Differentiated Instruction

One of the buzzwords in education these days is differentiated instruction. In the field of teaching this means that we create different lessons for our different types of students.

Differentiated instruction is the way in which a teacher anticipates and responds to a variety of student needs in the classroom. To meet student needs, teachers differentiate by modifying the content (what is being taught), the process (how it is taught) and the product (how students demonstrate their learning).”  (from http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/what-is-differentiated-instruction—examples-definition-activities.html)

The idea of differentiation is that some of our students are different—e.g. some are second language learners, some have learning disabilities, some are just behind, some are “gifted” etc. These students need either different lessons, or more commonly alterations and adaptations of the lesson that the “regular” students get.  This is seen as an advance from the one-size-fits-all structure of many lesson plans and textbook lessons. In fact most textbooks now come with suggestions for such adaptations. All of this sounds very good—we are taking seriously that not all students are the same and helping teachers to support such students.

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But is this really such a good idea? I am going to critique this theory on a few levels. One, is it realistic? Elementary school teachers already have a massive job on their hands making lessons for each different subject area. Now they have to multiply that by how ever many different types of student they have. An adaptation for their second language learners. But can they assume all their second language learners need the same adaptation? One might be a new comer, another an intermediate speaker. Then there are the students with learning disabilities. But again—each one of these is likely to have a slightly different disability. And we move on to the “gifted” students. And what if some students fall into more than one category? When and how does a teacher find time to create all these adaptations and manage them?

There is also the factor that this approach singles out some students as “normal” and others as “different” needing differentiation. There is a lot of evidence that labels often become self-fulfilling prophesies for students. It also sends a message about normalcy to both groups. How will this effect the self-identity of these students, and the view of them by other students?

So, should we return to the one-size-fits-all approach so as not to single out students and to make teachers jobs easier? This is one of those false choices. These two choices assume a teacher (or textbook) centered approach to learning.

Another option, that progressive educators have been practicing successfully for over a century is to have lessons and teaching units with activities that are open-ended and allow students to find their own approach that meet their individual interests and abilities while still helping them develop necessary skills and abilities. This actually mirrors how people have learned effectively outside of school since time immemorial where people of differing abilities, backgrounds and interests all work together on common tasks. Thematic instruction, project-based approaches often fit this. One common example of this approach is the Writer’s Workshop. All students work on writing a class book, maybe even within a certain genre or topic, but they all get to write what they want within that framework. They each can work at their own pace and ability, and the teacher and their peers all help each other refine their writing.

Larger projects can use this approach as well. Such a project might be the study of an ancient civilization. It might be the investigation of one’s community. It might be an examination of the physical environment. In this approach students investigate, build, write, read, observe, and create around the theme, each at their own level.

I am not going to say this approach is not a lot of work for the teacher, but it is not about creating lots of individual lessons, but rather creating a climate for learning, making the materials and resources available, and then knowing how to support each student to do their best within that framework.

To see a wonderful example of this approach at the elementary level see the video “We All Know Why we are Here”