Here are some practical ideas for busy teachers who want to meet the different needs of students while managing the demands on their already busy schedules.
Differentiated instruction means nothing when every student is told to finish the same 15 problems with instructions such as, "Complete the odd-numbered problems, numbers 1 through 30." A better approach is the homework menu.
"OK, I did this 5 times. Why do I have to do it 15 times?"
These are the very students, by the way, who are going to fail a class despite having passed the final exam. They know the material but did not finish their homework assignments.
Differentiated instruction, in brief, begins with differentiated homework and assessment.
If the homework menu makes sense, then why not expand the concept to an assessment menu. One concept I've used is a menu that allows students to accumulate points in a variety of different ways.
Differentiated assessment is certainly not a mechanism for lowering expectations for students. Rather, it is a strategy to encourage every student to meet the same rigorous standards in different ways. In addition, differentiated assessment will save teachers, students, and parents from spending time on tasks that are boring, inappropriate, or excessively challenging.
Andrew Miller offers up concrete examples of how teachers can differentiate through PBL. He includes: differentiation through teams, reflection and goal setting, mini-lessons, centers and resources, voice and choice in products, differentiation through formative assessments, and balancing teamwork with individual work.
Project-based learning (PBL) naturally lends itself to differentiated instruction. By design, it is student-centered, student-driven, and gives space for teachers to meet the needs of students in a variety of ways. PBL can allow for effective differentiation in assessment as well as daily management and instruction.
1. Differentiate Through Teams
Are you differentiating for academic ability? Are you differentiating for collaboration skills? Are you differentiating for social-emotional purposes? Are you differentiating for passions?
2. Reflection and Goal Setting
Throughout the project, students should be reflecting on their work and setting goals for further learning. This is a great opportunity for them to set personalized learning goals and for you to target instruction specific to the goals they set.
3. Mini-Lessons, Centers, and Resources
Perhaps you offer mini-lessons or center work to support your students' learning, or maybe you show students a variety of resources from which to learn, including videos, games, and readings.
Not all students may need the mini-lesson, so you can offer or demand it for the students who will really benefit.
4. Voice and Choice in Products
Another essential component of PBL is student voice and choice, both in terms of what students produce and how they use their time.
"How can I allow for voice and choice here?"
5. Differentiate Through Formative Assessments
as you check for understanding along the way, you can formatively assess in different ways when appropriate.
6. Balance Teamwork and Individual Work
We want to leverage collaboration as much as content. However, there are times when individual instruction and practice may be needed. You need to differentiate the learning environment because some students learn better on their own, and others learn better in a team. In fact, we all need time to process and think alone just as much as we need time to learn from our peers. Make sure to balance both so that you are supporting a collaborative environment while allowing time to meet students on an individual basis.
It is impossible for a single teacher to provide 35 unique individual learning opportunities for every learning objective, so as a result, we do the next best thing; we clump student-learning needs into related categories and get as close as we can. If we are able to do three different categories, we feel that we are doing great -- hard, medium, and easy.
Differentiating content includes using various delivery formats such as video, readings, lectures, or audio. Content may be chunked, shared through graphic organizers, addressed through jigsaw groups, or used to provide different techniques for solving equations.
Process is how students make sense of the content. They need time to reflect and digest the learning activities before moving on to the next segment of a lesson.
Processing helps students assess what they do and don't understand. It's also a formative assessment opportunity for teachers to monitor students' progress.
For example, having one or two processing experiences for every 30 minutes of instruction alleviates feelings of content saturation.
The key to product options is having clear academic criteria that students understand. When products are cleanly aligned to learning targets, student voice and choice flourish, while ensuring that significant content is addressed.
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