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The more we learn about education, the more we realize the limitations of the traditional “one size fits all” teaching and learning model. Studies have shown that “passive” lectures are notably less effective than “active” ones.

Alternative teaching and learning models are becoming increasingly popular and yielding positive results. One particular framework worth exploring is differentiated instruction. In this guide, we will explain what differentiated instruction is and how it can be used to create positive learning outcomes.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Author and speaker Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia, is a leader in the differentiated instruction field. Tomlinson describes the concept as “ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.”

Practically speaking, the framework entails teaching the same educational content to a larger number of learners (typically a class) but using different methods to teach each learner, often at the same time.

Differentiated instruction not only benefits students who struggle with traditional models—for example, students with learning disabilities—but benefits students across the spectrum of academic ability.

Of course, it is well-known that there are various learning styles, such as visual, kinesthetic, and auditory. While a more traditional teaching model might see an educator delivering a lecture verbally to an entire class, differentiated instruction would broaden the methods of teaching to suit each learning style. Examples of this include facilitating group discussions and designing puzzles to solve.

In the adult world, this variety of learning styles is reflected in the variety of job sectors—for example, the skills required for software development vs. manufacturing are very different!

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Tomlinson’s influential framework for differentiated instruction includes four key elements that can be differentiated:

Content: the material and information taught to learners.
Instruction: the methods by which this material and information are taught.
Product: the desired result produced by students to prove (and assist with) learning progress.
Environment: the physical space or spaces in which learners learn.

Though designed largely for practical purposes, the increasingly popular blended learning model has been helpful for differentiated instruction. For example, certain students or groups can be in the classroom while others work in the library, other locations, or even from home. As long as classes can work out how to join a meeting virtually, distance is no obstacle.

The Advantages of Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction provides many advantages, including the following:

Increase in learner engagement: Differentiated instruction typically includes more “active” tasks. With differentiated instruction, learners can feel more connected to their learning than they typically do with a traditional, more passive approach.
Improved learning outcomes: As traditional models give an advantage to students who learn best through listening to a teacher speak, this puts students with different learning styles at a disadvantage. Differentiated instruction can improve outcomes across the spectrum of learning styles and academic ability.
Reduced behavior problems: When engagement increases, learners become more focused on and invested in their learning, and less likely to become disruptive. This can reduce the need for discipline and behavior management.

Despite these advantages, many institutions remain invested in traditional models. In part, this is because planning differentiated instruction strategies can often be more complex and time-consuming than traditional methods, especially due to this lack of institutional support and potential pushback from parents.

How Technology Can Help You Plan a Differentiated Instruction Strategy

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Differentiated instruction can sometimes be challenging due to logistical constraints. One of the main reasons traditional “one size fits all” methods remain popular is the comparative ease of planning. Thankfully, these obstacles can be overcome.

Educators can differentiate instruction without creating an unmanageable workload, by removing unnecessary aspects of traditional models and utilizing technologies to streamline processes.

For example, the use of online content such as video and audio clips is effective and simple. It also frees up time to focus on other tasks such as choosing tasks and groups, classroom management, and continual assessment.

Developments in rapid eLearning have also reduced the time it takes to create online courses, while assessment can also be carried out more quickly with technology such as LMSs (or Learning Management Systems).

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Strategies for Differentiated Instruction

Wondering how to implement differentiated instruction in your classroom? Here are a few key strategies:

Separation of Classes or Groups

Many studies have shown that engagement with educational content is higher when learners are in smaller groups, rather than the larger groups we might see in a typical lecture theater. In smaller groups, students are more able to help each other and be helped via discussions.

A simple, established example of differentiated instruction is the separation of learners into different classes based on ability (which is often measured by grading, assessments, and previous academic performance).

While this is now standard procedure in most educational institutions, there are other ways this can be carried out within the classroom itself and tailored towards different learning styles rather than broadly-defined categories of “ability”. Instead of “ability”, learners can be separated into groups based on their learning styles. These groups can be flexible or fixed, depending on the specifics of the activity.

The environment can often be tailored to each group, for instance:

Learners who engage best with external stimuli carrying out group work in an outdoor setting
Individuals prone to distraction working in quiet spaces or even alone.
Making space for learners to move around rather than expecting them to remain seated
Providing a range of tools that can be chosen at will depending on how they learn, rather than requiring everyone to work the same way

An effective strategy for group work can be to separate learners based on learning style, and choose the most suitable location for each to work.

Technology has certainly broken down some of the traditional barriers to effective division of classes into small groups. With the ability to host a high-definition conference call from almost any location, there may be no need for all students to be in the same physical classroom at all times to communicate with each other when needed.

Setting Different Tasks

Setting different tasks for different learners can be a particularly effective way of increasing engagement. Different tasks can be set for each group—for example, visual learners can read textbooks or watch videos while auditory learners can listen to a talk.

Alternatively, each student could choose their own task and be sorted into groups based on the selected task. “Choice boards”—which display different options for learners to choose—are a popular method that enables learners to carry out the task best suited to their learning style.

For example, learners or groups could be given the choice between reading a chapter of a textbook individually, taking it in turns to read out loud in a group, or even watching a video clip or documentary on the topic.

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Making sure that educational content is available in multiple formats (e.g., text, video and audio clips, physical demonstrations, etc.) can increase its accessibility. Interactive media such as quizzes can also be useful, particularly for kinesthetic learners.

Gamification can be a powerful tool here—interactive educational games are accessible on many sites and LMSs. Gamification can also be used at the classroom level, such as setting up competition between groups.

When tasks are to create a specific “product” to display understanding of a topic, these products can vary. For example:

Visual learners can draw or create diagrams explaining their understanding of the material
Auditory learners can deliver an oral presentation
Kinesthetic learners can perform a short skit or build a model to display.

Tasks and products can also be differentiated by complexity to match learners’ abilities. This method is commonly known as “tiered assignments”. An example of this would be students not only being instructed to choose between a written book report or oral presentation, but higher ability students also being required to go into more detail than lower ability students.

Varying Your Involvement

An advantage of separating learners into groups is varying your level of involvement with each. Students who require more assistance can be prioritized, while other students can be given more independence and freedom to use their initiative.

The ability for educators to direct attention where most needed can actually make differentiated lessons less demanding than traditional models!

For learners who require more help, a method called “compacting” can be useful. Compacting is where individual students are assessed for their knowledge and learning style, and bespoke learning plans created for them.

Setting Learning Contracts

In addition to bespoke learning plans, learning contracts can also effectively tailor learning objectives to students and improve outcomes. Learning contracts can be used to set expectations, choose methods, and encourage personal responsibility for learning.

For younger learners, parental involvement can help tailor personalized contracts, especially for blended learning when it takes place at learners’ homes. Technology can increase the possibility of this—for example, using a VoIP service for video meetings with parents when face-to-face meeting is impossible.

An Example Strategy

An example (but not the only one!) of using differentiated instruction in the classroom could look like the following:

Giving the whole class a brief introduction to a topic
Letting each student choose between reading source material, watching a video clip, or playing an interactive game on the topic
Separating students into groups based on chosen task
Instructing each group to produce a presentation in a format based on their learning style
Each presentation being delivered to the whole class

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, whatever strategy you choose, ongoing assessment is essential for the best outcomes. You may not find the perfect plan the first time, but you can constantly improve and tailor your methods by regularly assessing them and making adjustments.