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Implementing differentiated instruction: the good and the bad

Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching focused on students and their uniqueness. Learners come from different cultural backgrounds, they have different cognitive strengths, they evolve in different ways and have to overcome different challenges. Furthermore, students have individual learning preferences, abilities, and pace.

In this context, today's teachers need to find the adequate methods to reach every single student, addressing their individual needs.

While doing this in a classroom of 12, 25, 30 or more learners is a challenge for teachers, through differentiated instruction educators can ensure that every student has a fair chance to educational development.

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction means teachers have to customize and optimize the curriculum to suit individual needs and to facilitate growth and concept mastery.

Through effective classroom management and assessment of learners' readiness, students feel more confident and motivated, resulting in better engagement in the educational process.

Differentiated instruction uses students' own learning abilities and their zone of proximal development, which is the distance between what students can demonstrate without assistance and what they can showcase with assistance.

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at University of Virginia, differentiation means providing students with multiple options to acquire information. This can be done by adjusting four important aspects of the learning layout: content, process, product and the learning environment.

Content. Teachers need to differentiate the content of their lessons according to students' level of expertise because some may be unfamiliar with the subject, some may have partial mastery, but some may already know the content being taught. Following Bloom's Taxonomy, teachers can group students to allow them to work at their own pace and level of understanding before asking them to reach higher stages of analyzing or creating.

Process. This refers to the way teachers choose to present the content of a class. Taking into account the different learning typologies, like visual, auditory, kinesthetic or any mixture of these, teachers have to customize their lessons to suit their students' particularities. They can use books or worksheets for visual learners, recordings for auditory learners and online learning games for kinesthetic learners.

Product. To be able to assess the level of acquisition, teachers need to require students to create products like projects, tests, presentations, research. In order to differentiate them according to individual students, teachers can let them choose what suits them best from a list of possible products. This leads to learner agency, higher engagement and motivation. The only thing that teachers need to do is formulate a variety of tasks that can help students showcase their mastery of concepts.

The learning environment. Where students learn is as important as what they learn. Differentiation at this section involves having a flexible classroom, various types of furniture that can support different types of grouping students.

Read more: Why teachers should consider differentiated instruction

Implementing differentiated instruction: the good and the bad

This type of instruction has different interpretations from a variety of perspectives related to time, students, teachers, materials, classroom, results, etc. However, differentiated instruction has both advantages and disadvantages and there isn't a concise analysis of whether the pros overpass the cons. So, it's up to you whether you consider this type of teaching appropriate for your class or not.

The good:

  • Effective for any type of student
  • Gives students the possibility to choose what suits them best
  • Allows students to take ownership of their own learning process
  • It opens the way to higher engagement and motivation
  • Students work at their own pace leveraging their own learning preferences

Differentiated instruction is known to have great results for all types of students, from the one with low cognitive competence to the highly performant. It's an approach which focuses on individualized development and gives students ownership over their learning. Students become more engaged and motivated in the quest to shape their own knowledge. Also, having lesson content trimmed and adapted to suit different levels of excellence gives students a possibility to have great evolution while learning at their own pace.

The bad:

  • Teachers have to work extra hard to plan and prepare the lessons for a class
  • Teachers need training and some schools lack professional development resources
  • There is a lack of funding for creating the best learning environment

Differentiated instruction is not a new concept to teachers, yet not many have the possibility to actually implement it in class because of poor funding, but also lack of training. In addition, it can be a strenuous process which can discourage most educators since it requires deep involvement and minute preparation.

To sum up

Differentiated instruction is a necessity in today's classroom. It's true that it puts a strain on teachers who have to present the same material to all students by using various instructional strategies at different levels of difficulty to meet the ability of individual students. However, the benefits are obvious: no student is left behind. Everyone has a chance to reach mastery of concepts while learning at their own pace and at their own level of understanding.

As teachers, we need to find solutions to help our students evolve. It doesn't have to be 100% differentiated instruction, but it can be 20%. Having at least one differentiated activity per class is due to have results. This way students will appreciate being taken into account as individuals and strive to succeed.

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