What’s different about differentiated instruction?

Looking at the December 2013 Mathematics Assessment for Grades 4 and 8, it’s encouraging to see that at those grade levels, mathematics scores were higher in 2013 than in all previous assessment years. That’s a good thing, but there is still more work to do to meet the 21st century skill goals that will help children succeed in an increasingly competitive global landscape, particularly in STEM-related fields that require math proficiency. One of the methods that education thought leaders point to as a way to drive student achievement is the use of differentiated instruction in the elementary math classroom.

What is differentiated learning?

Every classroom includes a variety of learners with specific needs. As Dr. Marian Diamond, Professor of Neuroanatomy at the University of California Berkeley notes, “No two children learn in the identical way. In the classroom we should teach children to think for themselves.” Differentiated instruction allows all students to access the same classroom curriculum by providing entry points, learning tasks, and outcomes that are tailored to students’ needs. Differentiated learning is a system of instruction that focuses on the needs of the individual student. It applies multiple approaches to instruction that identify and integrate differences in culture, family values, and academic background to help teach students of varying learning levels. The teacher who wants to use this approach in his or her classroom has to assess and be aware of students’ readiness, preferences, and interests, and be responsive to these needs. It allows students to make sense of content and become mathematical thinkers.

What do researchers and teachers weigh in on differentiated learning?

While research on differentiated instruction as a specific practice is somewhat limited, and is complicated by many varied theories and practices, there is a strong theoretical basis provided by the work of Vygotsky and his theory of social and cognitive development and its role in learning. In their 2013 book, Differentiating Instruction in the Elementary Classroom, Julia L. Roberts, Ed.D. and Tracy F. Inman, Ed.D. provide information and practical steps for implementation; you can read an excerpt here.

How do you plan and implement differentiated instruction?

Differentiated Instruction flowchart

Learning cycle and decision factors used in planning and implementing differentiated instruction – Source: Adapted from Oaksford, L. & Jones., 2001

This planning and implementation chart, or a variation of it, provides a beginning roadmap for instructors to follow as they begin to differentiate their instructional practice for math or other subjects. Find a more complete explanation of the chart and additional information, review the Effective Classroom Practices report from the National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum (NCAC) on Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation.

National Blue Ribbon Schoolspublic and private elementary, middle, and high schools where students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students’ academic achievement—use many of the same modalities to improve math performance. Differentiated classroom instruction, flexible grouping, and immediate intervention for students who are not mastering math standards provide the support students need to succeed in mathematics.

What role does student accountability play in differentiated learning?

Differentiated learning does not rely solely on the competency of the teacher. Students learning under this approach are encouraged to develop a sense of accountability and responsibility over their own education, which is reflected in high levels of participation, collaborative efforts with other students, and one-on-one work with educational software. Success is gauged by teacher assessments prior to, during, and after instruction. Traditional evaluation methods such as teacher observation, team projects, and self-assessment are also applied. 

Why is assessment so important in differentiated learning?

When it comes to differentiated learning, assessment can be used in many ways: to nurture, to guide, as well as a route to self-reflection for both student and teacher. In a differentiated learning model, assessment should be more focused on personal growth than on peer competition. As Carol Tomlinson, educator and a leading advocate for differentiated instruction states, “Assessment is today’s means of understanding how to modify tomorrow’s instruction.”

How can you use technology as a differentiation tool?

The use of digital technology can be a major component of differentiated learning practices, particularly as an assessment tool. According to the Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology (CARET), a project of the International Society for Technology in Education in partnership with Education Support Systems and the Sacramento County Office of Education, technology can help improve student performance in six key ways:

  1. “Technology improves student performance when the application directly supports the curriculum objectives being assessed.” In other words, technology is most effective when integrated with curriculum content.
  2. “Technology improves performance when the application provides opportunities for student collaboration.” Studies show that paired and collaborative learning in conjunction with technology enhances student performance.
  3. “Technology improves performance when the application adjusts for student ability and prior experience, and provides feedback to the student and teacher about student performance or progress with the application.” This finding supports the differentiated instruction practices of coaching and mentoring as well as sharing responsibility for learning.
  4. “Technology improves performance when the application is integrated into the typical instructional day.” This finding supports classroom and content learning with technology as opposed to lab learning with technology.
  5. “Technology improves performance when the application provides opportunities for students to design and implement projects that extend the curriculum content being assessed by a particular standardized test.” Student-created products, multi-media practices, and video streaming are examples of how technology can extend curriculum content.
  6. “Technology improves performance when used in environments where teachers, the school community, and school and district administrators support the use of technology.” In addition to performance improvements tied to administrative support for technology with instruction, professional development for teachers, and computer use at home and school with differentiated products and student entry points combine to improve performance.

Differentiated instruction is more than a buzzword. It is one of the key teaching modalities in the ever-changing education landscape, and a formidable tool in the national effort to improve student understanding of math concepts.

Do you have information or experiences to share about your differentiated instructional practice?