When you’re teaching a classroom full of students with a diverse range of learning needs, differentiation is your friend. It’s also one of the biggest challenges for even veteran teachers.
What differentiated teaching strategies will help you in your classroom? We took a look at the history of differentiated learning and put together some tips to help you build your differentiation skills in the classroom!
What Is Differentiation in Education?
Differentiated instruction has been part of the education system for centuries. Remember one-room schoolhouses? Where one teacher taught a room full of students of various ages and developmental levels? Differentiated instruction strategies were what kept those teachers going and their students learning.
Of course, as we changed to centralized schools where students around the same age were separated out to learn within grade levels, the individualized instruction common in those one-room schoolhouses slowly but surely disappeared. Teachers were expected to teach a one size fits all curriculum.
The swing back the other way has happened over decades, and the advent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and with it federal protections for students with learning disabilities has made differentiated education not just something teachers want to do because they care about their students’ achievement but something they’re required to do under many kids’ IEPs.
Differentiation Teaching Strategies to Implement in the Classroom
So how, exactly, do you DO that? There are plenty of simple strategies teachers can draw upon to ensure our students’ needs are being addressed. Here are five to get you started!
1. Use a variety of instructional methods to deliver content
In days gone by, the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ instructional method was the standard means by which content was delivered to students. The teacher would talk and write notes on the board; the students would listen and copy down the important information.
In a modern-day classroom, direct instruction is but one of a wide range of instructional methods available in the teacher’s tool kit. While some students indeed learn best through listening; others prefer talking, moving, or using technology. Provide students with opportunities to learn through a variety of experiences, such as collaborative discussions, hands-on activities, and online resources.
2. Allow students to present their learning in a variety of formats
Have you ever known someone who seemed to have an extensive level of knowledge during a conversation, but could never perform well when they had to sit down to take a test? Or maybe you know someone who is a talented wordsmith but struggles to speak with confidence in front of others?
When assessing the learning of our students, it serves us well as teachers to remember that we all express ourselves in different ways. While some students may construct written texts clearly and with confidence; others may prefer to express their learning more visually, or even kinesthetically.
Where possible, provide your students with a number of ‘product’ options when it comes to presenting what they have learned. By insisting that students present their learning in one way only, we are limiting their ability to truly demonstrate their knowledge.
3. Use student-led tasks where possible and appropriate
Making your lessons student-led enables students to take control and ownership of their learning.
Take, for example, open-ended tasks which can be embedded across all areas of the curriculum. They promote multiple approaches, multiple outcomes, and multiple solutions, allowing students to engage with the curriculum at their own individual level. There is no ‘right way’ to complete an open-ended task, creating opportunities for student creativity and individuality to flourish.
Another example of a student-driven learning experience is an inquiry-based task. Students pose inquiry questions about a particular topic, then research and present their findings.
4. Provide relevant, meaningful enrichment
Providing additional ‘busy’ work to fast finishers has always been a go-to strategy for teachers; however, do these students really need to spend more time on a concept they have most likely mastered?
In most instances, students who finish tasks quickly and effortlessly will benefit very little from receiving more of the same work. So how can these students be adequately challenged so that they continue to feel motivated and engaged?
Some suggestions include:
- introducing new tasks that contain more sophisticated or accelerated content
- adapting tasks to make them more challenging or to promote higher-order thinking
- encouraging students to pursue individual interests within the content being taught
- allowing students to demonstrate their learning by peer-tutoring others.
5. Provide appropriate, targeted support
The level and nature of support required by less confident students will vary from student to student and from task to task. It is important to choose the most appropriate support strategy for each learning experience.
In some instances, minimal intervention will be sufficient in enabling a student to successfully complete a task; however, on other occasions, significant support may be required. So how can these students be adequately supported so that they feel confident in their ability to succeed?
Some suggestions include:
- simplifying the task, breaking it down into small, achievable steps
- removing additional pressures, such as time restraints
- providing scaffolds or concrete materials for students to manipulate
- reteaching key concepts with the assistance of peers or support staff.
Individualizing the curriculum we deliver in our classrooms can, at times, be perceived as an unrealistic ideal. By making a few small changes to our instructional methods and the learning experiences we provide, teachers can come one step closer to truly catering to the individual learning needs of our students.