What does differentiated instruction look like in the classroom?
Page 12: Classroom Implementation
Although Mr. Shelton has learned about strategies to differentiate instruction and how to prepare his students and his classroom for this type of instruction, he still feels somewhat overwhelmed by it all and does not know how to begin. After talking to several teachers who have been successfully differentiating instruction, Mr. Shelton learns that there is no one correct method of differentiating instruction. Given all of the instructional strategies and practices that teachers can employ, differentiated instruction can also take on many forms. Mr. Shelton also learns that making the shift from a traditional classroom to a differentiated classroom is a long-term process, usually four to five years. Mr. Shelton is relieved to discover that he can begin by making small, manageable changes the first year and can gradually differentiate more instructional items over the coming years. Below is a list of ways in which he might get started.
Did You Know?
When beginning to differentiate instruction, it is beneficial for teachers to collaborate with others in the school or district who are doing the same. Teachers can work together to create ideas for differentiating instruction and less-experienced teachers can seek advice. Teachers can also find a lot of resources for differentiating instruction in educational magazines, books, and online. Additionally, ongoing professional development is critical.
Select one element (i.e., content, process, product, learning environment) to differentiate.
Start with one subject area.
Start with the class of students that is the easiest to work with.
Implement only one differentiated activity in a larger lesson or unit.
Begin working with students in small groups.
Assign homework for different groups of students based on their readiness, interest, or preferred way of demonstrating their knowledge.
Provide support for struggling readers (e.g., students with learning disabilities, English language learners).
Use a simple means of gathering information about students (e.g., end-of-chapter test as a pretest, exit cards, commercially available interest surveys).
Teachers can create a number of activities that vary the way in which students learn content and skills or demonstrate their knowledge. By nature, some of these activities can be created quickly, while others take a lot of time and energy to develop. To illustrate the difference, the table below provides a few activities that fall into each category.
Option to work in pairs, small groups, or alone
Varied journal prompts
Choice of books
Options for demonstrating knowledge
Tiered activities or products
To keep the workload manageable, when they begin to differentiate instruction, teachers might want to start with a few low-prep activities that can be used throughout the first year and add only one high-prep activity for each unit of study or per semester. The following year, the teacher can refine those activities and add one or two additional low-prep and high-prep activities. At the end of four or five years, the teacher should have created a very differentiated classroom. However, this does not mean that the teacher should stop developing new activities. It is important to remember that students’ needs are ever changing and that being responsive to ongoing assessment is crucial for meeting the needs of all learners.
Carol Ann Tomlinson offers several ways that teachers can begin differentiating instruction (time: 2:07).
Carol Ann Tomlinson, EdD Professor of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy The University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA
Teachers are as different as kids are, and so I don’t think there’s a single way to start. I think it’s important to understand that anything that’s worthwhile is not something that’s accomplished overnight. And I’m afraid that sometimes teachers feel that we only have two choices: Do everything right tomorrow, or just forget it. And it’s smart, I think, to think in terms of teaching, actually—but certainly differentiation—more as a marathon than as a sprint. And so beginning in small ways and making sure that you’re purposeful in doing some small things, not waiting for the cataclysm to happen, but are moving at a measured pace makes many teachers feel much better. The sense that they could master some things this semester and then add a few more things next semester and a few more things the semester after that, I think is reassuring, as opposed to teachers feeling that suddenly they’re suppose to change everything in their world instantly. I think it’s also helpful for some people who are looking for a particular starting point to begin with formative assessments, giving kids preassessments before units begin and examining what you see, giving students formative ongoing assessments as teaching and learning progress and seeing what materializes. Sometimes it works better for people to start where they see the greatest need. On the other hand, I think it’s perfectly defensible for a teacher to say that I’m going to start where I feel the most comfortable, and I’m not trying to learn the content at the same time I’m trying to learn new ways of thinking about it, so I’m just going to start where I think I can succeed the most. I think some teachers might do well in middle or high school to begin differentiating with the class that’s the easiest for them to teach—in other words, the class where they feel the students are most likely to roll with them and work with them effectively. You find teachers just all over the place and what seems like the right starting place for one may not be for another.
Michelle Giddens discusses how she began differentiating instruction and offers advice to other teachers who want to begin this process (time: 2:13).
Michelle Giddens, MEd Assistant Principal Intern,Former Third-Grade Teacher Sarasota, FL
I knew I had to start small, because it involved so many details and so many elements, and I wanted to focus on just one subject area. The first thing that came to mind was reading. Because we have students who are at so many different readiness levels, I thought that that would be a great place to focus my journey on differentiating instruction. More specifically, I worked with my guided-reading groups. Looking at my classroom assessments, I was able to determine the different groups. So I was differentiating by readiness levels. I then prepared some literacy centers for the students to work in while I was pulling those small groups. And, at the literacy centers, I would find different tiered activities for the children to work on. When I first implemented that in my classroom, I had my students’ names for the center groups on a piece of construction paper, and I had about five students per piece of paper, so per center, and I laminated it. It looked great, and it was up on the board, and it never changed. And then, once I had done it a few times, I noticed that doesn’t make sense. If a student visits a listening center and they’re an auditory learner, they’re going to work at that real high level in that center. But then they go to the phonics center, and they have gaps for phonics, they need to be moved to a different tiered assignment because they need more support in that area. So that was kind of an eye-opener for me.
When I had started, I didn’t allow for that flexibility. Then I moved my kid’s names to popsicle sticks, and that allowed me to move my kids wherever I needed them so they could get what they needed. That was a few years before I felt confident in one subject area to move onto the next subject area. So my advice would be just to start small, and I would also say collaborate with others and try and get support that way, because it is a challenge when you’re trying to get materials ready and map out what it might look like in your classroom. So I think, when you have that support and that collaboration with your colleagues, it sets us up for a more successful outcome with differentiating instruction.
Because he thinks it is the group that will most benefit, Mr. Shelton begins to differentiate instruction in his Algebra I class. Below are two plans for the same lesson on multiplying polynomials. The first is from the year that Mr. Shelton began differentiating instruction. The second is from his fourth year of differentiating instruction.
Algebra I (Year 1)
Topic: Multiplying polynomials Objectives: Find the product of two monomials and two binomials.
Note: Instruction guided by preassessment (end of chapter test)
Introduce and demonstrate the FOIL (first, outer, inner, last) method using explicit instruction. Call on students to help solve problems (guided practice).
Pairs or independent
Assign class problems and allow students to work with a partner or alone to complete. Monitor students as they work.
Review problems or steps that students are having difficulty with.
Algebra I (Year 4)
Topic: Multiplying polynomials Objectives: Find the product of two monomials and two binomials.
Note: Instruction guided by preassessment (teacher-created)
Introduce and demonstrate the FOIL method. Make available graphic organizers that students can use to take notes.
Work with struggling learners. Help students to solve problems using graphic organizers.
Other students will work on tiered activities in the learning center.
Review and answer any questions.
Pass out exit cards to get an idea of who understands the topic and what needs to be reviewed the following lesson.
Review both of Mr. Shelton’s lesson plans.
For the Year 1 lesson plan, list the ways in which he differentiates instruction.
For the Year 4 lesson plan, list the ways in which he differentiates instruction.
Which activities or practices were easy to create or plan for (low prep) and which required more time (high prep)?
Discuss how Mr. Shelton’s instruction has changed over the four-year period. Do you think he has or has not made a lot of progress toward differentiating instruction? Explain.