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Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated Instruction (DI) overview

What is DI?

"Differentiated instruction implies a purposeful process for adapting the teaching and learning processes of the classroom to accommodate the needs of all learners" (Murray & Jorgenson, 2007, p. 1).

Carol Ann Tomlinson summarizes that "a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively" (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 1).

When a teacher tries to teach something to the entire class at the same time, “chances are, one-third of the kids already know it; one-third will get it; and the remaining third won’t. So two-thirds of the children are wasting their time.” - Lilian Katz

DI is...

• responsive teaching rather than reactive
• what students need to demonstrate their knowledge
• using pre-assessment as well as ongoing assessment
• about providing challenges for all students to optimize learning
• about being flexible and allowing for flexible grouping
• about supplying multiple resources to accommodate varying levels of ability (i.e. levelled books or levelled graphic organizers)
• about getting to know your students better (i.e. interests, skill level, etc.)

DI is Not...  

• just about grouping or levelling by students' abilities
• having 30 IEPs in your classroom
• individualizing instruction for every student in your class
• everyone needing help all at once
• losing control of your classroom
• just about providing students with choice  

"In a differentiated classroom, the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs."
(Tomlinson, 2001, p. 7) 

Key Principles of a Differentiated Classroom
(Tomlinson 1999, p. 48)

1. The teacher is clear about what matters in subject matter.
2. The teacher understands, appreciates, and builds upon student differences.
3. Assessment and instruction are inseparable.
4. The teacher adjusts content, process, and product in response to student readiness, interests, and learning profile.
5. All students participate in respectful work.
6. Students and teachers are collaborators in learning.
7. Goals of a differentiated classroom are maximum growth and individual success.
8. Flexibility is the hallmark of a differentiated classroom.

Getting Started

Begin small: Start with one unit or lesson a week and gradually take on more. Start with a unit or topic that is your favourite or you are very familiar with.
Collaborate: Work with another teacher who teaches at the same grade.
Establish and practice routines: Students work better when they understand and can follow the routines & know what is expected of them.
Build a safe and positive environment: Students need to know that they have the support to take risks.
Help students understand themselves as learners: Students can make better choices if they understand what they are good at and what they need to work at.

Further reading

Differentiated Instruction (article comparing 3 classes to gain a better understanding of DI)

Although Some Voice Doubts, Advocates Say Differentiated Instruction Can Raise the Bar for All Learners (Mary Anne Hess)

Guiding questions to help teachers address all students' needs - A framework to help get you started thinking about Differentiated Instruction  (resource from the Dare to Differentiate wiki)

Resources cited:  

Murray, M. & Jorgenson, J. (2007). The differentiated math classroom - a guide for teachers K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate Instruction in mixed-ability classrooms, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Tomlinson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom - Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

                                                                  Updated June, 2015


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