and let them choose the ones they prefer.
They will love being able to take control of their education in a way that they enjoy. And you will love seeing their creativity blossom. So many times I have been amazed to see what the kids were thinking and how far beyond my perspective they took their ideas.
An Outdoor Classroom
Some facilities will be able to do this more easily than others. But if your school has a place that is somewhat out of the way of busy school traffic patterns, this is a wonderful way to implement real world life into their school experience. Having potted or raised plants, tables that the students can work at (for hands-on projects or even academic work on a nice day out), and other outdoor-type objects that lend well to different styles of learning can be incredibly beneficial.
Just a change of routine makes school life fresh and exciting for them. This is especially helpful for the kids that hate being inside all the time. You know who they are–the ones staring out the window dreaming while you are trying to drive home an important lesson that they need to learn!
This is one example that you can not implement into stations unless you have a teacher’s aide or parent that is able to work with them while you are with the rest of the class inside. But don’t let logistics get in the way of what can become a special time that these kids remember for years to come. There is almost always a way to make these things work if we take a little bit more time to work through it!
Connect the Dots
Everything in life relates to something, and most often many things. Help your students to see how interrelated life is by connecting the subjects for them. Math can be seen in most other subjects. The same is true with history. Everything has a history. And many of those histories are interrelated among the subjects you are teaching. And reading and grammar connect the whole world!
Allowing the kids to see how everything interconnects is a great lesson. By the end of the year, I can guarantee that they will be sharing with you the connections that they see!
Speaking of connecting dots, all of these helpful examples of differentiated instruction lead to one thing: investing value in the students that you are spending the year with. They will see that you care about they way they are learning and that you are willing to invest time in working with them. Most kids respond well knowing that the adults around them care enough to hear them. And that may be a more valuable lesson than any of your lesson plans or educational programs can cover.
The leading authority on differentiation in the classroom is Carol Ann Tomlinson. She is a professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at University of Virginia. For more information and more helpful examples of differentiated instruction, click on some of her best books:
This Post Has 79 Comments
That cartoon gets me every time. I have 3 children and none of them learn the same as the other. None of them have the same interests. I can only imagine a classroom of 25
Yes, Scott!!! It is exciting, fun, scary, and overwhelming all at the same time. 🙂 But it’s also awesome to see how their learning changes and increases throughout the course of the year. Thanks for weighing in.
I hadn’t heard of this before, but I like it! Students do learn differently from one another–I always did best when I could see what I needed to do. And I like that students can pick their own projects. Then they’ll actually enjoy doing it!
Yes! All of that! It does take a bit of extra work and thought on the teacher’s part, but it is so worth it in the long run.
I actually never heard the term differentiated instruction but I know for a fact that this methodology works better for everyone. The only issue is when you have a class of 30 students then this makes the task near impossible. I believe that this should also be considered for adult learners in a continuing education environment.
Having 30 students does make it a whole lot more complicated, but still doable on some level and absolutely worth the effort! And yes, it would be great to do this for adult learners as well!
I did not know this type of learning and perhaps the classes should be formed based on this very principle, ditto at work … everything would be more functional.
When I was in school we studied exactly the same as in that cartoon. It was always a competition about who is the best at the end of the year and to earn your spot you had to excel in all the subjects. One of my colleagues actually had to move to a different class because he was failing math… and these days, the system hasn’t changed much.
That is very true, Joanna. I read an article yesterday that talked about the fact that the school system as we know it today was developed by a man around 180 years ago. His development was based on the world entering the industrial age. With very few changes in the school system since then while the world has drastically changed, the school system and those in it suffer in their education and general understanding of the world unless they are learning about those things outside of the classroom.
I’ve never heard of this type of learning but you explained it well. Thanks so much for sharing this with us!
I’ve heard of this before but only in passing. I am 100% convinced everyone has different learning capabilities and styles. I personally think the way in which we ‘school’ people is all wrong. Some people aren’t good under exam pressure but can complete coursework or essays no problem (like me). Some people are artistic and creative, so they learn visually.
We can’t judge everyone under one umbrella, you know?
I have heard about differentiated instruction kind of learning in some schools. You have put it across so well. I think this is a good way of learning that can make kids look forward to attending school each day, although it looks like it’s a lot of work for the teacher.
That cartoon is so much fun. And in the same time, it simply shows the truth! Love your article!
I like this way of teaching. My boys get bored in school so this would be great for them
Really informative post! I didn’t know about differentiated instruction until a couple of years ago. I believe that the educational system needs to change and adapt. Every student learn differently and have different skills, they should be graded accordingly.
