It’s pretty much a given that not all students in a classroom are going to be at the same level in terms of both knowledge and ability. While modern schools attempt to group students according to age and basic knowledge, every class still contains students of different backgrounds, abilities, and achievement levels.
This situation is not at all a product of the modern age — the issue easily dates back to the 1800s (and perhaps before) with the ubiquitous one-room schoolhouse, where a single teacher was responsible for teaching first-time students as well as older, more accomplished ones at the same place and time. However, in 1912, new achievement tests resulted in scores that revealed wide gaps in students’ abilities within single grade levels; the realization that not all students of the same age were at the same level led educators to re-think how they needed to present curricular material.
Then, in 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensured that children with disabilities had the same access to public education as their non-disabled peers; again, teachers were forced to re-think instruction strategies in order to reach this additional student population.
The overarching question became this: How do you instruct a single class where the students are at multiple levels? The answer is what’s known as differentiated instruction, which takes into account student achievement, ability, learning and cognitive styles, as well as attitudes, pace of learning, personality and motivation.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is a professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia. She indicates that teachers who practice differentiation in the classroom may:
- Design lessons based on students’ learning styles.
- Group students by shared interest, topic, or ability for assignments.
- Continually assess and adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs using formative assessments.
One of the ways to implement this plan is to create different tasks for the same activity. While this can work for any type of material, let’s consider its use in terms of reading instruction. The teacher first assigns the reading, which can either be done individually or in small groups, then assigns the related tasks:
The levels of difficulty for the task(s) might be broken out in this fashion:
* Lower performing reading group: Students are asked straight recall questions, such as names, dates, and places. They may also be asked to put similar types of answers into groups.
* Middle reading group: Students are asked questions that relate to the general (main) ideas of the reading passage.
* Advanced reading group: Students are asked to answer detailed questions and may be asked to draw conclusions based on the characters’ words or actions.
If the questions are presented to be answered in an oral fashion, the lower performing and average students may be motivated to try and increase their knowledge because of the stronger students’ input, and the classroom interaction also becomes more inclusive and dynamic.
According to Tomlinson, teachers can differentiate instruction through four ways:
3) product, and
4) learning environment.
Content activities can be designed based on “Bloom’s Taxonomy” (a classification of levels of intellectual behavior going from lower-order thinking skills to higher-order thinking skills). There are six levels: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.
Students unfamiliar with the content may be required to complete tasks on the lower levels: remembering and understanding; students with some mastery may be asked both to apply and to analyze the content; and students with high mastery levels may be assigned tasks that require evaluating and creating.
Process refers to a student’s preferred learning style: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and through words. Successful differentiation includes providing content through multiple modalities, as well as separating out those students who require some one-on-one support with those who can perform the tasks independently.
Some examples of Tomlinson’s process differentiation for the reading example:
- Provide textbooks for visual and word learners.
- Allow auditory learners to listen to audio books.
- Give kinesthetic learners the opportunity to complete an interactive assignment online.
The product demonstrates, at the end of the lesson, the skill(s) and/or content the student has mastered. Formative assessments are frequently used, but projects, reports, and other activities are also common. The teacher may also assign a product to complement the process.
Some examples of Tomlinson’s product differentiation for the reading example:
- Read and write learners write a book report.
- Visual learners create a graphic organizer.
- Auditory learners give an oral report.
- Kinesthetic learners build a diorama illustrating the story.
The students’ learning environment is also a factor in differentiated instruction. Tomlinson indicates that a flexible layout that allows for both individual and group learning, and an environment that makes students of all levels feel safe and engaged are the most productive.
Does differentiated learning work? There are both pros and cons to the method.
- PRO: Research shows differentiated instruction is effective for both high-ability students and those with mild-to-severe disabilities.
- PRO: When students are given more options on how they can learn the presented material, they take more responsibility for their own learning.
- PRO: Differentiated lessons appear to make students more engaged in learning, and many teachers report fewer discipline problems.
- CON: Differentiated instruction requires more work during lesson planning, and many teachers struggle to find the extra time in their schedule.
Ultimately the decision of how much differentiated learning to employ in the classroom rests on school administrators and the teachers themselves. In a class full of students with diverse backgrounds, mastery levels, and abilities, it may make sense to at least attempt some measure of differentiation to see how effective it can be.
 Weselby, Cathy. (February 15, 2017.) What is Differentiated Instruction? Examples of How to Differentiate Instruction in the Classroom. Concordia University Blog. Retrieved from https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/teaching-strategies/examples-of-differentiated-instruction/