8 Lessons Learned on Differentiating Instruction
A middle school teacher explains how she turned the theories set forth at a seminar into practical strategies that work
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
My differentiation journey began in 2004 when my principal asked me to attend a weeklong summer conference on differentiated instruction. I was eager to please my principal so I quickly accepted her offer. I was also extremely curious about how I, one person, could possibly address the individual needs of 100 students.
By the end of the conference, I was totally overwhelmed with information: flexible grouping, assessment, inventories, tiered lessons, Carol Ann Tomlinson. My real work, though, didn't begin until after the conference, when I was expected to start using the training I'd received. I was expected to create four differentiated lessons that school year. My methods of differentiation were also observed three times by an administrator from my district. I worked extremely hard that year, but the experience taught me so much.
Throughout that year, I utilized a variety of management pointers for a differentiated classroom that had been presented during the conference. These guidelines helped me to begin integrating basic differentiation without losing my sanity. Here are some of those basic points to help you create a solid foundation for differentiation in your classroom
Differentiation does not take place overnight; think of it as a wonderful work in progress. Once I felt comfortable with one aspect of differentiation, I would begin to add something new. For example, I first explained to my students and their parents what would be taking place that year and how it would affect their learning in a positive manner. I then added small things such as allowing my students choices in their reading and writing.
Like students themselves, differentiation can take on many forms. Differentiation can be accomplished in a number of ways:
- Content: What the students learn
- Process: Activities used to assist the learning
- Products: Demonstration of learning
The methods you use should be based on the student's needs:
- Readiness: Student’s academic standing
- Learning profile: How the student learns
- Student’s interest
Learn everything possible about your students. This data assists you in designing your curriculum and lessons:
- Administer surveys and inventories throughout the school year: multiple intelligences, reading, writing (PDF), interest, parent, etc.
- Analyze prior standardized test scores and administer your own assessment to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Before starting a new unit of study, pre-assess students’ knowledge to find out what the students know and do not know about the content in your lesson. This helps you to identify misconceptions, modify instruction if needed, and set up your flexible groups. This assessment may be formal or informal. You may use a variety of techniques to pre-assess such as:
Begin small. Creating a classroom where individual needs are met can start with one activity such as allowing students choices. Choices give students a feeling of independence and ownership. Allow students to choose:
- Journal topics/writing topics: A great resource for journal prompts is 5-Minute Daily Practice Writing by Marc Tyler Nobleman (Scholastic)
- Reading books
- Varied graphic organizers
- Working alone or together
- Provide students with anchor activities (PDF)
Gradually add more difficult things such as one differentiated lesson per nine weeks or semester, literature circles, or alternative assessments.
Set expectations for yourself and your students.
- Provide clear and concise directions to students. Students must know what you want them to understand and be able to do. At the beginning of the school year, teach students routines and procedures for entering classroom, turning in homework and class work. It is important that students know what they are doing, where to go, and when to go.
- Take ample time to plan, plan, plan; create a schedule if needed.
Stay up-to-date on best practices by:
- Attending conferences or professional development on differentiated instruction.
- Observing other teachers in your content area differentiating in their classrooms, and invite colleagues/administrators who are proficient in differentiated instruction to your classroom to observe you differentiating. The feedback is invaluable.
Read literature on differentiated instruction. Here's a brief list of recommended professional books:
- The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners by Carol Ann Tomlinson
- How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms 2 nd Edition by Carol Ann Tomlinson
- Differentiated Instruction: Different Strategies for Different Learners by Char Forsten, Jim Grant, and Betty Hollas
- Through the Cracks by Carolyn Sollman, Barbara Emmons, Judith Paoli