Is differentiated instruction really necessary? The answer is no. Differentiated instruction is not necessary UNLESS… you want success and growth for each of your students and a greater level of fulfillment from your teaching career. Sarcasm aside; is it possible to meet the needs of every learner in your classroom? Many teachers have asked this question. In one study, teachers identified the challenge of meeting the individual needs of diverse learners as one of their top three concerns.
I have said multiple times that effective teaching is both an art and a science. At no time is this more obvious than when a teacher is designing a learning environment that will meet the needs of each individual student as well as investing the time to improve and refine teaching abilities and dispositions that will make them the best teacher that they can be. This is a refining process that can span an entire teaching career.
So, let’s talk differentiated instruction.
What makes differentiated instruction effective?
1. Content Knowledge
The more you know about the subject you are teaching, the more you will know how to differentiate instruction for that subject. Content knowledge and expertise should be an ongoing pursuit for every teacher. Thankfully, there are many resources for teachers that can help you increase your knowledge of decoding and other reading strategies.
2. Knowledge of What Your Students Know and What They Need to Know
This involves assessment; all kinds of assessment – from informal to formal and everything in between. This kind of “kid-watching” is an important part of instruction and it will pay off when it becomes second nature to you as a teacher. Teachers who have this mastered are constantly monitoring student response to instruction. This is also where knowledge of standards comes in. Aligning instruction and assessment with what content seems like a no-brainer but often this is the missing piece.
3. Knowledge of Evidence-Based Instruction
There are many ways to deliver instruction. The more tools you have in your box, the better prepared you will be to teach each student in the way that will reach them. There are many areas that you can explore such as multisensory instruction, direct instruction, brain-based learning, English language learning, the importance of feedback, flexible grouping, and when it is best to use individual, small group or whole group instruction (most teachers use a variety of groupings within each school day). Knowing the best ways to deliver instruction will help you to know what to do when you are instructing students no matter the group size. For example, differentiating instruction is NOT delivering the same instruction, in the same way, to multiple groups of students (if that were the case, whole class instruction would suffice).
4. Experience and Practice Managing Instructional Resources
Resources involved in differentiating instruction include; instructional time (length, frequency), space (small-group vs. whole-group), people (parent helpers, classroom aides), and materials (e.g. decodable and leveled text, whiteboards and markers, technology, etc.). This is probably one of the trickiest components in providing effective instruction for all students. It is important to establish routines where multiple (yet relevant) things can be going on at the same time. This is also an area that will change from year to year in response to ever-changing resources (scheduling changes, class-size, instructional programs, human resources, etc.). Considering all of those changes, remember, the most important resource that you have is YOU!
The last two components are the most important.
The ability to recognize and meet the instructional needs of each student in your class is an ongoing process. While you will receive great amounts of satisfaction as you see the impact your efforts will make in the lives of the students you teach, the road may seem quite bumpy at times. Patience is required when managing and acquiring resources, refining your knowledge of the many and various ways that students learn, and seeking out and finding the right sources for professional development.
The very nature of differentiated instruction demands flexibility. Flexibility in many areas could possibly be the key component in reaching each student. Continuous adjustments will need to be made with the use of time, materials, approaches, and instructional grouping. Flexibility is also required as you choose the best ways to monitor and assess student learning. In fact, your teaching approach may need to change on-the-fly in response to student feedback to your instruction. This short video humorously demonstrates the need for instructional flexibility.
When Attempts to Differentiate Go Awry
Given the preceding information, here are some questions to ask yourself when analyzing differentiation in your classroom:
What am I doing to increase, update, or clarify my knowledge of the content that I teach? What do I know about multisensory instruction, direct instruction, brain-based learning, English language learning, the importance of feedback, flexible grouping, etc.?
Do I have a system of assessment to place students for instruction as well as monitor their progress? How do I know if students understand the concepts that I am teaching as I am teaching them? Do I take the time to reflect on student learning?
Are there routines that I can modify or add that will better facilitate multiple instructional situations simultaneously? What instructional strategies can I add to my teaching repertoire?
Are there materials and/or other resources that I can realistically acquire to improve my ability to teach all kinds of learners? How can I use technology to help differentiate instruction?
One Last Thing
Rather than being overwhelmed by the fact that the ability to differentiate instruction is an ongoing pursuit, challenge yourself to choose one area for improvement to focus on in the coming school year. For example, you could choose one content area or you could choose to focus on one component of differentiation such as assessment. As you focus on one small thing at a time, you will find that differentiating instruction can be more simple and doable than you think. As you refine instruction for each student you will reap the rewards of success for each student and a greater level of professional satisfaction.