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
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: