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Differentiated Instruction: What is Is and How to Implement It

A “one size fits all” approach is rarely practical or effective in any scenario, especially in education. Classrooms can be diverse communities serving students from a variety of backgrounds with highly individual needs. Teaching methods that drive positive outcomes for some students may leave other students behind, which is why it’s vital that curriculum suits the unique needs of each student.

Traditionally, students spent their school days sitting at desks, listening to lectures, and taking notes to help prepare for tests and other assessments. But over the past few decades, to help ensure all students received the support they needed to achieve learning goals, many schools have adopted a student-centered best practice called differentiated instruction.

Here’s what differentiated instruction entails, benefits and challenges to consider, and tips and examples for leveraging this approach to differentiation in the classroom.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach in which all students have the same learning goal, but instruction is tailored to students’ strengths, interests, and preferences.

In the Roeper Review, Carol Ann Tomlinson, educator and foremost expert in differentiated instruction, describes it as a process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student's readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.”

Unlike traditional teaching approaches, which typically relied upon lectures for an entire group of students, differentiated learning uses a variety of methods. For example, an educator might teach students in small groups, pairs, or one-on-one sessions. 

It’s important to note that differentiated learning is different from individualized instruction, which requires individual approaches for each student.

For example, social learners might be placed into groups to solve problems as a team, while solitary learners might work best by tackling worksheets independently. Kinesthetic or hands-on learners may work with blocks or beads to understand a math problem, while visual learners may benefit most from diagrams and whiteboards.

Additionally, instead of relying solely on summative assessments at the end of a unit, differentiated learning encourages ongoing assessment through student work, classroom and individual discussions, and observations. 

Why Differentiated Instruction is Important

Benefits of Differentiated Instruction

By engaging students in curricula tailored to various learning styles, the differentiated approach works to support all types of learners. A few benefits include the following:

  • Addressing each student’s needs can offer social and emotional benefits in addition to improved academic outcomes.
  • It allows students to work more independently in whatever way best suits their learning style.
  • Students at either end of the spectrum who may be less engaged by one-size-fits-all learning, such as gifted students and those with learning disabilities, are more likely to receive instruction that supports their development.

Many educators and education leaders have found success with differentiated instruction. According to one report, 86 percent of teachers, and 89 percent of principals said differentiated instruction is extremely or very effective. Yet, it’s still not unanimously accepted and practiced by all schools. That’s because, like all teaching approaches, differentiated learning isn’t without a few challenges.

Challenges of Differentiated Learning

And one of the biggest roadblocks to effective differentiated lesson plans is a lack of time and resources, especially during a time when teachers are already being asked to do more with less. There’s no doubt that this approach can be difficult to implement — especially if you don’t have easy access to differentiated materials. Many teachers already struggle to find time to create lesson plans in the first place, let alone multiple versions of a lesson plan for multiple groups of learners.

Fortunately, this is where having a standards-aligned learning platform can help. The right learning solutions provider will support teachers in developing and delivering differentiated instruction in their classrooms by offering access to engaging multimedia content as well as built-in labs, exercises, and assessments for a broad spectrum of learners. This helps educators save time while still experiencing the benefits and improved outcomes differentiated teaching strategies can provide.

How to Differentiate Instruction in the Classroom

There are four ways teachers can differentiate their instruction, according to Tomlinson. Here’s how each works, including a few differentiated instruction examples:

         1. Content

For many teachers, the challenge is to ensure they’re covering state standards while providing content that is captivating and meaningful for students.  This is where differentiated instruction techniques can really shine, turning a basic lesson into an interactive experience that entices students to want to learn more about the topic at hand.

For example, students with a high level of understanding could be given tasks to apply concepts, while those with a lower level of understanding could be given tasks to help them practice the fundamentals.

         2. Process

Each lesson plan involves activities designed to help students better comprehend what they’re learning. However, because not all students share the same learning style, a given activity may inevitably support one group of students more than another. Differentiated instruction means delivering material to support each style through different processes.

For example, kinesthetic learners may learn best through interactive software, visual learners may do best with a textbook, and auditory learners may prefer to learn through recorded instruction. 

         3. Product

After completing a lesson, students are expected to demonstrate their mastery of the content they’ve learned. Traditionally, educators relied on tests, reports, or projects to assess how well a student understood a lesson, but in differentiated instruction, the method depends on the student.

For example, reading and writing learners may write a paper or book report, while auditory learners might give a speech or oral report on the subject. Visual learners might illustrate a booklet, while kinesthetic learners might build a model.

         4. Learning environment

The physical space in which students learn matters. When using differentiated instruction, the classroom environment should be flexible and lend itself to various learning styles.

For example, you might set up “pods” where students engaging in group learning can sit together and collaborate on an assignment, and quiet, distraction-free spaces where reading and writing learners can read. You might also designate special one-on-one spaces where students needing extra individual attention can get more intensive instruction and assistance.

Why Choose Propello for Differentiated Instruction?

To be successful with differentiated instruction strategies, teachers need access to support and resources. Propello provides high-quality, standards-aligned curricula that can be easily adapted and personalized for each group of learners in just a few clicks.

Because the platform is led by a team of educators and lifelong learners, it’s designed to meet teachers' unique needs and overcome existing and evolving challenges.

Interested in trying Propello? Sign up for a free account today.