Differentiated instruction – providing each student with educational resources, activities and expectations based on their individual needs, abilities and interests.
The concept of differentiated instruction has been well-received by the education community and it has become something of a buzzword in recent times. In its most basic form, differentiated instruction is a teacher-driven approach to managing a group of students that attempts to cater for a wide variety of individual differences.i The teacher plans and develops a standard lesson and then thinks about how its content, resources and strategies can be adjusted for specific students (such as making the content harder/easier or whether to use individual or student pairing arrangements).
Lessons are usually planned around the average ability of the whole group in both standard and differentiated classrooms. Let us assume the average ability is 5 out of 10. The problem is that some students work at a level of 1 or 2, others at 8, 9 or 10 and the majority float between 3 and 7. In fact, very few students are dead-on level 5. Differentiated instruction is where the teacher thinks about how to cater for students from levels 1-10 around a baseline aimed at level 5. This explanation is overly simplistic, and differentiation refers to more than just changes in difficulty. It also refers to the classroom environment, teaching styles, strategies, techniques, behaviour management methods, the topic, the use of technology, lesson content, lesson detail, lesson volume, lesson pace, speed of lesson delivery and expectations, to name a few.
Even when it is not planned for, the teacher is consciously scanning for the potential need for such adjustments and then implements them on the fly.
Each student is considered to have slightly different learning needs under a differentiated instruction strategy. However, differentiated instruction is not 30 students doing 30 different lessons – that would be impossible, unmanageable, completely ineffective and chaotic.
All teachers differentiate to some degree. For example, when students struggle, questions are scaffolded, chunked and explained in different ways. When students excel, more complex problems are provided to extend learning. In fact, many teachers used differentiated instruction well before the term was even invented. However, differentiation as a strategy goes one step further because it usually involves the teacher planning and preparing a series of adjustments and accommodations in advance. Even when it is not planned for, the teacher is consciously scanning for the potential need for such adjustments and then implements them on the fly.
How teachers do this in practice varies from teacher to teacher. Some teachers make individual adjustments for struggling students only. In a class of 30, this might mean 3-4 students. Advanced students work though the lesson as usual albeit a bit faster; they may attempt more challenging tasks toward the end once the standard tasks are completed. Other teachers make adjustments for both struggling and advanced students.ii Others again may make adjustments for a higher proportion of the class (30-40%) or place students in ability groups. Regardless of the approach, best practice is to also make adjustments throughout the lesson as needed. The adjustments are often small and come in the form of adjusting the pace, resources, supports and other scaffolds.
What does differentiation look like in the classroom? A typical and simple example is a reading program that provides each student with a different book based on their interests and abilities. Most reading programs are based on differentiated instruction to a large degree – reading books are classified in terms of difficulty on a scale (such as year 3, level 1-5 or year 4, level 1-8). This means each student can be placed on a level that is suitable for their current abilities. Teachers can monitor their progress and promote or demote the student up or down a level.
These adjustments can be minor (such as scaffolding, chunking, additional one-on-one worked examples, or changes to the lesson’s pace) or they can be major (such as the completing of a smaller number of activities or a completely separate topic and activity).
In a maths lesson, the teacher can provide 3 sets of 10 maths questions. The first is for struggling students, the second for average students and the final for those who want a challenge. Advanced students can do all 3 sets. In a non-differentiated classroom, the teacher would only provide the middle set. It is not overly taxing to quickly add or reduce the level of complexity in maths questions (or to chunk and scaffold in different ways). There is also no need to differentiate all of the time – it may only be necessary for some lessons and activities.
The concept behind differentiated instruction has long been used to teach students with disabilities, disorders, difficulties and other challenging behavioural issues.iii In an inclusive classroom for example, students with autism usually work on the same activities as their peers albeit with slight adjustments (although not always). This is not a separate program as would happen with an individual education plan. Instead, the teacher designs, prepares and delivers the class lesson to the group. While this happens, the assigned teacher’s aide makes minor adjustments on the fly for the student (or students) with special needs.
These adjustments can be minor (such as scaffolding, chunking, additional one-on-one worked examples, or changes to the lesson’s pace) or they can be major (such as the completing of a smaller number of activities or a completely separate topic and activity). Generally speaking, teachers want students with special needs who have been ‘mainstreamed’ to work from the same program as much as possible as this maximises the amount to which the student is included and integrated with their peers. Regardless of the approach, the teacher and the teacher’s aide should be in regular contact with each other especially pre and post lesson.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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