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Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated Instruction

Author: Jody Waltman

In this lesson, you will learn about the key features of differentiated instruction.

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In this tutorial, we'll identify the key features of differentiated instruction, and then you'll learn some specific ways that you can differentiate your instruction for your students. We'll begin with an overview of differentiated instruction. And then we'll identify various aspects of differentiation. You'll learn about methods for differentiating content, processes, products, and environments. And finally, I'll share some specific examples.

Let's get started. So what is differentiated instruction? Differentiating refers to teachers varying their instructional practices, including making decisions about what students will learn and how they will learn it, based on student interests and readiness levels, and how students like to learn. Here are some of the features of differentiated instruction.

Differentiation helps to create a classroom that is student-centered and emotionally safe. In this environment, students are more willing to take risks and to take their learning challenges and their individual differences in stride.

Based on readiness, student interests, and student learning profiles, teachers can assign work either to individual students or to small groups. Pre-assessment plays an important role in differentiated instruction. Teachers can use pre-assessments to determine what students already know, and that can inform the teachers' strategically made decisions about their instructional practices.

Differentiated instruction provides an overall framework for teaching, in which you can make changes to four different elements in the classroom-- the content, the processes, the products, and the learning environment itself. Let's take a look at each of these in turn.

First, let's look at differentiating content. This is differentiating what specifically the students will be learning or studying. You can use students' individual levels of readiness or mastery to select unique content for each student or to adjust the difficulty level of common content. In other words, you might have all students working on the same content but at different levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.

In a differentiated classroom, you can also differentiate processes. This means differentiating how students are going to be learning or studying. One method of differentiating the process is to provide choice to students in their assignments and in groupings. You can help students to use pre-assessment results or their own self assessments, in order to select activity or homework options that are at their current levels of readiness.

Another way to differentiate processes in the classroom is to incorporate interest centers, anchor activities, tiered lessons or assignments, and flexible grouping options, perhaps based on learning profiles, interests, or abilities.

Another approach is to differentiate the products in the classroom. This means differentiating how students will demonstrate their learning. What they will produce, in order to prove to you that they have learned what they needed to.

In order to differentiate products in the classroom, you can vary timelines for assignments and build in check-in points along the way. You can use cluster grouping for enrichment and use graduated proficiency scales, or rubrics, to evaluate assessments. You can offer tiered assignments that students can choose based on their readiness level or comfort level.

We're starting to see here in all of these differentiation methods that offering students choices is a key element of differentiation. When students are offered a choice of maybe a question on a test or quiz or on the specific assignment that they're going to do, not only does that promote autonomy. But it also tends to increase motivation, as they are allowed to take more ownership of the assignment and feel more in control.

Let's look at one more method for differentiation, differentiating the environment. This means differentiating both the appearance and the overall feel of the learning environment. To differentiate your classroom environment, you can experiment with some flexible use of your classroom layout.

How are you using the space? Where are you placing and how are you using the furniture, the lighting, and the environmental elements? What supplies are available to your students?

Do you have areas for them to work in both large and small groups? Are you providing interest centers? Are you providing many ways and many locations for students to engage in dynamic instruction?

Another way to differentiate the environment is to focus on creating a welcoming and risk-free environment for students. You want the overall feel of your classroom to be safe for students, so that they feel that they can really put themselves out there. They can offer answers to questions or share their ideas. And they can participate without worrying that they're going to be criticized or reprimanded.

So here's an example of what this might look like in my mathematics classroom. I'm currently working towards the goal of having my students be able to both draw and find the surface areas and volumes of three dimensional figures. So I might start by incorporating some individual or group pre-assessments, just to get a baseline idea of where my students currently are with these skills.

I can build in some work centers around my classroom. For example, I have a work center where students can sketch three dimensional figures, based on models that I've built out of children's building blocks. Another work center allows students to measure the volumes of manipulatives, using either water or sand to fill them.

And finally, another work center allows students to use their iPads to watch a video and then complete an interactive lesson. Finally, I can have my students select from among various tiered homework assignments, based on their current comfort level with the skills and also based on the results of their pre-assessment and maybe some self assessments as well.

Incorporating the individual or group pre-assessment is a great example of differentiating the process. Because not only is it going to provide me as the teacher with important information. It is also going to help inform students' decisions about how they approach their learning.

Incorporating the work centers is an example of differentiating the environment. Each of these three work centers focuses on different learning styles and learning preferences. And students can also make decisions about which work centers to try out, based on their own interest levels in the three different activities.

Finally, the tiered homework assignment is an example of differentiating the product. This benefits students, because they aren't working above or below their own ability level. They're able to demonstrate to me that they have mastered the material that I have wanted them to master at a level that is appropriate for them.

In this tutorial, we looked at an overview of differentiated instruction. And we identified the various aspects of differentiation. We discussed each of those aspects in turn. We talked about differentiating the content, the processes, the products, and the environment in the classroom. And finally, I shared some examples from my mathematics classroom.

Here's a chance for you to stop and reflect. How might you differentiate all four of those various elements in your classroom?

For more information on how to apply what you learned in this video, please view the additional resources section that accompanies this video presentation. The additional resources section includes hyperlinks useful for applications of the course material, including a brief description of each resource. Thanks for watching. Have a great day.

Notes on "Differentiated Instruction"

(00:00 - 00:29) Introduction

(00:30 - 01:26) Overview of Differentiation

(01:27 - 01:44) Aspects of Differentiation

(01:45 - 02:11) Differentiating Content

(02:12 - 02:51) Differentiating Processes

(02:52 - 03:51) Differentiating Products

(03:52 - 04:53) Differentiating Environments

(04:54 - 06:42) Examples

(06:43 - 07:02) Review

(07:03 - 07:30) Stop and Reflect

Additional Resources

Edutopia: Differentiated Instruction

This web page provides articles, videos, and tech tools for teachers who are interested in differentiating their classroom instruction. The videos are linked from the Teaching Channel, and demonstrate differentiation in action in the classroom.

​UVA's Institutes on Academic Diversity

Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor from the University of Virginia, is well-known for her work in the area of differentiated instruction. This UVA site highlights Tomlinson's work in differentiated instruction and provides useful videos, articles, and resources for teachers embarking on DI in their instruction.