What Is Differentiated Instruction? - Examples, Definition & Activities

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Marin Carlson
This lesson explores the concept of differentiated instruction and how this approach to teaching takes into account the differences between learners and modifies instruction to meet the needs of all students. After completing the lesson, take the short quiz that follows.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Imagine being in a college literature class. The professor decides to do a quick assessment of the class' understanding of the use of symbolism in the novel to determine whether they are ready to move on to the next objective. She hands out a piece of blank paper and a pencil to all students and asks each of you to draw a picture to express your understanding of the novel's symbolism.

How would the students respond? The gifted artists in the class would get right to work. The non-artistic might protest, saying that their product could not possibly represent their understanding of the content. Others might give it a try but fall short. Others might decide not to try at all. How fair would that task seem to you?

This scenario illustrates how using a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction, such as a lecture to the whole class or the same writing assignment for everyone, puts a number of students at a disadvantage. They are likely being taught and tested using a format at which they do not excel. In these situations, the presentation of the information and the way mastery is assessed by the teacher leaves some students looking like they have not understood the content.

Think about how most people's drawings would have turned out. How would your class of college students have responded if they had been allowed to select from a menu of choices: drawing, essay, PowerPoint presentation, or a lecture delivered to the class?

Differentiated instruction (DI) involves giving students choices about how to learn and how to demonstrate their learning, evening the playing field for everyone. Differentiated instruction is the way in which a teacher anticipates and responds to a variety of students' needs in the classroom.

To meet students' needs, teachers differentiate by modifying the content (what is being taught), the process (how it is taught) and the product (how students demonstrate their learning). Having choice helps boost student engagement in the task.

Differentiated Instruction Compared to Traditional Instruction

DI is an approach that takes its philosophy from the root of its name: different. Every classroom of 25 students has 25 different combinations of personality, interests, learning styles and background knowledge about that content area. A differentiated classroom would present students with choices in terms of how to learn a concept, how to practice that concept, and how to show the teacher they know it. The planning is more time-consuming, but DI is widely considered best practice as it seeks to meet the needs of all students.

Let's take a look at some examples in the classroom:

Ms. Jones is preparing a math lesson. In a traditional classroom, she might assign the odd-numbered problems from the textbook and all the students would complete them during class. In a differentiated classroom, the same math concepts would be covered, but instead of working from the textbook, students would break up into three groups and rotate through three centers: one where the math problems are presented visually in a traditional way, one using manipulatives, and one focusing on creating a story to solve the problem.

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