Differentiation of Instruction: Easy Ideas for the 21st Century Classroom

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Click above to listen to Episode 37 of the Student-Centered World Podcast: Simplifying Classroom Differentiation (Transcript at the bottom of this page)

Differentiation of 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.

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

It is not as difficult as it seems and differentiation of instruction 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 defining differentiation of instruction 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 and is a perfect way to implement naturally occurring differentiation of instruction. 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!"

Differentiation of Instruction and Student-Centered Learning

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.

Differentiation of Instruction

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 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. 

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 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?

Below is the transcript from the Student-Centered World Podcast Episode 37 “Simplifying Classroom Differentiation”:

I think the hardest part about wrapping your head around differentiation of instruction is how we are all taught what it is. So, we’re taught that differentiation of instruction in your classroom means making sure that every student’s needs are met in a way that works for them. The way that we are taught to do that is to amend our assignments, chunk this, add more time for that.

Even if a student isn’t classified, it doesn’t have any type of accommodations, we’re still expected to kind of see where we might be able to help them and to do that through the differentiation of instruction. If you’re in the younger grades and you have a couple less students, it might be a little bit easier than say in high school where you might be teaching upwards of 150 students.

But it’s still not easy, especially again, if you’re in the younger grades, you have all the subject areas to worry about. It just becomes really, really overwhelming.

I think it’s such a disservice to everybody in education to not understand how easy differentiation of instruction is without driving yourself crazy and truly the key to all of this is student-centered learning. There is a reason why the data out there says that we should be teaching in a student-centered manner that has a natural element of the differentiation of instruction.

But alas, as I’ve mentioned so many times, there’s so much out there that explains what student-centered learning is, and that we should be doing it, but not really anything that explained how to be doing it. That’s why I ended up creating a “Passion for Progress” and Student-Centered World to help teachers figure this out when you have a fully student-centered lesson with differentiation of instruction.

That doesn’t mean that your students are running amok and it’s chaotic and you’re kicking back and reading the newspaper.

It means that it is a very well thought out planned lesson that has student choice, a flipped element to it, opportunities for children to have leadership roles and really show their strengths and also their weaknesses. But in doing all of that, which sounds overwhelming, but again, it’s not when you know how to do it, you will find that the differentiation of instruction happens naturally for every single student in there.

I have not spoken with one person who has gone through “A Passion for Progress” and has implemented it in their classroom and is not in 100% agreement that not only is everything fully differentiated for literally every child that walks through the door, but it makes your life so much less stressful and you get to enjoy the time that you have with your student.

Especially in today’s educational climate, I can’t tell you how many teachers have reached out to me on Instagram or Facebook or sent me an email and said that they are drowning, that they are burning out, that they don’t know if they can make it through this school year. I’ve had conversations with all of them about just some simple tweaks that they can make. So many teachers right now are just trying to keep their heads above water.

So many teachers right now are hitting levels of stress that no human being should have to go through. The support that they are receiving from the people that should be helping them is almost non-existent or it’s making their life harder. So, when you’re in an environment like this, and you’re supposed to be differentiating for every student, in the way that we were all taught that differentiation of instruction should happen for every student, it seems impossible, and rightly so.

Teacher Stress

But let me tell you, the teachers that I was able to train prior to the pandemic, or over the summer of 2020 have said that they are not overly stressed out, just that they are tired.

Of course, teacher tired we know is a thing no matter what and they are rolling with the punches, just like we all are. But they don’t have this dread and this overwhelming stress and this feeling like they can’t do it anymore. They’ve all said that they’re okay, that their students are engaged, that their lessons are naturally differentiating and if they are trying to teach through a screen, or they’re trying to teach in a classroom with a mask on or whatever the case may be, they’ve got it covered and they’re doing okay.

That’s the pure beauty of student-centered learning and the differentiation of instruction. It doesn’t make your life harder; it doesn’t make it more stressful. As a matter of fact, it does the complete opposite of that and makes it, so you are reaching every single student.

Not only are you reaching them in curriculum and ability, but it gives you the opportunity to get to know each one of them on a personal level. It gives you the opportunity to talk to every single one of them every single class period.

No longer are you only focusing on the kids that are struggling. You don’t have the high-flying kids that barely get your time because you don’t have a chance. We’re just assuming that they are doing what they need to be doing. You don’t have students that are hiding it and are falling through the cracks because of the way it’s structured, and the way that you have the ability to almost be teaching every student on a personal level.

I know there are some people out there that just don’t believe it because it seems like it’s not possible. But again, I was a high school history teacher that didn’t lecture, and I have trained teachers from pre-K, all the way up to 12th grade with the same techniques. Obviously, it’s a little bit different for grade level or for the subject area but it works. It differentiates and it’s not more work for you.

That is EXACTLY what student-centered learning does every single day. Give it a shot and watch the differentiation of instruction happen naturally…you have NOTHING to lose!

Differentiation of Instruction with the 4 Keys

The differentiation of instruction in your classroom isn’t difficult, it just needs to ebb and flow with the students and where they are (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Being flexible is the key to making all of this work. The key is engagement. There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge that releases twice per year. It is called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom.

If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.

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