Differentiated Instructions
Nicole Meek

Marymount Manhattan College

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Differentiated Instructions

 I have just read "How To Differentiate Instruction in Mixed ability Classrooms"  by Carol Ann Tomlinson. I believe that differentiated instruction is not something that a teacher attempts to implement on a day to day basis. I believe that it should be the way of life in every classroom. I believe that the teacher's goal in differentiating  instruction is to "spice up" what occurs in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, understanding information and expressing what they learn. Therefore, differentiating instruction is proactive. In a differentiated classroom, the teacher acknowledges that she is teaching a diverse student population who has different learning needs. The teacher's goal is to proactively plan a variety of ways such as utilizing a variety of resources and teaching techniques to reach and express learning.  As a result of providing your students with different learning options, the chances are greater that the learning experience will provide an appropriate fit for many learners.  Additionally, Differentiated classrooms operate on the basis that learning experiences are most effective when they are engaging, important to the learner, and interesting. A teacher who differentiates instruction aims to provide appropriately challenging learning experiences for every student in the class.

I couldn't have said it better than Tomlinson when she states, "a teacher in a differentiated classroom does not classify herself as someone who already differentiates instruction. Rather, that teacher is fully aware that every hour of teaching, everyday in the classroom can reveal one more way to make the classroom a better, match for its learners" (pg. 5) .    

According to Tomlinson, a differentiated classroom should support, and is supported by, an evolving community of learners.  Furthermore, the goal in a differentiated classroom is to help every learner grow as much as he or she can in both general ability and specific talents. In a differentiated classroom, students learn to chart their own growth and to talk about both their learning goals and ways of achieving them. In a differentiated classroom, the growth of each and every student is a matter of celebration, and one person’s growth is not more or less valuable than another’s.  The teacher’s goal is to figure out where a student is in relation to key learning goals and then provide learning experiences that will push the learner a little further and faster than is comfortable. Additionally, there are two pieces of guidance that contribute to a positive learning environment in a differentiated classroom. Teachers are to continually coach students to be contributing members of a group. Sometimes, the best way to know how to help students succeed in small group settings is to simply study groups at work in your classroom, and try to list the traits of functional versus dysfunctional groups. Secondly, teachers are to plan with flexible grouping in mind.  Using a variety of grouping strategies allows teachers to match students and tasks when necessary, and to observe and assess students in a variety of groupings and task conditions.

Teachers who differentiate instruction have at least two things in common: a conviction that students differ in their learning needs and a belief that classrooms in which students are active learners, decision makers, and problem solvers are more natural and effective than those in which students are passive recipients of information.  Chapter five discusses a teacher by the name of Mrs. Riley who uses learning centers and interest centers in her third grade classroom. After designing a variety of centers based on her students’ learning profiles, Mrs. Riley often assigns students to centers based on her formal and informal assessment of their readiness. However, even when students are assigned to a learning center, students make choices about their work in ways that address their interests and learning preferences. The key for a teacher in a differentiated classroom is to use a variety of instructional strategies to help them match content, process, and product to the readiness, interest, and talents of their students.

The following are guidelines in managing a differentiated classroom: 1) it is important to have a strong rationale for differentiating instruction based on student readiness, interests, and learning profile, 2) teachers should begin differentiating at a pace that is comfortable for them, 3) Teachers should time differentiated activities to support student success, 4) Teachers should use an “anchor activity” to free them up to focus their attention on their students, 5) create and deliver instructions carefully, 6) assign students into groups or seating areas smoothly, 7)have a “home base” for students. Beginning and ending a class or lesson form a “home base” or seating chart enables you to organize students and materials more effectively when there will be student movement during the class or lesson. 8) Be sure students have a plan for getting help when your busy with another student or group, 9) minimize noise, 10) make a plan for students to turn in work, 11) teach students to rearrange the furniture, 12) minimize “stray” movement, 13) promote on-task behavior, 14) have a plan for “quick finishers”, 15) Make a plan for “calling a halt,” 16)give your students as much responsibility for their learning as possible, 17) engage your students in talking about classroom procedures and group processes. 

Five important tenets of differentiated instruction include the following:

1)      Differentiated instruction is proactive. In a differentiated classroom, the teacher assumes that different learners have differing needs. Therefore, the teacher proactively plans a variety of ways to “get at” and express learning. The teacher still needs to tailor instruction for individual learners, but because different learning options are available based on the teachers knowledge of varied learner needs, the chances are greater that the learning experiences will provide an appropriate fit for many learners.

