Differentiated Instruction Does Work

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)!


6 thoughts on “Differentiated Instruction Does Work

  1. I had similar issues with the Education Week article, and I am so glad that you have framed differentiation as difficult but still worthwhile. I think your list of “maybes” is the most compelling argument for defining differentiation in a new way.

    Differentiation is not simply giving kids more or less work. It is about giving kids different work and different entry points into the work. The one question I have, though, is who is actually responsible for making this happen?

    If it is entirely up to the teacher with 30 other kids in their classroom then differentiation is pretty near impossible. However, if a lot of responsibility for making these choices and navigating resources to support learning can be done by the children themselves, then it becomes much more manageable. If they feel empowered to help each other as a community of learners, then it isn’t only the teacher doing the differentiating.

    I think that is my central problem with the Education Week article. It is dependent upon believing that the only teacher in the room is the one standing at the front of the classroom. This is a myth. Every child is capable to teaching some else. Every child is capable of making choices for their own learning. If we deny these things, differentiation is an enemy, sapping time needed for THE teacher to teach. If we accept them, it is a pathway toward better outcomes, and much more ownership of learning for each individual student.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here: http://bit.ly/C4C15

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Ben! You make a very important point here that I didn’t fully address: yes, the students can also take an important role in differentiation. And really, they should. Choice is a very important component of differentiated instruction, and even our youngest learners, can learn how to make these choices on their own and start to advocate for what they need to be successful. In fact, if we teach our Kindergarten and Grade 1 students to do so, this will become so much easier as they move up in the grades. The key is to continually empower students with these voices, and support them in making the choices that they need to make so that they can be successful.

      Thanks as well for sharing the #C4C15 Project link. I’m going to check it out now.

  2. Ben’s comment above contains something that I always tell my students – “I am not the only teacher in the room. Look around – we are all teachers and all learners.” We use really specific language to facilitate this: “__________ needs some support. Who can offer this?” “Learners learn from each other.” “Can anyone think of a way to extend this activity? Great! You will be the go to person if someone else wants to try that.” I actually welcome teaching multi-age classes because I believe in student mentorship and a classroom community where everyone starts from where they are at and goes from there. And everyone in the room accepts and celebrates this. I love a lot of your maybes above. I schedule all of my ELL and Resource support to be in the room and welcome lots of volunteers. I love open ended problems and encourage children to try multiple strategies to solve them. And then to teach each other. So I will continue with a few more maybes:
    *Maybe it’s about providing more time for student talk. Turn and talk. Share out. Do it again multiple times to build a community of listeners, speakers and learners.
    *Maybe it is about shifting focus to celebrate process over product. (I post up sketches and drafts along with final projects to showcase the continuum of thinking) *Maybe it’s about moving at a pace that makes sense rather than feeling the pressure of curriculum racing *Maybe it’s about investing time at the beginning to grow skills such as risk taking, independence, confidence in choice making so that students can be working where they need to be and move as they need to
    Sigh, I could go on and on. Thanks for writing this post!

    • Thanks for the comment, Carrie! I totally love your additional “maybes,” and while I’ve used them to some extent, some of them I could definitely spend more time on (especially not feeling the pressure of curriculum). My change in school this year, and the different student needs that came with this change, has helped me think even more about differentiated instruction and the need to take students from where they’re at and move forward from there. Your comment is a good reminder of this! I also love our new Social Studies Curriculum because it really does value process over product, so it allows me to focus more on this area.

      And while I’m not teaching a combined grade class this year, I do agree with you about them. I love them! I’ve only even taught splits (just two grades in one room), but they are my favourite. They often really force the need for differentiated instruction and provide lots of opportunities for student leadership. Even in our youngest grades, student leaders are so important.

      Thanks for adding to this discussion!

  3. Great look at the Educatuon Week article. Thanks for bringing it to the blog/Twitter discussion. I was bit dismayed how differentiated instruction was so easily written off in the article. In a room with different learners and skill sets how can you not try to accommodate the best you can. We differentiate and scaffold to help students have growth and success in their learning.

    • Thanks for the comment, Faige! You definitely summed up my feelings here. I was very upset when I read the Education Week article, and it provoked a very passionate response in me. I knew I needed to blog. Differentiated instruction may not be easy, but as you said, we want all of our students to succeed. It’s about doing everything we can to help that happen.


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