Refocus Your Approach to Differentiated Instruction

Chances are, you’re using differentiated instruction every day in your classroom. This framework is crucial in helping you respond to the variety of needs and learning styles of your students. Through tailored lesson plans, you give them choices about how they learn and how they demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Clearing the Air

There are many misconceptions about what differentiated instruction is and is not. These infographics created by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, do a great job of summarizing exactly what differentiated instruction should and should not represent.

Differentiated Instruction - What is It and Is Not

Four Elements of Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction focuses on these four areas:

1. Content

Content represents the materials, concepts, and skills being taught. All students receive the same core content, designed to meet the standards, but teachers adjust the complexity based on a student’s readiness, interest, and learning style.

2. Process

Process refers to how the information is delivered. Teachers strive to find the right fit of independent learning, one-on-one teacher support (more scaffolding), working in pairs, or small group activities. Lessons are presented so they speak to many learning styles, using graphics or visuals, lectures, written materials, and interactive lessons.

3. Product

Teachers provide options for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned. In addition to using required end-of-unit assessments, teachers provide opportunities for students to choose from written reports, oral presentations, and arts or technology projects to present the material they’ve mastered.

4. Learning Environment

Differentiation can also extend to a student’s comfort level in the classroom. This can be achieved by giving students options for their learning environment such as sitting at a desk, working in a learning nook, spending time at a standing desk, or utilizing “fidget” tools.

From One Teacher to Another

We talked with Julie Roesch, a fourth-grade teacher at Lindbergh Elementary School in Little Falls, MN about her experiences in differentiating instruction. She shared examples of how she tailors both instruction and assessment to meet the needs of her students.

“I’ve created novel study groups where we work on our state reading standards. I have high, average high, average, and below average groups. I so enjoy this time working with my small groups, because I can ensure that all kids get to participate and show what they know during their small groups.  I can get all students to perform at their highest potential. Even with the non-readers in my class, I have them participate and pay attention during instruction, and then provide them with assignments at their level.”

Julie goes on to share how she differentiated the concluding assignment for an “American Hero” research project. “They could present their findings in any way they wanted… a commercial, a poster, a skit, a written paper, a flipbook, a Keynote presentation on their iPad, etc. The kids were very creative and did a nice job!”

Furthermore, Julie has made some changes to her classroom to allow students to work in a comfortable environment. “I have a classroom with no desks. My fourth graders get to sit on couches and chairs. I have some tables and stools, a picnic table in my back corner and a big rug in the front of the room where students can also sit. Students are given the ‘choice’ of where they want to sit and whom they want to sit by.  If the ‘choice’ isn’t a smart one, then I make the choices for a period of time until they are ready to make a better choice. They can move locations during the day. I don’t mind if students are up and walking around, as long as they are always paying attention.”

Revisit the Basics

Implementing differentiated instruction isn’t easy, to say the least. Remember to give yourself a break…not to mention, a pat on the back. Returning to the basics may help clear your mind and refocus your energy. Here are some quick ideas to help you refresh your efforts:

In a Day

  • Review student files to gain more insight into their past learning challenges/successes.
  • Survey students with a few simple questions about what classroom activities they enjoy.
  • Find a video, podcast, or other support material for an upcoming lesson.
  • Use an “exit slip” after your next lesson, using a thumbs up/ thumbs down rating, to ask students if they felt they understood the material.

In A Week

  • Reorganize your classroom for collaborative learning.
  • Create one assignment that offers choices.
  • Create one lesson plan to implement stations or workshops.

In A Month

  • Start building a toolkit of what has worked so it can be implemented for other subjects or shared with other teachers.
  • Introduce a new tech tool into your classroom to expand options for learning.

What successes have you experienced with differentiated instruction? What roadblocks have you overcome?

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