Aug 29, 2014

Differentiated instruction is a term in education that gets thrown around quite a bit, but what does it actually mean?

To determine what differentiated instruction is, we can start by deciding what it is not. According to TeachThought1, differentiated instruction is NOT:

  • Grouping students by “ability”
  • Incompatible with standards
  • Dumbing down
  • Just for gifted students/just for students with learning challenges
  • Something “extra” on top of teaching

TeachThought, a blog dedicated to teaching and learning, defines differentiated instruction as “adapting content, process, or product” according to a specific student’s “readiness, interest, and learning profile.”1 This means in order to effectively differentiate instruction in a classroom, the educator needs to know extensive information about each student. What are the student’s strengths, and what areas might they be struggling with? What engages this student? How does their academic and personal history factor in? These questions can be answered most accurately by reviewing the data of each student.

Differentiated instruction can be thought of as “optimizing the packaging of academic content for individual students.”1 In other words, instead of changing the content that is to be taught (which could be harmful to the student, as they need to learn what the standards specify), the educator can tailor the content in a way that is ideal for an individual student to learn it (and even enjoy learning it!).

The end goal of differentiated instruction is to achieve maximum success for each student.1 What makes differentiated instruction so important and unique is that instead of just making sure all students are on grade level or have mastered a particular standard, it pushes each student to reach their individual potential.

TeachThought1 offers a list of what differentiated instruction IS, which includes:

  • Valuing and planning for diversity
  • A student-focused way of thinking about teaching and learning
  • Use of whole-group, small-group, and individual tasks based on content and student needs
  • Purposeful use of flexible grouping

How can data be used to drive differentiated instruction?

Data can inform us of a particular student’s strengths and areas of challenge, learning style and preferences, and personal and academic history. Data enable educators to deeply know their students right away and understand what a particular student needs.

Since differentiated instruction relies on understanding the diversity of students, accessing and analyzing student data is essential when planning for a differentiated classroom. Educators should use data to determine three important pieces of information that drive differentiated instruction: student readiness (where a student currently stands academically), learning profile (how a student learns), and student interests (what engages and excited the student).2 Using student data to pinpoint these three areas for each student will result in impactful instructional and optimal student growth.

Here are a few ways to gather data in order to plan for differentiated lessons from Scholastic2:

  • Administer a variety of surveys throughout the year - these surveys can cover multiple intelligences, reading, writing, math, student interests, and can be given to students, parents, and other instructors.
  • Analyze prior student assessments.
  • Create and administer assessments that will help to identify student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Make sure that the data are stored in a way where they can easily be viewed and studied. As the school year progresses and more information is gathered from various sources, the student data should be updated and re-evaluated frequently. School data team meetings are especially useful in accomplishing this task, as well establishing methods for saving and reviewing the data.

Differentiating instruction can be complex, and the effective use of data is what will make the planning of differentiated lessons easier and more impactful. If data are stored in a way where educators can easily access, analyze, and understand the information the data is providing, lessons that encompass the diversity of each learning will become easier to create and implement. When educators work together to study student data and share practices, instruction becomes even more powerful.

What are some best practices for differentiated instruction?

Effective differentiated instruction becomes about more that just the content of the lessons. It is also about the learning process, such as the activities incorporated in the lesson, and the products of the lesson, or demonstration of what was learned.2 When planning for differentiated instruction, make sure to keep these three areas in mind. Backwards plan to ensure that each of these areas is covered and the lesson leads to the end goal. The products of the lesson will be a valuable point for gathering the data that will shape further instruction, so make sure that this is included in the lesson plan as well.

Giving students independence and ownership is another best practice for created a differentiated classroom. Activities that might accomplish this are (from Scholastic)2:

  • Journal and writing topics
  • Reading
  • Graphic organizers
  • The option of working alone or with a partner or small group
  • Anchor activities

As differentiation instruction becomes more familiar, more challenging activities can be added in. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leader in the use and techniques of differentiated instruction, expands on the best practices for differentiated instruction.3 Some of her practice suggestions are:

  • Providing students with materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings
  • Developing routines that guide students to work independently and know how to get help when the teacher is engaged with other students
  • Helping students understand that we all learn differently and to identify their unique style of learning

Check out Resource 4 for additional tips on how to build a powerful curriculum unit and plan for differentiation in lessons.

By: Mary Conroy Almada


1What Differentiated Instruction Is - And Is Not

28 Lessons Learned on Differentiating Instruction

3What is Differentiated Instruction?
49 Ways to Plan Transformational Lessons

5Using Assessment Results to Guide and Differentiate Instruction

Topics: Teaching & Learning Educator Effectiveness Data Analytics