Differentiated instruction – i.e., tailoring the curriculum according to students’ interests, readiness and learning profiles – offers a considerable challenge to educators. That’s not only because of the time commitment required and the many strategies that may be implemented to satisfy a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Gifted Individualized Education Program (GIEP), but also to meet each student’s specific needs, above and beyond that.
In a perfect world, every lesson in every classroom in the U.S. would be differentiated, in order to meet each students’ needs. That’s because students learn in different ways. Some are auditory learners. Some are visual learners. Some are tactile learners. The best educators recognize the differences, and teach accordingly.
While there are only so many hours in a day, differentiated education does in fact occur all the time. Notes and tests are adapted. Special projects are assigned. Material is tailored according to students’ learning styles. The goal, as always, is to maximize each student’s educational experience and enable them to reach their full potential.
The question is, what are the best methods for doing this, while working within the constraints of a school day? Sharon Longert, a New York City-based special education for 30 years, summarized the five key concept as follows, in a post that appeared on the Teachers Network:
- Content: Opening avenues to information by tailoring text to students’ ability levels; providing organizers and anticipation guides to facilitate note-taking; engaging students by using examples and illustrations based on their interests.
- Process: Perfecting students’ grasp of material by varying the pace at which material is presented; using cooperative grouping; fostering different perspectives on topics through various activities; emphasizing pertinent information within text.
- Product: Enabling students to demonstrate their understanding of material by bookmarking websites for research, each according to skill level; developing rubrics for success according to need and grade level; teaching students to leverage technology.
- Affect: Encouraging classroom participation; creating an inclusive environment, and one in which respect trumps all; developing students’ ability to see all sides of an issue or topic.
- Learning Environment: Arranging furniture so that it might be used to best effect by individuals, small groups and the class as a whole; ensuring that necessary supplies are available; maximizing approaches to various tasks.
One example of the manner in which differentiated education might be applied is the approach I use toward reading. I use assessment data to divide the class into three groups – those in need of enrichment, those in need of corrective instruction and those in need of major re-teaching.
The first of those groups, which consistently exceeds grade-level expectations, is able to work independently in active learning, small group, technology or silent sustained reading. The second combines students who meet grade-level expectations and those who do not, and as a result might need occasional differentiated instruction. This group requires explicit instruction – i.e., modeling strategies and guided practice – over an extended period of time before they are granted more responsibility for task completion.
Crucial to the corrective-instruction process are Think-Alouds, modeling behavior that involves reading aloud to students and verbalizing what I’m thinking, so they understand the inferences I’m making to comprehend the text. The goal, of course, is that they too will eventually be able to meld prior knowledge with that information reflected in the text to make the necessary inferences themselves.
Students in the major re-teaching group are those who are significantly below grade-level expectations, and require substantial intervention. The majority of my English-language learners (ELLs) tend to fall into this group, meaning they need intensive instruction to learn vocabulary, as well as tools that will enable them to learn on their own. This group requires more planning before, during and after readings.
In short, differentiated education is a matter of collecting and analyzing data, and grouping students accordingly. It is a matter of understanding that each and every student learns differently, and as a result an educator’s strategy must be varied. It is a matter, really, of meeting each student where they are, so that their needs might be met as well.