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What Is Differentiated Instruction? - Strategies & Examples

Instructor: Esther Bouchillon

Esther has taught middle school and has a master's degree in gifted education.

In this lesson, we will explore the importance of differentiation and what differentiation is. We will also uncover main types of differentiation and some examples of differentiation in the classroom.

Differentiated Instruction

Imagine a group of unrelated people in a park ranger station seeking to go on a hike. Some people in the group love exploring the wildlife in nature, while others are terrified of bugs. A few people in the group are extremely athletic, but others are couch potatoes. The trail guide tells the group that they must all hike the same trail and stay together at all times. It would probably not be a very pleasant hike for anyone! The athletic people would be bored by the slow group pace while the couch potatoes would struggle to keep up. The wildlife enthusiasts would be annoyed by the constant screeches of the bug haters. Allowing the hikers to progress at their own pace on trails that fit their abilities and interests would make the experience much more enjoyable.

Students in a classroom are much like the hiking group. They have different interests and ability levels. If all students are required to complete the same assignments in the same amount of time, then some students will struggle while others may be bored. Differentiated instruction means all students are learning about the same topic, but the way they learn the information is different. Differentiating the curriculum allows all students to learn at the appropriate level.

Strategies for Differentiation

There are many different strategies that can be used when differentiating instruction, but they all usually require the teacher to pick a topic for a unit or lesson and then choose several different ways students could learn about the topic. The two main types of differentiation are ability-based differentiation and interest-based differentiation.

Generally, when differentiating based on ability, teachers choose which students will complete which activities. When differentiating based on interest, students can be allowed to choose which activity they want to complete. However, teachers can put restrictions on student choice to ensure that a student does not pick the same type of project all year.

Differentiating Based on Ability

When using ability-based differentiation, the lesson topic is usually divided into three different levels loosely based on Bloom's Taxonomy.

The taxonomy pyramid

Activities in level one relate to students' conceptual knowledge and understanding of the topic. Vocabulary activities and basic comprehension tasks are commonly assigned to this category. For example, in a lesson on cell division, students may be instructed to make a children's book by drawing and labeling a picture for each stage of cell division.

The second level of ability-based differentiation includes applying and analyzing. A student at this level may be assigned a poster project comparing and contrasting how bacteria cells and human cells divide. Students may also be asked to analyze data or identify errors in an experiment.

The third and highest level focuses on creating, synthesizing, and evaluating information. Continuing with the cell division example, a student at this level may be tasked with designing a lab activity to determine which stage of cell division takes the longest amount of time using computer simulation software.

All of these students are learning about cell division and will end the lesson with an understanding of the stages of cell division. However, they are able to work at a pace and level that fits their abilities.

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