Because we’re all different, we all have a way we best learn to accomplish a goal, whether we’re learning a new language, a sport, or any other activity. Students have different ways of learning in the classroom, too. Tailoring instruction can help meet their diverse needs when delivered effectively.
Tony DelaRosa has been in education for almost 10 years, as an ELA and social studies teacher and later as a coach and consultant for various schools. He explains the importance of differentiated instruction: “Differentiated instruction is key because every student is different.” And when students know all the various ways to approach learning, they can achieve success.
The Importance of Differentiated Instruction
Differentiation is more than instruction, and teachers can differentiate their learning environment based on students’ readiness, interests, or social styles. The meaning of differentiation can vary among educators, and how teaching is differentiated can depend on many factors, such as grade level and subject. Regardless, from the students’ perspective, differentiated instruction provides choice and voice, and other benefits:
Differentiated instruction can improve student outcomes, as it did at Peak Charter Academy, a K–8 public charter school located outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. Parents and guardians wanted to see a change to meet students’ various needs. After differentiated instruction became the primary learning model, the performance of its teachers and students surpassed the district and state averages.
Differentiated instruction is student-centered and can provide challenging learning experiences. Shaped asked DelaRosa for his perspective on how differentiated instruction can increase engagement. He says, “Differentiated instruction increases student engagement because it meets them at their zone of proximal development (ZPD). Once you teach within someone’s ZPD, you have a stronger level of engagement, and therefore, more learning happens.”
Students will also be more engaged when working with people they trust. “Differentiated instruction,” DelaRosa continues, “also enables the teacher to build a stronger sense of trust because it encourages small-group instruction. If a student brings trauma, the smaller group allows you to hold space. From an equity standpoint, students with disabilities or learning variance require that small group for more time. Differentiated instruction is a win-win situation at school, where relational power matters most.”
“Differentiated instruction is key because every student is different.”
Effective instruction promotes inclusivity, considering how various students can engage with ideas differently based on their background and culture. Additionally, differentiation is as important for high-achieving students as it is for those who are striving. By responding to students’ cultures, interests, and learning profiles, the differentiated classroom becomes one where all students can feel included and find success.
Differentiated instruction provides a variety of entry points, so students who may seem to struggle with a skill or concept might provide teachers with more insight when asked to practice the skill or concept differently. Teachers can use this information, often gathered via differentiation done digitally, to adjust their teaching.
Differentiation and Adaptive Learning Examples
Adaptive learning technology can make differentiation easier for teachers since it provides data to help inform instruction. According to the Educator Confidence Report, educational technology, more generally, is transforming how teachers can make instruction individualized and differentiated. Using data to personalize learning and inform instruction can also help maximize teachers’ time.
Adaptive learning tools, like Waggle, create a personalized learning path for every learner by customizing based on unique strengths, weaknesses, and learning goals. These tools respond and customize as students engage, and teachers can determine the progress students make toward skills proficiency. Waggle includes educational games to make learning goals more fun to achieve, and more broadly, gamification in education is a reliable way to make learning engaging across grades and subjects.
Writable is another example of an EdTech tool embedded with personalized features that help students become stronger writers. Personalized feedback on students’ writing, for example, can be AI-generated. Cognitive scientist Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal and veteran teacher Patrice M. Bain explain in their book Powerful Teaching how real-time feedback saves teachers time by allowing students to improve their grammar, structure, and overall writing earlier on before grading.
Tips from an Educator
DelaRosa shared with Shaped five tips for differentiated instruction in the classroom that decenters the teacher and can be adapted across subjects:
- Learning Stations: This is a classic example of differentiated instruction. To decenter the teacher, you can frontload the instructions for each station and ensure the directions and materials are reposted at the station.
- Task Cards: Task cards assign roles for every student in a small group. Some class examples pertaining to an ELA assignment could be A) the scribe, B) the question reader and synthesizer, C) the researcher, and D) the presenter. This can be a rotating card deck, so each student gets to practice a different skill. Task cards are a way to differentiate instruction while having everyone engage with the same overall activity.
- Reflection through Journal/Voice/Video Recording: Create an aspect of the class that allows students to reflect on their learning through journaling, video, or voice recording to help students who are verbal processors crystalize their learning. This strategy differentiates instruction by providing students with a choice in how to show and reflect on their learning.
- Clay or Modeling Compound: When doing a review day, you can assign different concepts that students need to refer to and have them create a clay construction of the learning. Then after the group creates their model, have another group interpret the model with a few words. This helps foster and stretch students’ imaginations, but in an objective way, and is also a way to engage students who better express themselves artistically.
- Student Teacher: The best learning is when the student can teach or synthesize a lesson. If you allow students to take over, this does so many things: 1) it allows for them to see themselves as the leader, 2) it practices eustress (good stress) and sharpens confidence, and 3) it helps students build their public communication skills. This strategy can challenge students who understand a concept to explain it clearly and concisely. Also, this gives students who are struggling with a concept a way to take part in the activity and hear a new perspective.
Differentiated instruction’s importance is undeniable as it can improve the learning outcomes for students. Differentiating instruction is more than helping students who are behind catch up. When instruction is differentiated, students can find ways to engage with the content and grow in their learning. A supportive learning community in schools, where teachers understand their students’ strengths, weaknesses, and interests, can help teachers differentiate their instruction.
For further reading on differentiated instruction, check out these resources:
Discover six strategies to deliver differentiated instruction for gifted students.
Check out the latest differentiated reading strategies to help you meet your students' diverse needs.
How do you make sure math learning is tailored to each of your students? Try these 7 strategies to differentiate math instruction in your classroom.
HMH Professional Learning provides coaching memberships to support differentiated instruction in the classroom. Learn More.
Katie Risolo Radovich
First-Grade Teacher, Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York