Differentiating Instruction: One Word that Can Change Everything

Differentiating Instruction: One Word that Can Change Everything

Differentiating Instruction: One Word that Can Change Everything

How can a teacher keep an entire class moving in the same direction when some learners are from different cultures and speak different languages, others struggle with one or more subjects, and still others are advanced and wanting to be challenged? The answer is differentiated instruction.

By now, most educators are familiar with differentiated instruction and how it can dramatically improve the success rate of all students in a classroom. Yet, turning consistent and effective implementation of DI practices into a day-to-day reality can be challenging. It’s not only the extra time and concentrated effort involved in differentiating lessons and activities. It’s also getting to know each learner and how to design appropriately challenging assignments.

One word can change all that and make differentiation far easier and much more effective: Assessment.

In this article, we’ll look at the role assessment plays in differentiated instruction and how to combine assessment and differentiation into a winning formula in any classroom.

Be a Student of Your Students

Assessment is what makes differentiation such an effective approach to instruction. It answers the questions: What do my learners know? Do they have special needs? What lesson plans and activities will help them meet learning goals? Assessment also helps teachers make the many decisions they are called upon to make based upon data—not feelings.

Teachers who differentiate are those who watch how each child learns. They then shape their instruction appropriately, finding the balance between tasks that are too challenging and thus frustrating for a student and tasks that are too easy and result in little learning.

What can and should be assessed? Three things stand out as most important:

  • Readiness—a child’s skills, content knowledge, understanding of concepts
  • Interests—a child’s favorite subjects, interests outside of school, passions that motivate them
  • Learning profile—a child’s cognitive style, group orientation, favored learning environment, intelligence preference

Assess, Then Teach

There’s more to assessment than simply taking a test. A teacher can use:

  • Diagnostic assessment to figure out what the child has already learned and if there are any gaps
  • Formative assessment as learning is occurring
  • Summative assessment at the end to determine what a student has learned

Observation, one-on-one discussions, previous teachers and parents—there are many ways to gather information about a student’s interests, experience, and prior knowledge. But what’s to be done with the data once it’s gathered? Now it’s time to actively use it to create differentiated assignments. That’s where some teachers get bogged down.

What Differentiated Assignments Are Not

Differentiated assignments are not dumbed down for slower students, not reserved exclusively for gifted students, and not another term for “group work.” Rather, they are student-focused, based on content and student needs, and involve teaching up to the point a child feels challenged, but not overwhelmed. The result: Just-right right now assignments that motivate, excite, and encourage growth.

Here are some questions to ask when designing differentiated assignments: Are they focused on learning goals? Does the nature of the assignment change, not just the work load? Are all activities equally fun and engaging? Do all activities require similar time commitments? Most important, are they appealing to students? Having one student writing a five-page essay while another plays a fun game—not cool!

Re-Thinking Classroom Management

To some, a differentiated classroom may sound like total chaos. Children working at different levels on different tasks. Some finishing before others. How can a teacher plan for students when they are done? Anchor activities to the rescue.

Anchor activities are ongoing assignments, performed independently by students once they’ve finished their other work. They support the standards and are tied to the curriculum. They are not busy work, but meaningful and enriching learning experiences. Choose activities that kids enjoy, that get them involved, and that give them choice. Student suggestions for anchor activities should be encouraged.

Every student deserves an informed teacher who can meet them where they are and move them along in their learning journey. Take more steps in the differentiated journey with instruction driven by assessment.

For a better understanding of how to differentiate in your own classroom, check out SDE’s webinar Differentiated Instruction: What NOT to Do (Gr. 3–12) by former principal and classroom teacher Betty Hollas.