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What’s ‘different’ about ‘differentiated instruction’?

Differentiated instruction is “the modification of four curriculum-related elements – content, process, product, and affect – which are based on three categories of student need and variance – readiness, interest, and learning profile. (Tomlinson & Imbeau, p. 15).” * While rigorous learning goals remain the same for all students, the method or approach may vary according to readiness and preferences of each student. What makes differentiated instruction different from typical classroom instruction?

Meeting students where they are

Every student comes to class with different prior knowledge, life and learning experiences, language proficiency, existing skill sets, readiness to learn and a variety of other factors. No matter what those differences are, every student is still expected to eventually master the same material. Therefore, evidence of student conceptual understanding, knowledge, and skill needs to be collected first, in order to better understand how to address their differences. This approach is very different than in non-differentiated classrooms, where every student is routinely taught the same material, in the same way, at the same pace.  In differentiated classrooms, the teacher more frequently assumes the role of a coach and facilitator rather than most often being the ‘sage on the stage’ in the classroom.

This student-centered approach to teaching is challenging to implement, but it can be far more supportive of academic success than a non-differentiated classroom scenario. Commitment to flexible planning, continuous assessment using multiple sources of evidence, and availability of learning resources are needed to ensure success when differentiating.

Because additional work is required when making the switch to differentiated instruction, implementation can be a challenge, particularly when managing large class sizes. Teachers need support from school and district administrators and may need additional resources in the classroom, such as student teachers, teacher aides, or intelligent adaptive learning systems in order to provide continuous assessment and tailor lessons to the individual learning level and personal pace of the student.

Adapting curriculum to student

One strategy for leading a differentiated classroom is to create a personal learning plan for each student.  Creating these plans requires significant upfront planning – teachers and school administrators have to think about how they are going to help each student succeed on an individual learning path and achieve his or her learning goals. As mentioned earlier, creating these plans requires a thorough evaluation of each student’s background knowledge, interests, strengths and weaknesses. One of the more challenging aspects of differentiated instruction is determining which parts of the curriculum can be adapted to differentiate instruction. Many schools turn to adaptive learning programs to support differentiated classroom goals.

The differentiated classroom

Many differentiated classrooms physically reorganize the learning space with different stations that are tailored to student needs, especially accommodating auditory and visual needs as well as ensuring students can move easily around the classroom. For example, some stations may support inquiry-based, independent learning; while a separate area is set up for group activities and collaboration. Groups can be based on content needs, collaboration needs, or specific project work.

Working and succeeding together, along different pathways

While all students may not be working on exactly the same assignment at the same time, they still have the benefit of working together and learning from each other on a regular basis.  All students have talents and ideas to contribute to the classroom community.  It’s important to ensure those talents are cultivated and recognized. Continual assessment and adjustment will help ensure students are met right where they are. And no matter where they start, they’ll begin making progress.

To learn about how DreamBox can support differentiated instruction models and classrooms, check out this interview with elementary math resource teacher Laura Hunovice.

  • Tomlinson, C.A. & Imbeau, M.B. Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. ASCD, Alexandria, VA, © 2010, page 15.
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