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In the classroom, no two students are quite the same.

That’s why it pays for teachers to tailor their approach to students to suit their learning style and help them meet their full potential. While some students may be able to grasp subjects immediately, it can take a little more time for others. Especially in younger grades, the difference in maturity and ability in students can be dramatic – yet they are all expected to achieve precisely the same things as part of the curriculum. What is differentiated instruction? We take a closer look.

Using differentiated classroom instruction can be instrumental in ensuring your students succeed. If you’re wondering how to differentiate instruction, we’ve provided some of the best ways to implement this technique into your lesson plans. Along with understanding what differentiated instruction means, we’ll ensure you’ve got all the tools needed to meet the needs of your students and improve their educational experience.

Read on to find out more:

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What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction is a term coined by Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia. She defines the concept as a way to factor in and consider students’ learning styles, requirements, and readiness before putting together lesson plans. Differentiation can benefit many students, as it doesn’t assume a baseline of skill for all equal or the same students. This method is the ideal choice for classes with students ranging from the high ability to those with learning disabilities.

Differentiated instruction considers students as individual entities instead of one standard group. All students will still be taught the same material, provided the same information, and given the same opportunities. How classes are delivered, and lessons are implemented beyond the basics differs. For teachers who practice differentiation, the following ideas will be familiar:

  • Grouping students based on ability and interests for assignment work
  • Assessing the ability and learning of students regularly to ensure lesson planning is suitable
  • Designing lessons to work with the learning styles of all students
  • Providing a supportive and safe classroom environment
  • Continual adjustment and evaluation of lesson content to meet the needs of students

The origins of differentiated instruction

Differentiated instruction has been a mainstay in education practically since schooling began. Back when teachers would educate students of all ages in a single classroom, this method was needed to ensure students were learning the correct materials and receiving the content they needed at the right age. While grade schools phased out this concept, it was reintroduced in the last 70s, when children with disabilities were granted equal access to education in public schools.

These days, classrooms are more diverse than ever within one age range, With No Child Left Behind in the 2000s providing further incentive for teachers to provide differentiated instruction in the classroom. Diversity in ability, skill, and even language understanding is commonplace in many schools across the US. Research has suggested that differentiating instruction is far more effective than passive forms of teaching, such as lectures. Practice, teaching others, and discussing materials are far more effective and can be the mainstay of a differentiated instruction lesson plan.

How to differentiate instruction: The four methods of differentiating instruction

Based on Tomlinson’s methodology, teachers can use four main techniques to actively differentiate instruction. These are:

Content

While standards of learning must be adhered to for all content provided to your class, for some students, this material will be less accessible than others. While some students may have a good understanding before teaching, others will be entirely unfamiliar with the concepts you’re asking them to learn. Designing specific activities based on perception can be an excellent way to overcome this issue, with students unfamiliarly completing content at lower levels than those with slight and total mastery.

The activity levels that can be used to help students understand materials are defined in Bloom’s Taxonomy. With these specific low-high skills, it’s possible to design effective and engaging materials and activities to aid students in understanding content:

  • Remembering
  • Understanding
  • Applying
  • Analyzing
  • Evaluating
  • Creating

If you can group students into each level, creating differentiated activities ideally suited to their skill and understanding level is possible. Options for differentiating activities could be matching words to definitions for lower-level students or creating a presentation summarizing their learning for high-level students.

Process

It’s a known fact that many students have a preferred learning style and that using it can provide the engagement needed to succeed in education. While some schools of thought now believe that learning styles don’t play a massive part in studying, utilizing auditory, visual, and kinesthetic differentiation methods can provide critical variety and options to students. If they don’t understand the material when spoken, they may appreciate it in visual form or when undergoing physical activities. Designing lesson plans with a mix of all three can give students the best chances of success, which is more than worth the up-front work required.

Examples of differentiated processes could include providing textbooks for students who learn best visually, audiobooks for students that learn best from auditory tools, and interactive assignments for kinesthetic learners.

Product

Product isn’t often a word we associate with the classroom, but in this context, it refers to what the student creates following a lesson being taught. This product, a test, project, activity, or report, demonstrates their mastery. These activities can also be differentiated to support learning styles and gauge their understanding of materials appropriate for their skills and abilities.

Examples of differentiated products would be asking visual learners to create a presentation board or display, asking auditory learners to provide a video or an oral report, and asking kinesthetic learners to create a diorama or a play of a story. Giving children differentiating options can expand their chances of success and ensure they can demonstrate their understanding.

Environment

Alongside lesson planning and demonstration, the actual learning environment of students can substantially impact their ability to engage with the material and learn information. A differentiated classroom is flexible, providing different types of furniture and various arrangements that support solo and group work. Classroom management techniques that can be used to support a positive learning environment are also recommended.

Is differentiated instruction right for my classroom?

If you’re considering differentiated instruction for your classroom, it’s worth considering whether you can achieve great results with the time and resources to hand. With the average teacher stretched thin between school requirements and lesson planning, implementing differentiated instruction methods may be challenging. But the results can be highly positive for those who can incorporate this theory into their teaching.

Research has shown that differentiated instruction offers the ideal learning circumstances for children of all ability levels, providing them with the tools they need to achieve greater things. Increased engagement, reduced disciplinary issues, and more responsibility for personal learning are some advantages differentiated education can provide. While implementing this technique can have a strict learning curve, it’s more than worth the outcome for many teachers.

Do you utilize differentiated strategies in your school? Whether you believe supporting learning styles is the best way forward or just considering alternative teaching techniques, differentiated instruction is a divisive technique with plenty of fans in the educational community.