3 Simple Ways to Differentiate Instruction in Any Class

The preference for our society, if we really want to be effective, is to teach so that they learn, not merely present curriculum and document deficiencies or meeting standards or not. I might teach the way that’s uncomfortable for me, but that’s fine. My success comes from my students’ success. – Rick Wormeli on Differentiated Instruction

Are you like me, and still a bit confused with differentiation’s place in the classroom?

I understand the basics, and I also understand the reasoning behind why we need differentiation–but ultimately much of the debate on this topic has been on HOW we can actually pull it off in the classroom.

We recently ran an in-service on “differentiation” in my district. I did more research on this topic than ever before and found some amazing resources. But this post is about action (not necessarily research). I’ll give you three simple ways to differentiate in your classroom, and they can be applied to any grade level or subject area.

Are you ready? Let’s get started.

The Basics

Here is a quick refresher on what differentiation is (and what it is not). Let’s start with a quick quote from Carol Ann Tomlinson, who literally wrote the book on differentiation:

The idea of differentiating instruction to accommodate the different ways that students learn involves a hefty dose of common sense, as well as sturdy support in the theory and research of education (Tomlinson & Allan, 2000). It is an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms.

Let’s break it down a little further, and go into the Differentiated Instruction Model that Tomlinson and her colleagues have created:dimodelOk, so I’m going to assume that this quick refresher has us all up to speed on what differentiation is…but here is what differentiation is NOT:

  • individualized instruction
  • IEPs for every student in the class
  • tracking students into classes by ability
  • “dumbing down” the level of instruction for some students

If you still want to learn more about the differences, TeachThought has a great article on the topic. Differentiation definitely makes sense, but again the question is HOW to do it in a class of 27 students. Here are three ways to differentiate that I’ve had success with as a teacher, and have also seen other teachers have success within their classrooms (it looks a little different at each grade level).

1. Assess the Process, Not the Product

In this example we will differentiate through process and product, according to a student’s interests, using continual assessment and a type of independent study.

I’m a big fan of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-driven learning. But there is a secret (and big) problem with a lot of what we call project-based learning.

Chris Lehmann (Principal at Science Leadership Academy) famously said, “If you assign a project and get back 30 of the same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.”

And therein lies the problem with projects. When we assign projects we tend to have an assignment with guidelines, steps, and a rubric for how it is going to be graded. Often we show examples of previous projects that received high marks.

Think about what you would do if you were a student….no, really think about it for a moment. Yep, it is exactly what I would do. I’d create a project that met the specifications and guidelines, and hand in something I knew would get a high grade on the rubric. And then I’d have a project like everyone else.

I flipped that entire project-based learning process on its head when I did the 20% Time Project with my students. They had to create their own project (and product) and document the process. But I didn’t grade their final product. I did not give them a rubric for that final product. Instead, we graded students on the process.

For this, we used the G.R.I.T. Rubric developed by College Track (it’s way too awesome). This assesses students on the PROCESS, not the final PRODUCT by measuring their Guts, Resiliency, Integrity, and Tenacity while working on the project:grit1grit2

I go into more detail into conceptualizing what this looks like in your classroom in my upcoming book, The PBL Playbook. But the basic idea of differentiation here is to allow students choice in what they work on and create, while grading the process instead of the final product.

2. Flip the Lecture, Flexible Groups the Following Day

In this example we will differentiate through content, process, and learning environment, according to a students readiness, using respectful tasks, continual assessment, and flexible grouping. 

Ahh, flipped learning. The buzzword of 2013 (or was it 2012?). Still, flipped instruction has serious merits in schools regardless of how much it was overused by teachers, leaders, and the general public when Khan Academy broke onto the scene a few years ago.

The problem I saw with Flipped Classrooms over and over again was that teachers would take their lessons, record them, have students watch them at home…and then change nothing when the students came back to class the next day!

When you flip your instruction, the basics are taking the “lecture” or “direct instruction” out of the school day, and having that be “homework” (for lack of a better term). But, in order to teach effectively, and differentiate, the real work begins when students come to class the next day.

