What is "Differentiated Instruction" and how might it apply to the students in my classroom?

If you only use one predominant method of instruction, you may only be effective with the students who learn best with that instructional method. The achievement of other students who do not learn well through that method will likely suffer. Benjamin Bloom probably gave us the best advice when he encouraged us to increase the variability of our teaching in order to decrease the variability of student achievement and ensure that all students achieve.

Factual Information

Students are different and do not learn best in the same ways. With your learning objectives in mind, you can use what you know about how children learn and design instruction that accounts for different types of learners. This is called differentiated instruction and has been common for a number of decades in gifted and talented programs. We are now recognizing the value of adjusting both the curriculum and instructional strategies for all students. Differentiated Instruction (sometimes referred to as "DI") is an instructional concept that maximizes learning for all students - regardless of their ability. In DI, best teaching practices are used to create different pathways to learning. Unlike individualized instruction in which teaching is designed to meet the specific needs of individual students, DI is designed to meet the needs of clusters of students.

While there are several different models for differentiating instruction, there are some basic principles to keep in mind:

  • Start with your learning outcomes and what you want your students to know and be able to do. Without a clear sense of what you want them to learn, it is difficult to plan effective instruction.
  • Assess the students' current knowledge on the outcomes. You will likely find that different students have differing knowledge about your planned learning outcomes. Some may already have come close to mastering them while other students may need much more instruction.
  • Provide instruction through a variety of instructional experiences and assignments. For example, for one group of students you might provide small group instruction while for another group of students you might approach the same learning outcomes through work on a project.
  • Continually assess student learning. Don't wait until the end of a unit of instruction to determine whether or not your students understand. Constantly monitor the students' learning and make adjustments as necessary. This is known as "formative assessment" or "assessment for learning."

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As you work to differentiate the instruction that you provide to your students, it may be helpful to partner with other grade-level teachers or teachers who teach the same content area to develop differentiated lessons. The discussions you have with your colleagues about planning differentiated instruction can provide you with insights and additional support.

Resources and Links

The following websites help teachers think about their students and how they learn within specific content areas.