The Challenges of Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom
Teachers need deep domain knowledge to differentiate.
One of the greatest challenges of differentiated instruction is that it requires deep domain knowledge—of the subject itself, of the potential ways students progress from one level of understanding to the next, of where students might get stuck, and of common gaps in students’ understanding. However, research by Washburn, Joshi, and Cantrell has shown that not all teacher education programs are preparing teachers with the detailed domain knowledge that’s required to differentiate.
Teachers need to identify students' zones to differentiate.
Up-to-date information about a student’s zone of proximal development is indispensable to determining what students should work on next, and that’s where formative assessment comes into play. Dylan Wiliam of the University of London has called assessment “the bridge between teaching and learning—only through some kind of assessment process can we decide whether instruction has had its intended effect.”
But administering and scoring formative assessments is time consuming, meaning teachers often need to choose between having timely, instructionally relevant information and actually teaching their students. The complexity of data analysis can also leave teachers data-rich but insight-poor if they have no way to filter through and visualize the information that’s most relevant to planning instruction for their particular students.
Teachers need to implement flexible grouping to differentiate.
Small-group instruction allows teachers to differentiate more efficiently by working with students who have common needs at the same time, as research by Chambers and colleagues has shown. Effective, harmonious grouping requires determining not only which students are in similar zones but also if they have common interests and learning preferences and can get along together. And grouping is not a one-time event: groups should be reassembled flexibly as students learn more and their zones diverge.
Teachers need to identify resources to differentiate.
Last but not least, a challenge teachers may face with differentiated instruction is that it requires them to identify instructional resources that target skills at the level that each group or individual student should be working on while taking into account a variety of other student characteristics that are relevant to choosing effective instruction. Carol Ann Tomlinson's list includes “background experience, culture, language, gender, interests, readiness to learn, modes of learning, speed of learning, support systems for learning, self-awareness as a learner, confidence as a learner, independence as a learner, and a host of other ways.” Without an organized repository of resources available to them, teachers can spend an inordinate amount of time searching for supplemental Open Educational Resources (OERs) to meet student needs and interests—and OER materials typically do a poor job of providing guidance for differentiation.
Differentiated Instruction Strategies Using Technology
It’s no wonder that teachers find differentiating instruction a challenge! Instead of pre-planning and following a set instructional path, differentiation is a continuous cycle of evaluating needs, planning and delivering instruction around those needs, and re-evaluating progress to start the cycle over again.
While teachers must be at the center of this process, using technology to differentiate instruction can alleviate some of the burden, especially when it comes to saving time.
Technology can provide domain maps and potential learning pathways.
Digital and blended learning programs that rely on evidence-based maps of how students learn within a domain can help teachers better understand how current instructional goals relate to prior and future learning. For instance, HMH’s Into Math, Into Reading, Into Literature, and ¡Arriba la Lectura! core programs utilize learning spines that map out skills and knowledge in math and language arts from kindergarten through high school to help teachers track development over time.