Here’s what I know about differentiated instruction:
1) You really need to know your students. What do they already know? What do they find difficult? How might their interests overlap with the curriculum expectations? How can you best deliver the content so that they understand it and connect with it?
2) You really need to know the curriculum expectations. What concepts are the students required to understand? And based on these curriculum expectations, how can the students demonstrate their learning?
3) It’s not going to be accomplished with any blackline master. I know. I tried this approach. I picked worksheets at different levels of difficulty. Some of them even had bonus questions. But they really didn’t make the students demonstrate their thinking. They really didn’t have the students apply what they learned. And every single one of them required students to answer the questions in the same way: with a pencil and in the lines. What about the child with fine motor difficulties? What about the child that can’t write, struggles with reading, or always misspells words? No worksheet allows these children to meet with success.
4) You don’t have to do all of the work. In many ways, differentiated instruction is about student choice. Students choose how they demonstrate their learning. Often, students choose the topic and the extensions. This is very much inquiry in action. For students that need more scaffolding, the teacher is there to provide it. Assistive technology can also allow the computer or iPad to read information to the student and/or take oral responses and convert them to text. You don’t have to spend all day scribing for students. All students can demonstrate independence.
5) Small group instruction is key. Not everything needs to be taught to a full class, and not all students need to be there for all parts of the lesson. Working with small groups of students allow us to meet various student needs and adjust our instructional approaches based on what the students require (e.g., providing more visuals, pre-teaching the vocabulary, etc.).
And maybe the key thing I know is this last point: differentiated instruction isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. I think that my biggest concern with this Education Week article and the belief that “differentiated instruction doesn’t work,” is that if we’re saying that it’s not possible, then are we also saying that it’s okay to not meet the needs of our students? In my 14 years of teaching for the Board, I’m now at my sixth school. I’ve taught in many different areas of the Board, and in all grades from Kindergarten-Grade 6 (in some capacity), and my class never has all students at the same level of achievement. To me, that’s one of the fun challenges of teaching. How do we do it all?
- Maybe it’s with the use of visuals.
- Maybe it’s about providing audio recordings of required readings.
- Maybe it’s about providing translated versions of required readings.
- Maybe it’s letting students choose how they share their learning.
- Maybe it’s letting students choose topics that interest them.
- Maybe it’s ensuring that there’s always an opportunity for discussion before writing.
- Maybe it’s always providing students with manipulatives.
- Maybe it’s about providing open-ended problems.
- Maybe it’s about considering the use of technology (for everything from audio and video recordings to speech-to-text software).
- Maybe it’s in how we structure our guided groups, or how frequently we take them.
- Maybe it’s with the use of additional supports (e.g., pairing up with the LRT or ESL teachers or having parent volunteers).
- Maybe it’s with the use of additional anchor charts, including individual ones for students that need them.
- Maybe it’s a combination of any to all of these options, and more, depending on our class dynamics.
And sometimes, we really do attempt to provide these diversity of options, and we still miss someone. Do we give up? No. We watch, we see what happens, we reflect, and we try again the next day. Why? Because our kids are worth it, and every child deserves to learn! I am passionate about many things in education, but I’m MOST passionate about differentiated instruction. As the signature on my Board email says, “If they don’t learn the way you teach, teach the way they learn. – Jacquie McTaggart” And that may mean providing many different options to help students learn, but it’s what I will continue to do as long as I’m in teaching.
What are your thoughts on differentiated instruction? How do you make it a reality, or why do you choose not to? One great thing about a blog is that it invites discussion. These are my thoughts, and while I believe strongly in what I’ve shared here, I would love to hear your thoughts — if you agree with me or not. Let’s continue a very important conversation on differentiated instruction (and ultimately, on kids)!