2)      Differentiates instruction is “organic.”  In a differentiated classroom, teaching is evolutionary. Students and teachers are learners together. While teachers may know more about the subject matter at hand, they are continuously learning about how their students learn. Ongoing collaboration with students is necessary to refine the learning opportunities so they’re effective for each student.

3)      Differentiated instruction is student centered.  Differentiated classrooms operate on the premise that learning experiences are most effective when they are engaging, relevant, and interesting. Teachers who differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms seek to provide appropriately challenging learning experiences for all their students.

4)      Differentiated instruction is a blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction.

5)      Differentiated instruction provided multiple approaches to content, process, and product. In all classrooms, teachers deal with at least three curricular elements: content- what students learn, process-how students go about making sense of ideas and information, and product-how students demonstrate what they have learned.  By differentiating these three elements, teachers offer different approaches to what students learn, how they learn it, and how they demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Three characteristics of students guide differentiation: readiness, interest, and learning profile. The text discusses the notion that students learn better if tasks are a close match for their skills and understanding of a topic (readiness), if tasks ignite curiosity or passion in a student (interest), and if the assignment encourages students to work in a preferred manner (learning profile).  Teachers can differentiate any or all of the three key components of curriculum (content, process, and product) in response to student readiness. When teachers use readiness level as a focus for differentiating content, process, and product, their aim is to push students just a bit beyond their particular “comfort zones” so that student work is a little too hard. Then they support students in stretching to achieve a next level of competency with important skills and ideas. 

The goals of interest-based instruction are the following: 1) helping students realize that there is a match between school and their own desires to learn, 2) demonstrating the connectedness between all learning, 3) using skills or ideas familiar to students as a bridge to ideas or skills less familiar to them, and 4) enhancing student motivation to learn.  A teacher who encourages a student to look at a topic of study through the lens of that student’s own interest, all four goals are most likely to be achieved.  Additionally, interest based instruction can not only draw on and expand already existing student interests, but can help them discover new interests as well.

Learning profile refers to ways in which we learn best as individuals. The goals of learning-profile differentiation are to help individual learners understand modes of learning that work best for them, and to offer those options so that each learner finds a good learning fit in the classroom. Some guidelines for learning-profile differentiation are as follows: remember that some, but not all, of your students share your learning preferences; help your students reflect on their own preferences; use both teacher-structured and student-choice avenues to learning-profile differentiation; select a few learning-profile categories for emphasis as you begin; and be a student of your students. It is crucial to watch individuals in your class for learning clues, to talk with them about what works and doesn’t work for them, and to invite them to make suggestions or pose alternatives that seem more promising.

Content can be differentiated in response to a student’s readiness level, interests, or learning profile. Readiness differentiation of content has its goal matching the material or information students are asked to learn to a student’s capacity to read and understand it. Interest differentiation of content involve including in the curriculum ideas and materials that build on current student interests or extend student interests. Learning profile differentiation of content implies ensuring that a student has a way of “coming at” materials and ideas that match his preferred way of learning.

Process means sense-making or the opportunity for learners to process the content or ideas and skills to which they have been introduced. Any effective activity is essentially a sense-making process, designed to help a student progress from a current point of understanding to a more complex level of understanding. Students process and make sense of ideas and information most easily when their classroom activities are interesting to the students, call on the students to think at a high level and cause the students to use a key skill to understand a key idea. Interactive journals can be used in differentiating process. By using differentiated interactive journals throughout a reading, the teacher provides her students with writing prompts that, for example, may encourage them to interact with the book as they predict what will occur next.

A product is a long-term endeavor. Product assignments should help students-individually or in groups-rethink, use, and extend what they have learned over a long period of time. Products are important not only because they represent your students’ extensive understandings and applications, but also because they are the element of curriculum students can most directly “own”. For that particular reason, well designed product assignments can be highly motivating because they will bear their creator’s thumbprint. Additionally, high-quality product assignments are also excellent ways of assessing student knowledge, understanding and skill. Many students can show what they know far better in a product than on a written test. Therefore, in a differentiated classroom, teachers may replace some tests with rich product assignments, or combine tests and product options so the broadest range of students has maximum opportunity to think about, apply, and demonstrate what they have learned.

Developing classrooms in which students engage in varied content, sense-making activities, and product execution often requires teachers to modify their more traditional ways of keeping track of student growth. Although teachers employ many useful strategies to chart student tasks and growth, it is important to recall the dual purpose of all assessment is to chart student growth in regard to valued skills and knowledge, and to use information gathered through that process to help in planning the most appropriate learning experiences possible for given individuals and groups of students