Differentiated instruction has been a buzz word in education for a long time. In fact, a search for "differentiated instruction" on the Google Ngram Viewer shows the term has been used since before 1920. However, despite all of the discussions about differentiated instruction, or DI, and all of the efforts of teachers, the mythical "Differentiated Classroom" often remains an elusive goal shimmering in the distance like a mirage. The truth is, every classroom is already differentiated to one degree or another. Think of DI as a continuum that ranges from meeting the needs of very few students to meeting the needs of every student.
Every classroom falls on this continuum someplace, so the question for teachers shouldn't be, "How can I create the Differentiated Classroom?" but rather, "How do I shift to the right on the DI continuum to allow me to meet the needs of more and more of my students?" In that light, DI becomes a much more realistic, achievable goal. In the book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson looks at how to differentiate based on content, process, and product.
Every student is expected to reach high levels of learning the classroom, but not every student begins at the same point. Differentiating based on content means varying the degree of complexity in the material based on a student's readiness, interest, or learning style while holding the end goal constant for all students. Some ways to differentiate by content include:
Differentiating process involves varying how students make sense of new learning, typically through a classroom activity. Tomlinson points out that a good differentiated activity must first be a good activity that engages student interest, expects students to think at a high level, and focuses student learning on the essential learning. Some ways to help student process and make sense of new learning include:
An effective product reinforces, applies, and extends students' learning, and by differentiating that product, teachers gives their students flexibility in how they demonstrate their learning. An effective product also focuses on the learning, not the product itself, by having clear learning expectations for students to meet. Some ways to differentiate for product include:
To be clear, differentiated instruction does not mean that a teacher should design an individualized learning plan for every student every day. Instead, the goal for every teacher should be to be responsive to their students' needs and help the broadest range of students access the content, process it, and demonstrate their learning.
For more information about DI, check out Tomlinson's book, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms and join the conversation on Twitter under the #edchat hashtag.
Tony Harman | High School Instructional Coach
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