3 Ways to Implement Differentiated Instruction

The idea of planning for diverse learners haunts teachers across the globe as they wonder where they’ll find the time or even the resources to teach learners who are at completely different levels. This has been heightened by today’s world of state standards and high-stakes testing.  Welcome to Differentiated Instruction (DI)!  As daunting as DI may seem, there are many simple ways to incorporate this technique into your classroom with powerful results.

Most teachers first learned of DI from Carol Tomlinson’s book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms.  The connection between teachers and students is at the core of differentiation.  While students respond to learning based on their interests, readiness and individual learning styles; it is the teacher’s job to bring together content, process and product in a way that is meaningful for all students.  Let’s look at three ways teachers can use DI to achieve this goal.

What is the role of content, product and process?

Content, process, and product are the three elements teachers constantly tackle during both lesson planning and instruction.  There are many ways these components can be differentiated to meet a wide range of student needs.  Best of all, it’s easy to do!  All you need is a bit of knowledge and some practice.

1.       How to Differentiate Content

What is content? Content is what students are required to learn and is determined by mandated curriculum. Curriculum involves the knowledge, concepts and skills students are expected to master. Differentiating content can include the use of various formats such as video, audio, lecture or reading to present information to students.

Let’s take a history lesson as an example. Students could receive instruction in any or all of the following ways:

  • They could watch a video on a specific topic.
  • They could research the topic on the Internet.
  • They could read a book of their choosing related to the topic.
  • They could listen to an audio book pertaining to the topic.

These are just a few examples of how you can bring DI into your classroom when you are presenting new information to your students. There are many other ways to do it as well. By providing your students with different ways to take in information and allowing them to choose for themselves, they will be able to better connect with, and master, content.

This example should be able to show teachers how it’s possible to provide DI in groups in their classroom. If they provide a variety of ways to explore content, learners will find different ways to connect to the content.

2.       How to Differentiate Process

Process involves the way students assimilate the content they’ve taken in. Students need time and space to reflect upon and digest what they’ve learned before they can move on to the next lesson. For example, have you ever taken a course where you’ve had a large amount of information thrown at you in a short span of time? When you were done, your brain probably felt like it might explode from information overload. Well, the same is true for kids. It is crucial they be given time to digest new information.

A great way to do this is to include some processing sessions in your lessons. This is a fantastic way to see how your students are doing, if they’re understanding the information, and if it’s sticking. Processing sessions also keep students from becoming overwhelmed by too much new information and shutting down. Ideally, you should include a short processing session for every half an hour of teaching. Processing is one of the least-used DI tools even though it is arguably the most important. Here are some strategies to use to incorporate processing:

You should try some of these strategies. There’s no doubt you’ll see amazing long-term benefits.

3.       How to Differentiate Product

Product refers to the work generated by students to demonstrate mastery of content.  It is the most common form of DI.   Here some ways to differentiate product:

  • Give students a choice of formats for their products.
  • Allow students to choose their own way of creating the product.

For example:  provide students with four different product options.  The first three should provide very clear product outcomes.  The final choice can be open-ended, allowing students to come up with their own product idea.  Students present their ideas for your approval by a previously-established deadline.  The product idea must meet academic criteria you established.  If a student does not present an idea by the set deadline or if their idea fails to meet your criteria, students will be required to choose a product from your first three options.

Products can cover a wide range of difficulty levels to meet the needs of individual students.  Setting clear academic criteria is important as it establishes guidelines for students, enabling them to know exactly what it is you expect them to achieve.  When products are aligned with learning targets, students thrive and content is handled in meaningful ways.

Do you struggle with DI in your classroom, or have you developed some great ways to cater to the differing needs of your students?   Either way, we would love to hear from you!