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Putting Differentiated Instruction to Work in the Classroom

By guest blogger Helene Hanson, author of Differentiated Instruction: Enhancing Teaching and Learning Educational literature is replete with well thought out and researched strategies and programs that are designed to improve the teaching process and improve student learning. In many cases there is data to demonstrate success based upon implementation of the identified methodology. School districts often embrace, perhaps even mandate, a specific program, only to move to a newer approach a year or so later. Teachers are often caught in the very difficult position of having to revamp or alter their teaching.

Helene M. Hanson

Helene M. Hanson

However, through all the changes in best practices there has been one that remains tried and true: Differentiated Instruction. Known as a practice that can be utilized universally, DI’s model has three main components. They include: what to teach, the planning and design of lessons; how to teach, delivering lessons; and how to measure progress, assessing student learning. For teachers this includes the who, what, where and how of teaching. At the core of DI is instruction of each child, utilizing the way the student learns. It assumes that every child can learn and that, in the absence of learning, the teacher has the responsibility to modify/adapt instruction to meet the unique needs of the learner. Thus, both student and teacher experiences success. Perhaps of great significance is the fact that DI supports and enhances some of the most popular methodologies found in today’s literature, and supported by research. These include Universal Design for Learning, (UDL), Brain Compatible learning, Multiple Intelligences, Cooperative Learning and Response to Instruction ((RTI) also known as Multi Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Implementing DI may seen daunting at first, but it is well worth the effort. It involves taking several steps, including:

  • Gathering pre-assessment: Identify students’ interests, motivation, and prior knowledge before content is taught. This enables the teacher to appropriately challenge and match instructional needs to instructional strategies. For example, conducting student interviews, administering student surveys or questionnaires, assessment of student work samples, the Developmental Reading Assessment, running records, formal and informal pre-tests, etc.
  • Connecting learning to prior knowledge: Activate prior knowledge through strategies such as interactive group discussion and questioning techniques, KWL charts, etc.
  • Varying Instructional Input: Present information in different ways, utilizing visual and multi-modalities, analogies, metaphors, graphic organizers, digital, etc.
  • Using flexible groupings: Design student groupings purposefully to address instructional goals and learners’ needs. Heterogeneous groupings work well for promoting critical thinking, concepts and generalization, and open-ended discussions. Homogeneous groupings are effective for drill and practice, answering comprehension questions and for math computation. Groups can be teacher led or student led. They can be collaborative such as project-based groups or performance-based where specific concepts, strategies and skills are presented.
  • Providing Ongoing Assessment: This informs instructional decision making and provides teachers with data about how their students are learn- ing. It should identify what students are learning well and what the challenges/impediments are to their learning. Ongoing assessment can take many forms, such as review of writing samples or portfolios, classroom quizzes, journals, classroom discussions in large or small groups, pre/post unit tests, etc. Technology can be judiciously used for data collection and tracking of student progress. Students can effectively track their progress and share results with teachers.
  • Provide Feedback: Feedback, as a component of formative assessment, needs to be timely, specific and constructive. It can be in writing, such as comments on an essay, or orally, after a student performance/presentation. Error and miscue analysis can also provide feedback to students. Use of rubrics, exemplars, anchor papers and other systems provide learners with standards against which to compare their work. Students can also learn how to give constructive feedback to their peers, but this needs to be well supervised with explicit guidelines.
  • Adjusting Instruction: It can be tempting to carefully plan an instructional lesson, using all the techniques that have been addressed in this guide and then to dutifully follow the plan. But, to be truly effective, the teacher must be vigilant in recognizing when a change, minor or major, is needed to ensure that the instructional needs of ALL students are being met. Instruction must be adaptable and flexible; most of all It must be personalized for each student. The teacher must know when to adjust the content, and/or the process by which the student learns, and/or the product by which student mastery is determined, as well as the physical learning environment.
  • Designing Active Lessons: Engaging students in their own learning generates and sustains motivation. It can be achieved through a variety of approaches including learning centers or station-learning, project-based learning and cooperative learning. Brain-based learning supports the active engagement of students, with the teacher becoming a “facilitator” or “coach” engaging students in the process of discovery. Recent developments in technology facilitate active learning.

To learn simple, proven strategies for integrating DI in curriculum planning, instruction, and assessment, and to get more information on frameworks that support DI and how to use DI to reach students with special needs, consult my quick-reference laminated guide on Differentiated Instruction from National Professional Resources.

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