I agree, Candace. The school system as we know it today is terribly outdated, making it difficult for teachers as well as students.
It always happen which a student can’t be like another when it comes to teaching and some learn quick and some not. I haven’t heard of this but its really cool idea.
I have not heard or seen this before. Looks so interesting and a great way to learn.
The cartoon really depicts how different we are in our pace and style of learning. This quiz is a great way to find out how my kids like learning.
My daughter has been out of school for 5 years now (doing her Masters!), so I’ve never heard of this, but sounds like a good way of teaching.
Great examples! It does help to understand the concept better! Thank for posting
I am a teacher but I never heard of differentiated instruction (of course, Japan will never do this as they see the students in the classroom as the same). How is differentiated instruction different from Montessori learning?
It is actually very similar to Montessori in that it capitalizes on the individual strengths of the child. But it is different in that the students are still working collectively, usually as smaller groups within the class. The idea is that while all of the students in a large class are individuals, several of them fit into each category of learning strengths, making them fit perfectly into a group. That group allows them to learn with support of their strengths. Also, there is still quite a bit more structure and routine with differentiated instruction. It’s kind of halfway between traditional school and Montessori, taking the strengths of each into one modified program.
This is so deep! I am loving the many examples here of differentiate instruction. Never really given it much thought until now.
Like we say in the ad world, “If you are talking to everyone, you are talking to no one.” Not every child is the same and some need more attention than others and more instructions geared towards their learning needs.
That is an excellent comparison, Cindy! And very true! Thanks!
These are great suggestions! I home school, and I learned a lot from this….thank you for sharing!
Yes, Ceci, the vast majority of the concepts I cover transfer well to any type of classroom!
Although the term differentiated instruction is new to me but the concept isnt.. and it will be great if this will be adopted in used in all our system, i know some private institution uses the system but the government owned which has more student with different learning disability wouldn’t see the need to do so.. I need to broaden my knowledge differentiated instruction perhaps i will do a presentation during teachers training and see what they think about it.
That would be awesome if you did that and things changed, Ewuzie!
This is really a fantastic read and you provide great information on how Differentiated Instruction can be applied in classrooms. It is challenging for educators today to adhere to the learning styles of all students, differentiated instruction practices can help meet the needs of kids with varying abilities, IEP’s, and 504 plans.
It is hard, Christine, and not going to get easier anytime soon. Teachers are heroes!!!
It’s tough being a teacher in today’s world. You have so much to consider for each student. But for me, being an educator is one of the most purposeful jobs in the world. Should be worth it!
It is the demonstration of what I have always said, that education cannot be the same for everyone or better the way it should be applied according to the type of class.
Much informative….. an amazing post…. it is true everyone is different from another person their is no comparison in everything…. Thanks for sharing it… this one is really awesome
Thank you, Teerath!
My mom used to be a teacher and I remember that she used a lot the interview method, the survey method and the outside classroo. Those are very good learning techniques they captured students attention.
It sounds like your mom was an amazing teacher. 🙂 Thanks for sharing such wonderful memories, Jessica.
I absolutely love this concept! I know that when I felt heard and understood as a child, that I was so much more engaged. I think it is wonderful that focusing on what is best for each student is a priority.
You are exactly right, Tessa. I felt the same way growing up! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I so much agree with these differentiated instructions. Students having the freedom to choose their preferred subjects is a great ideal. Flexibility when it comes to learning is really a need. We don’t want to force our students to adapt a style that won’t work for them. Thanks so much for this valuable info!
I 100% agree that there needs to be different approaches offered at schools. Thinking back to my time in school it was very focused on one learning style. I know now that I have a different learning style from, say, my partner and my sister. I’m good in other areas of my life and not just my writing. I can’t understand math unless it’s one to one and done slowly. While I can write an essay no problem.
Most of my kids were either really strong in math or really strong in writing/reading. Only a couple were strong in both.
It really is so important for both parents and teachers to know the learning style of each child and cater to that.
It is so true that every child needs to learn their way or they can easily fall through the cracks. My three kids all are different in their learning styles, I can imagine how difficult it is with a whole classroom. Schools do seem to be more receptive and changing to this teaching style than they were back when I was in school.
Great suggestions. Since starting to teach my own class, I find myself looking back at the teachers that I’ve had over the years and learning from their examples. One in particular really stands out – it was during my elementary school years. The teacher had put together work sheet cards (a lot of them) walking through an ongoing lesson plan. For an example, we’ll use math. Each card has a math lesson of some form and a list of questions/activities.
