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Differentiated Instruction

What is differentiated Instruction?
Differentiated instruction is a philosophy more than a set of strategies. Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.

At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction. (Carol Ann Tomlinson)

Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

  • Content – what the student needs or wants to learn or how the student will get access to the information;
  • Process – activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content;
  • Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and 
  • Learning environment– the way the classroom works and feels.

Please note that effective differentiation is not:

  • a one size fits all approach
  • giving bright students more work and struggling students less work
  • devising 20 different lesson plans for 20 different students
  • dumbing down the curriculum
  • a formulaic approach to instruction

In order to differentiate instruction, AISL teachers:

  • Know their students- this includes languages, nationality, culture, interests, learning preferences, prior knowledge, background information
  • Know the curriculum- teachers need to know the essential concepts, knowledge and skills students need to learn. They also need to be clear about why the students need to know these.
  • Develop a range of effective strategies- strategies should be research based and chosen explicitly to meet the need of the students you know.
  • Use effective assessment- choose from a range of formative and summative assessments to inform your instruction and the student’s learning.

Six Strategies that AISL Teachers Use to Differentiate Instruction:

1. Flexible Grouping: Students collaborate in pairs and small groups whose membership changes as needed. Learning in groups enables students to be challenged appropriately based on their interest and ability and to observe and learn from one another.

2. Choice: Teachers offer students choice in the tasks and projects they complete, which are aligned with learning goals. By negotiating with students, teachers can create motivating assignments that meet students’ diverse needs and varied interests.

3. Ongoing, Formative Assessment: Teachers continually assess to identify students’ strengths and areas of need so they can meet students where they are and help them move forward

4. Scaffolding: When teachers scaffold instruction, they typically break up a learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then give students the assistance they need to learn each part based on their ability and learning needs.

5. Independent Work: Students work independently on different tasks and projects suited to their interests and abilities in order to achieve learning goals.

6. Pre-Assessment: Teachers design and administer pre-assessments to determine a student’s knowledge, understanding and skill prior to the unit of study. Teachers use the results of these assessments to tailor instruction to meet student needs and prevent covering material that students already know. 

Other Instructional Strategies
Below are links to resources utilized by AISL faculty that provide a wide variety of instructional strategies that support differentiation and student engagement in the classroom. Most of these strategies can be adjusted to meet the developmental needs of students. 

Instructional Strategies that Support Differentiation
You may click here to access a helpful list of strategies that support differentiation. These strategies have been modifed and expanded to support Gregory and Chapman's "Six Step Planning Model for Differentiating Instruction" and can be used across grade levels and curriculum. 

Visible Thinking
You may click here to view a collection of instructional strategies and thinking routines that promote student engagement and support differentiation at all grade levels. Visible Thinking is a research-based approach to teaching thinking, begun at Harvard's Project Zero, that develops students' thinking dispositions, while at the same time deepening their understanding of the topics they study. Rather than a set of fixed lessons, Visible Thinking is a varied collection of practices, including thinking routines small sets of questions or a short sequence of steps as well as the documentation of student thinking. 

Final Comment
Differentiation is not easy; it is complicated and time consuming. A teacher is able to differentiate instruction more effectively when s/he works with colleagues to brainstorm, plan, implement, review and reflect. Consequently, AISL teachers are deeply committed to collaborating with colleagues who teach in their department, grade level, team, etc. 

© American International School of Lusaka

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