Robyn Jackson

President

Washington, DC

Interests: Professional...

  • Posted 6 Years ago
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Are You Making these Four Differentiated Instruction Mistakes?

If we truly want to help ALL students meet or master the standards, we must provide effective differentiation for our students. However, over the years, several practices have crept into the way we differentiate lessons that actually make student success LESS likely. The following are four practices that actually interfere with effective differentiated instruction.

Creating multiple assignments rather than multiple pathways. Differentiation is not about the number of assignments you create; it's about giving students multiple pathways to success and then helping them choose the pathway that is best for them. Simply providing multiple assignments not only creates a lot of work for you, it can pigeonhole some students into lowered expectations and decreased opportunities to stretch and grow. Instead of creating different assignments, create ONE assignment and provide students several different pathways to success on that assignment (for more on planning differentiated lessons that rely on ONE assignment, check out The Differentiation Workbook for a lesson plan and process). By focusing on different supports rather than different assignments, you can better target students' needs and give them the scaffolding they need to reach success.

Differentiating by learning style versus learning needs. Not every lesson you give will accommodate students' preferred learning style - nor does every lesson need to. Our time is better spent examining students' particular learning needs for each assignment and using their learning needs to identify and provide the support and scaffolding they need to be successful. Learning styles are static while learning needs constantly change and shift depending on students' current content and procedural knowledge. Learning needs give you a much more accurate picture of where students are currently and what you must do to help them successfully master a range of standards and skills. From there you can create customized pathways and supports to help all students meet or exceed the standards.

Differentiating by achievement level rather than by students' current learning level. Some will tell you that there are three kinds of students - high, medium, and low. But this distinction is not very useful. There are times when a student you consider to be in your high group will struggle with the content. Other time, students in your low group will sail through an activity, outperforming the students in your high group. Because students bring a variety of skills and experiences to the classroom, classifying them as high, medium, and low doesn't really help you adjust your instruction effectively to meet their complex needs.  These static groupings also limit students.  Once you start thinking about students in these ways, it is difficult to see them any other way.  Differentiating by achievement level often results in lowered expectations for struggling students and extra work for advanced students. Lowering the target for some students while raising the learning target for others is not differentiation - it's tracking. Real differentiation takes into account where students are at a particular point in time. It doesn't label kids "low", "average," and "advanced"; it groups students by their current understanding of the content and processes involved in a particular learning activity and then provides students with the targeted supports they need to successfully master that activity.

Differentiating down rather than up. When we differentiate down, we tend to look for ways to "dumb down" an assignment to students' current learning level and hope that over time, they will begin working at the level demanded by the standards. In most cases, our efforts fall short. Differentiating up means starting with the standard and figuring out what supports students will need to reach the standard. All assignments are written at or above grade-level. We can offer students varying degrees of support and different routes to success but the target itself should never change.

By avoiding these mistakes, you can make your efforts at differentiation much more successful -- and much less stressful. Take a look at your differentiation practice and make sure that you are not unintentionally making things harder for both you and your students.

14 Comments

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Omaima_Khoury

12 Oct 11, 04:44 AM

This is a useful article as it opens our eyes to unseen mistakes, the ones that we do with good intentions but usually end up with frustrating results. When we are aware of these, our planning will be more effective. Thank you.
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Kimberly_Gillum

03 Aug 11, 08:25 PM

This article is very helpful.I am one of the teachers who handed out four assignments to a class. I wondered how this was helping my students get to the current level I teach. There was progres on the students level but not enough to be secure in the instructional level as the whole group.
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Shannon_Johnson

03 Aug 11, 11:03 AM

I like your point about differentiating at the student's achievement levels. I have found that my "lower" students will out perform my "advanced" students at different task.
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Robyn_Jackson

04 Mar 11, 03:22 PM

Michael, I meant that there AREN"T that many pervasive mistakes yet (except of course that we don't really explore the use of technology to aid differentiation to begin with...)
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Robyn_Jackson

04 Mar 11, 03:14 PM

Thanks Ramon!
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Robyn_Jackson

04 Mar 11, 03:13 PM

Michael, I didn't mention using technology because so few people have really tapped into ways to use technology to differentiate that there are that many pervasive mistakes yet ;-) But you're right. We do nee to talk about the do's and don't's of using technology in differentiation. Fodder for a follow up post!
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Michael_Fleischner

23 Feb 11, 03:55 PM

Robyn -

Thanks for providing such valuable suggestions related to differentiated instruction. As somone who lives and breathes differentiation, I concur that providing students with multiple pathways to success is essential. That is, if they are learning in a process and order that moves them through NAEPs cognitive targets and embeds reading comprehension best practices. I feel that some level of consistency, when known to improve literacy, is important across all students.

I was surprised that you didn't mention the use of technology to support a teacher's need to differentiate. Doing so permits students at different levels and with different needs to focus on a single topic - allowing them to engage in classroom discussion and learning.

Thanks for the great post! Michael H. Fleischner - VP, Achieve3000
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Falando_Boone

22 Feb 11, 06:57 PM

Hi Robyn:

Your points are well taken! Dr. Tomlinson mention the definition of differentiated instruction is when one differentiate instruction based on students learning needs, style, and based on what is developmentally appropriate for each student. So understanding your students learning styles or multiple intelligencies are helpful in delivering instructions to students in order to meet their needs.

Nice post!

Ramon
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Robyn_Jackson

20 Feb 11, 11:33 PM

Christine, thanks for the link! Eunice, I think I fixed the link but if not, it's www.mindstepsinc.com/differentiation. Heidi, thanks so much!
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Christine_Johnston

20 Feb 11, 10:44 AM

Robyn, there is one more mistake that is made when doing differentiation. The mistake is that teachers believe THEY are in charge of learning when. in fact, it is the learner who is. Therefore, truly effective differentiation begins with the learner communicating how he/she is perceiving and "experiencing" the learning task at-hand. Only student led differentiation works! Only student led differentiation leads to deep learning adn engagement. Successful learning in the classroom is not always about what the teacher does. Successful learning begins with how well the learner understands his/her Learning Processes, decodes the task at hand, and communicates with his/her peers and teacher what he/she needs to make the connection between the unknown and the unknown, the understood and the misunderstood. Differentiation is about the learner; it's the learner who needs to lead it! Check out www.letmelearn.org to learn more about the difference between teacher led differentiation and student led differentiation.
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Michelle_Young

20 Aug 12, 07:02 PM

As a teacher who attempts to fully embrace differentiation in my classroom, I do offer different assignments, but those assignments always come after the objective and the last option always allows students the opportunity to meet the objective in another way if my ways are not suitable for them. I find that by ninth grade students have been told what to do and how to do it for so long that it takes time for them to fully enjoy differentiation because they are comfortable being told what to do.
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Heidi_Hayes_Jacobs

19 Feb 11, 03:08 PM

Robyn, as always not only do you make good sense but you clarify points by using "rather than" and "versus". The consequences of our instructional choices are evident in your examples. Reading your post is a useful reminder of how easy it is to fall prey to old habits of teaching as opposed to more deliberate considerations when attempting to differentiate.
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Eunice_Tan

18 Feb 11, 06:41 PM

the link for the differentiation workbook doesn't seem to work...
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Linda_Iza

18 Feb 11, 02:53 PM

This article is right on track especially when we are thinking about our ELLs by adding the supports and strategies they need, we can insure that they meet standards. Thanks for sharing your expertise!
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