What is differentiation and an EASY Path EVERY Student

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Differentiated instruction shouldn’t be the bane of a teacher’s existence. Though there are many ideas for differentiated instruction out there, it seems overwhelming to attempt to do this for every single one of your students, and often, the question “what is differentiation” still lingers.

Often it is not a question of “what”, but a question of “how”? Differentiation means meeting every student where they are in their learning so they can master the most content.

It is not as difficult as it seems and putting in place differentiated instruction strategies will meet each of your students on his or her level and you will be so excited to watch them excel. The “magic bullet”? Student-centered learning.

When answering the question, “what is differentiation in the classroom” and explaining the creation of a student-centered environment, there is one thing that I have heard a number of times from the naysayers of student-centered learning:

“My students would NEVER do that!”

It saddens me every time to hear this since it simply isn’t accurate. Student-centered learning can work in any classroom. I know there are a number of reasons to think this way. A group of students could be particularly challenging, or apathetic, or maybe it’s just simply a fear of trying something “outside of the box”.

It might seem impossible to differentiate for each and everyone one of them with such varying personalities and learning styles. What most of these educators don’t realize, is that in most cases, this type of classroom approach appeals to the more difficult students even more.

angry boy with caption "stop thinking your students aren't capable of student-led learning!"

Does Student-Centered Learning Help with Differentiation?

Will you definitely reach every single student 100%? I cannot promise that. Just as a more traditional method does not reach every student, this method may not either. I offer no false platitudes here. However, I can promise you that once you have student buy-in, you will be able to reach more of them than with any other method of instruction.

Student-centered activities in the classroom naturally lend themselves to a level of differentiation that helps reach each child more than traditional methods of instruction.

What do I mean by “buy-in”? When I am explaining this method of instruction to others, I always joke that getting the students to sign on to it is like going through the stages of grief. For my high school students, I open on the first day of school explaining that I will never show them one PowerPoint, nor will they take notes on lectures.

They think this is the most amazing thing they have ever heard; what kind of a history class is this?!

Then, as the days move forward, I almost always receive some backlash in the form of “Why do we have to DO something every day in this class?!” Once students realize that student-centered learning is an active learning process, not a passive one, older students will often buck the system a bit.

My response at this point? I generally just smile. I know what’s coming.

In the next few days and weeks, the entire energy of the classroom changes. You can actually see Bloom’s Taxonomy in action right before your eyes. As students start going through the motions, they become more and more engaged in the activities.

The differentiation starts happening naturally and on each student’s own personal terms.

Suddenly, they’re “learning by accident” as I like to call it.

They’re living the content and becoming more deeply involved in learning about it than if they were passively trying to absorb the information. On teacher appreciation day this year, I received an email from a student that included this:

I just want you to know that I appreciate you as a teacher because the methods you use to execute information are brilliant. I have already learned so much in your class without even realizing it. You taught me how to teach myself and have lots of fun while doing so. If I look back in years of my education your class definitely stands out.

Nothing summarizes student-centered learning as eloquently as this. The students become immersed in their choices so much, they forget they’re learning as they do it. I say choices for a reason.

It is important, as I have mentioned before, to give students a bit of choice when laying out their assignments or projects. This straight-up naturally lends the class as a model of differentiation for each one of them.

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I may give them some general guidelines, but then every question that comes across to me I usually answer with “whatever works best for you”.

This method of student-centered classroom management helps everyone involved. Who wants to see cookie-cutter work over and over again when grading?

Though we may wish to see consistent concepts, it is a breath of fresh air to see the student creativity come forth with the understanding of those concepts. They get an idea and run with it without the restraints of what their work “has” to look like.

When each student is completing their own work within the boundaries of the same content, it is differentiation at its finest. 

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

This is honestly one piece that teachers have a tendency not to think about. We have had it beat into our heads for so long to make sure our students are on target and are learning the curriculum that we forget that there isn’t one set way to do that. We are told to differentiate all the time, but we know how impossible that can seem.

Student-centered learning not only naturally differentiates, but it also allows us to get into the heads of our students a bit more. What makes them tick? What do they enjoy? What interests them?

By learning these little tidbits, it helps us to shape how the classroom functions and there is more student buy-in. They, in turn, will give better work and you get to see different assignments come rolling in that the students actually have pride in completing, not just something they put together because they were told they had to (or, even worse, didn’t complete at all because they didn’t see why it was important).

Thinking about giving your students that much power can seem downright scary. What if it doesn’t work and the class runs amuck?

Yes, that is a valid fear, but guess what?

Chances are that is NOT what is going to happen and you will be pleasantly surprised. Imagine coming into work each day and not knowing what awaits you….but in a positive way.

Instead of spending time lesson planning out for your students, they begin planning the lesson outcomes based on their own needs in the classroom. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a classroom that runs itself in a way that benefits each student’s individual learning style and strengths, while also helping them improve their weaknesses?

That is EXACTLY what student-centered learning does every single day. Give it a shot…you have NOTHING to lose! Thanks for reading.

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