The Possibilities of Differentiated Instruction

Oct 22, 2010 by

Differentiating Instruction is about trying to make sure every child has a chance to learn to their best potential.  In today’s diverse classrooms, teachers need to teach not just to the middle of the bell-shaped curve, but make sure the needs of those requiring enrichment are met, as well as those who might be struggling.  In many ways, this is the promise of “Individualized Education Plans”- that children will get a customized education instead of one-size fits all.  Differentiated Instruction tries to give teachers tools to make a customized education a reality for all students, not just those with IEP’s.

With the significant administrative burdens of students with IEP’s and 504 plans, the thought of having to do this sort of thing for every student in the classroom could make any teacher cringe.  In reality, Differentiated Instruction involves planning, assessment and tweeking lessons on the fly, making the whole classroom a more engaging and interactive experience for teachers and students alike.

This year, I have children in 7th and 10th grade myself.  I live in a school district where the teachers are phenomenal, and have shown me time and again they are willing to go the extra mile if the other side of the equation- the kid and the family- are responsive.  For example, this morning, my 12 year old woke up with some nasty stomach issues.  I emailed all of his teachers asking for work.  We emailed assignments to the teachers that needed to be handed in today.

Best of all, at third period, his social studies teacher is going to connect him to the classroom through skype.  Timewise, it takes a few minutes to set up, but it means my child will miss one less class, one less instructional day, and at the same time, not get his friends sick.  Economically, it’s using tools already inside the classroom and at home, so it’s free.  Everyone wins when something like this becomes possible.  A child missing school still can get their work done as much as possible, and teachers don’t have to worry about trying to catch them up nearly as much.

I know this is not “normal” and it’s an anomaly.  But what if it doesn’t have to be?  What if we do go to one to one laptop ratios?  What if kids do have wifi at home?  What if kids can attend school virtually when they need to?  Attendance will still matter, of course, as will handing in all work that’s due, but many fewer kids may fall behind.

Things like this take money and time to be sure.  Without a wired school district, this couldn’t happen.  Without a wired home, this couldn’t happen.  But the “Let’s give it a try” attitude of the faculty and staff is even more important to the overall equation.  It may work well or it may not, but we’ll never know until we give it a test drive.

While we wait for class to start, my son’s reviewing activities and podcasts his teacher has placed on her web page.  His reviewing social studies and science lessons.  The technology doesn’t replace the importance of being in the classroom.  It doesn’t replace his teachers.  These tech tools augment his learning and allow it to continue outside the classroom.  When a kid decides it’s more fun to go and do activities on his teacher’s website- games that also relate to stuff in class- than watch TV, you know you’re winning the battle of engagement.

Engagement and sparking that interest in learning is well over half the battle in education.  Once you have attention, you can take kids on an amazing journey through learning.  We have to find ways for them to be successful.  We have to find ways to make the pathways towards curriculum goals achievable for them.  It may not always be easy.  But in the end, seeing that kid really excited about going to school, and upset when they can’t go is what every parent and every teacher wants for kids.  And it’s what kids want as well- to feel like they are really doing something important and meaningful every day.

Differentiation is one of the keys to getting on that road, and I hope this blog and podcast series will help make that easier for you to achieve in your own classrooms.

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