How to use differentiated instruction in the classroom

Students during an exam. Sam Ngendahimana.

It is the truth, universally acknowledged I might add, that everyone has a unique fingerprint; so is the learning style of every student. Chances are, not all of your students grasp a subject in the same way, or share the same level of ability. So how can you better deliver your lessons to reach everyone in class?

Simple, factor students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan.  This may mean planning to teach the same material to all students using a variety of instructional strategies, or it may require the teacher to consider delivering lessons at varying levels of difficulty based on the ability of each student. Precisely, incorporate differentiated instruction.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of “The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners,” defines differentiated learning as: “ensuring that what a student learns, how he/she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he/she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.” She adds 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, assess students’ learning using formative assessment, manage the classroom to create a safe and supportive environment and, continually assess and adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs.

In her submission, teachers can differentiate instruction through four ways: content, process, product, and learning environment. As far as content is concerned, there is a standard coverage limit dictated by the curriculum or a given institution. But we can’t be blind to the reality of the classroom: some students in your class may be completely unfamiliar with the concepts in a lesson, some may have partial mastery, and some may already be familiar with the content before the lesson begins.

To ensure that every one is on board, you can differentiate the content by designing activities for groups of students that cover various levels: remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating, and creating. Students who are unfamiliar with a lesson could be required to complete tasks on the lower levels: remembering and understanding while those with some mastery could be asked to apply and analyse the content. Those who have high levels of mastery could be asked to complete tasks in the areas of evaluating and creating. In this way, everyone is actively involved at a comfortable pace.

Apart from content, you can also repeat the process. Each student has a preferred learning style, and successful differentiation includes delivering the material to each style: visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and through words. This process-related method also addresses the fact that not all students require the same amount of support from the teacher, and students could choose to work in pairs, small groups, or individually. For example, a teacher may provide textbooks for visual and word learners yet allow auditory learners to listen to audio books while also monitoring an interactive assignment online assigned to kinesthetic learners.

Further still, differentiation can be done even with the product. The product is what the student creates at the end of the lesson to demonstrate the mastery of the content. This can be in the form of tests, projects, reports, or other activities. You could assign students to complete activities that show mastery of an educational concept in a way the student prefers, based on learning style. For example, read and write learners can write a book report while visual learners create a graphic organiser of the story. The auditory learners can give an oral report and kinesthetic learners can build a diorama illustrating the story - all in the same exercise.

Finally, the learning environment can also be differentiated. The conditions for optimal learning include both physical and psychological elements. Psychologically speaking, teachers should use classroom management techniques that support a safe and supportive learning environment. For example, you can break some students into reading groups to discuss the assignment, allow students to read individually if preferred, or create quiet spaces where there are no distractions.

When students are given more options on how they can learn, they take on more responsibility for their own learning.


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