To start the year, we all took a test which he used to decide where you needed to start. If you excelled in math, for example, you may start on card 25 while someone who was struggling more with their math and needed to work through some of the earlier lessons would start on card 3. During math time, we would each work through these cards at our own pace, submitting the work to him when finished so that we could keep moving on.
The reason that this stood out so much was the fact that it allowed those who were more independent learners and those that learned better from just reading it and doing it to run with it – as a student, I really excelled with that aspect. Meanwhile, those that needed more attention could then seek that time with him one on one, because he had fewer students to split that time between.
I teach music now, so it’s a little more challenging to make something like that work with my class (except for the theory portion), but it has always stood out in my mind!
My 5th grade teacher was exactly like that! It was such a fun year because I wasn’t hanging around waiting for everyone to finish. I was doing my own thing at my own pace. And he was keeping up with all of us! Those were good years, weren’t they? 🙂 ♥
It’s amazing how we all learn differently. I need to write everything down, especially when learning something new. I think it’s wonderful that students can choose their own project–genius idea!
I agree, Cindy. I am always writing because I know once I write it and see it reinforced on the paper, I’ve got it.
That image is such a perfect example of what is wrong with most education systems. Everyone is treated and approached like they are all the same and learn the same way.
I hope everybody gets in the same boat of teaching because not all students learn the same way. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.
I hope so too, Peachy!
With differentiation in the classroom, instructors can manage what students learn, how students learn, and how students are assessed. With its flexibility, differentiated instruction allows teachers to maximize individual growth in the course content. Differentiated instruction is student-centered.
That is all true, Monidipa. The teacher has to be more aware of his/her surroundings, but it is so worth it in the end. And it’s just part of getting to know all of the students.
I love this. I strongly believe that everyone learns differently and I think that is why some students struggle in some aspects of school, because it is not their strongest learning method. It’s so great for there to be a diverse set of methods for the classrooms.
I agree, Sophia. It is good to see that a lot of these students are getting the help they need.
I agree that everyone learns differently. Therefore the plans need to be able to adapt or they’re not going to work. I homeschooled for several years and my kids approached school differently. Now that they’re both in college they still do!
I agree! My kids all had very different learning styles and needed different levels of attention academically.
My primary school had an outdoor classroom and it honestly was such a breath of fresh air to be able to get out and away from the stresses and actual monotony of the same class in the same classroom – they only let us access it rarely though because the teacher was always worried about us acting out due to excitement! x
Marina Rosie x
That’s awesome that you had such a wonderful resource but kind of sucky that they limited it so severely. Hopefully they eventually stopped doing that.
This is very informative post. I learnt something new today 🙂
I think that it’s really important to figure the learning styles of a student and then adapt it to the different learning situations to maximize everything they can learn.
This is a really interesting teaching method! I haven’t heard of this before but it seems like it would be helpful and effective, thanks for sharing this with us!
Another great post! I think, of course, that a student with a sense of agency in their own learning, makes for a more positive holistic learning experience.
I love how this method gives the kids options and also takes into account their feelings on things. That sounds like a recipe for success!
First time to hear about differentiated instruction but I agree with this because students learns differently and I am sure that these tips and recommendations will help a lot not only with the teachers but also with the parents.
Education is not to share knowledge to children rather help them acquire those knowledge. Good writeup
It makes perfect sense. Everyone learns differently, so these ideas are great for helping each student learn in the best way possible for them.
Everyone do have their own strength and weaknesses and it’s great to know that there’s a method for the classrooms.
According to modern student centered methodologies the instructions are really helpful for teachers to manage slow learner students with normal and fast learner students.
I really like this concept. Differentiated instruction will benefit the kids. All cannot grasp in the same manner and with the same level of intelligence.
Everybody learns in different ways, It is very important as a teacher to be able to identify your students needs and work toward a better understanding of your students.
i used to love watching tv shows and movies showing the one-room schools. teachers who could handle all the students with all their different needs deserve great applause. you have something there with the outdoor classroom ideas.
The goal of education is to share knowledge to students so they can be better equipped in the future. This is the first time I heard about Differentiated Instruction. It’s really important.
Excellent post with the insights that any educator could use. Many of the mentioned above examples were used in my child’s private school. I know about it, as they allowed the parents to observe the children during the instruction.
These differentiated ways of learning have truly elevated each and every child in the group.
Such great insights! And these are truly effective ways of differentiated instructions in learning.
Interesting to read this post.thanks for sharing.
First off, I LOVE how you started it with the cartoon to put it in perspective. Funny but very thought provoking! Not everyone learn the same way.
Keeping Up With Candy
Thank you, Candy. That cartoon is one of my favorites because it drives such an important point home!