Give students a short formative assessment when they come into class the next day, and then based on their readiness have different tasks and flexible groups for students to join. As students demonstrate understanding with their tasks, they can move onto other appropriate tasks (sometimes individually and sometimes in groups).

The end goal is to get all of the students to an extension activity while understanding that they will all need varying support throughout the class in order to get there.

3. Pick-Your-Station Activity

In this example we will differentiate through content and process, according to a student’s interests and learning profile, using respectful tasks, quality curriculum, and flexible grouping.

Most teachers I know use a station activity at some point in the year. Some use stations every day! The benefits of station activities are breaking up instruction into manageable chunks that can be tailored for all types of learners in the classroom.

To differentiate with station activities, I give it a twist. Create six different stations and let your students choose three to work at during the class. Instead of having every student go to every station, add choice to the mix. This differentiates the activity by allowing students to choose what activity they would like to participate in based on their interests and learning profile. The tasks and curriculum are tied to what type of interests they may have. And the groups are not chosen by the teacher, but by the students.

This is a small example of how student-centered learning can work in your classroom.

Differentiation, when done right, is not a huge burden for teachers. Instead, it is a major piece to creating a student-centered experience. One that is driven by students needs and their interests.

What strategies do you use in your classroom? Would love to hear in the comments!

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  • Katie says:

    For any teacher beginners out there looking for an example on how to easily differentiate in your classroom, check this article out: http://edukatie.online/2018/02/06/differentiating-instruction/

  • Rose Warrell says:

    This year I have been running my classroom a lot different than I ever have. Most of the work that is done in my class is self-paced, small group work, and they have some choices in which assignments they want to complete. We have Pearson Math and it is available online. First, I have students watch an animated video and then another video. They then begin working on a lesson, as they are working on problems and after they submit each question or part of a problem they are immediately given feedback on their answer, whether it is correct or incorrect. They also take a quick check/quiz to evaluate their understanding. I allow my students to work together and assist and/or teach each other. I also roam the room and assist where needed and facilitate. I use different programs (Spelling Classroom, GrammarFlip, MobyMax, Nearpod, Sumdog, Prodigy, and Matific) to level to my student’s abilities. One thing I do not like is that everyone is learning the same thing and the same time whether or not they understood the previous concept. I would like some feedback on what you think about this. Am I doing the right thing? Does this benefit my students? I appreciate any feedback that you can give me. Thank you.

    • Thank you for sharing. I teach 4th grade and our school also uses Pearson. Our staff has been trained in Jo Boaler’s (YouCubed.com) approaches, particularly the use of Number Talks. So we use number talks several times a week. Sometimes we have to do it at a different time of the day than during math. This provides students opportunities to share their thinking with each other and learn from one another. It also encourages flexible use and understanding of numbers. I also always have students do the Pose the Problem part of the lesson on the first page of the teacher’s manuals. They solve in partners and then some share their work with the class under the doc cam. This gives them another opportunity to explain their thinking. The rest of the lesson is not pretty much following the lesson plan. I think we need to figure out how to break away from only using the curriculum so we are meeting the needs of the students instead of going on to the next lesson whether or not they have the tools to be successful. We are piloting the i-Ready.com math assessment, which gives information about what specific skills students haven’t mastered. This may at least help us in knowing what to spend time on with students. Possibly, it would need to be at another time of day. I know, I know, we have to do it with reading too! And then there’s science, social studies, writing, art, etc. It’s a difficult job.

  • Amy says:

    Oh, my goodness! This rubric is JUST WHAT I NEEDED!!! Your timing is impeccable, and I am over the moon! Thank you so much for helping me be a better teacher.

    Amy Lepore
    Marshall County High School
    Benton, KY

  • Thanks for your continued contribution to this extremely important pedagogy. I taught differentiation to 3rd and 4th year Education students for 4 years and they always expressed such gratitude for developing skills to support all the learners in their classes. My growing trouble with the model that Tomlinson drives is the aspect of Learner Profile. There is growing evidence that this is not an effective approach. See here:https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/04/03/another-nail-in-the-coffin-for-learning-styles-students-did-not-benefit-from-studying-according-to-their-supposed-learning-style/
    I am curious as to how you can sustain this approach given this growing evidence.

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