Differentiating Instruction seems to be a most topical phrase in education these days. Teachers often fear that differentiating instruction means that they have to develop individual lesson plans for each kid in their class EVERY DAY. Thankfully, this is not the case. There are many ways to differentiate instruction for all kinds of learners and learners at every imaginable level even though they are all in attendance in one classroom.
I'm sure that we all can agree that there is essential content that every child needs from a particular content area. A teacher can, of course, deliver that content in any way he or she sees as most effective. However, and given what we know about brain research , we all know (or should know by now) that we cannot continue to teach as we have always done in the past. Kids are much different learners today than we were years ago. They are digital natives and we are learning as we go along.
Differentiating instruction does not have to be a complete abandonment of the lessons teachers have carefully planned and aligned to state mandated standards; rather, differentiating instruction around those standards simply means that teachers provide students with a variety of means to demonstrate their understanding of content. In an ELA classroom (as per my background experience), the simplest way to differentiate was by product; in other words, I provided a number of equitable choices for students to demonstrate their knowledge of content and their skills in demonstrating that content knowledge. (I have many thoughts on this and lots of other examples of differentiated assignments and project choices on my wikispace; see the initial page and the Writing Assignments page). But there are other ways to differentiate; many teachers differentiate by content, process, and product according to students' readiness, interest, and learning profiles.
As an administrator, what do I look for when visiting classrooms to ensure that each child is engaged and learning at their own pace? I look for kids who are engaged in whole group instruction or discussion; I look for kids who are quietly working on things on their own; I look for kids who may be working in pairs or in cooperative groups to accomplish something meaningful; I look for kids who are working at creating a new product based on their knowledge of content. This is the essence of differentiating instruction. When teachers differentiate, they provide structure in their classrooms and attempt to manage students while they do meaningful work. Differentiating instruction involves relinquishing some control by putting content into the hands of the learners and helping them to make meaning for themselves. This is not easy for teachers because, let's face it, there is a bit of a control freak in every teacher out there. However, differentiating instruction does lead to some powerful learning for our students and it is making a difference in many classrooms.
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