Earlier this year, my department administrator came by to do one of the four classroom observations she does each semester. We were at the very beginning of a unit so I was giving students the necessary notes using direct instruction. When she arrived, she grabbed my red lesson plan binder, sat in the back of the room, and commenced to typing. Surprisingly, my usually off task students remained engaged throughout the lesson, asking questions and making comments. I was very proud and commended them as soon as she left. It certainly wasn’t my best teaching day but it wasn’t one of my worst either, so I felt pretty good about the feedback I was going to receive.  That is, until I received it.

“Teacher has very little evidence of differentiated instruction. Are all students’ needs being met?” Yikes! For someone who prides herself on addressing the needs of all her learners, this comment was a blow. However, once I really reflected, I realized that she was right. Differentiated instruction was definitely a practice I needed to develop better in my classroom, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

So, what is Differentiated Instruction anyway?  The easiest way to answer this is by first explaining what it isn’t. Differentiated Instruction is not:

*Same assignments for every student
*Simply varying the level of difficulty of questions for certain students
*Rearranging the test questions to give the appearance of differentiation
*Grading some students harder, or more lenient, than others
*Giving advanced learners more work or emerging students less
*Grouping students without a reason for doing so

Now, what Differentiated Instruction is:

*Instruction that does whatever it takes to make the most of students’ learning experiences instead of relying on the “one-size-fits-all whole-class method of instruction.” (Wormelli, 2007)
*Strategies that help teachers meet students where they are when they enter class and move them as far as possible along their educational way. (Levy, 2008)

Why do I need Differentiated Instruction?

This question was posed to me by a new teacher and my response was “You don’t. But your students do.” The quick and dirty answer to this question is that to be a truly exemplary teacher you must be an expert in your content area and know how to get that content into the minds of a class of diverse learners who have diverse needs and arrive in your class with diverse abilities.  Remember, your mission, when you chose to accept it, was to reach every student in your classroom because you believed, and still do, that every student has the ability, and the right, to learn and be successful in your classroom.

Have you seen my schedule? Have you seen my class size? How exactly am I supposed to reach every student, every day, all the time?

These are probably the questions I hear the most as they relate to differentiated instruction, and they are certainly valid. As teachers, we have so many duties and responsibilities outside of the classroom that the last thing we want to hear is that we have to add one more thing to our already overflowing plates. Furthermore, with class sizes topping off at the maximum number of students differentiated instruction seems like an insurmountable obstacle. But it doesn’t have to be. With a little bit of planning, it can be added to any lesson or unit fairly easily.

How do I differentiate my instruction?

Research abounds on the various methods a teacher can use but almost all tend to fall into one of the following categories as outlined by Tomlinson and Strickland (2005) in Differentiation in Practice:

* Content: What We Teach
* Process: How We Teach
* Product: How Students Prove They’ve Learned the Content
* Learning Environment: Where We Teach and Where Students Learn

Should all these methods be used? Yes. Do they have to all be used in the same day, in the same lesson? Absolutely not!  For example, if you are an ELA/Literature teacher and you want students to know how to identify the main idea of a passage, you may decide to differentiate by content, giving students different texts based on their level of reading comprehension. Or, you may decide to differentiate by process using an “I do-We do-You do” model of instruction when starts with you providing direct instruction, moving to facilitated instruction, and ending with students working in flexible groups or by themselves.

Regardless of which way you choose, the key is to decide in what way you want to differentiate instruction, keeping in mind the needs of the students and what you need them to accomplish, and plan accordingly.

How do I plan for differentiated instruction?

In this age of Google, there is very little you can’t find on how to plan for differentiated instruction. Education websites like Teacher Tube, Edutopia, and Teaching Channel all offer excellent resources as does You Tube. You can also simply search for the key terms “Differentiated Instruction” and see what Google finds. However, one of best planning tool I’ve seen can be found through the School Improvement Network ). Here you will find the Applied Differentiation Map and a series of videos to help guide you through its implementation.  Now, as with most things, this good news and there is not-so-good news. Good News: If you work in a district that allows you access to this website you are all set. Simply do a search and all the resources including the map will show up. Not-so-good News: If you work in a district that doesn’t allow you access, you can still use the resources but you have to sign up for a 30-day free trial. If all else fails, remember the four ways you can differentiate and commit to using one, consistently, at least 2-3 days a week. Remember, differentiated instruction need not be tedious as long as you plan for it. In subsequent articles, we’ll explore specific ways to differentiate in each of the categories so you truly can meet the needs of all of your students.

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