Differentiated Instruction in the General Classroom Setting

Quite possibly the biggest buzzword to hit the public education circuit since the eighties is differentiated instruction.  Differentiated instruction, also called differentiation, refers to any shift a teacher makes to adjust instruction for differences in student learning.  For example:  If Timmy, Suzy and Biff are struggling to keep up with the rest of the class in a lesson, and the teacher adjusts the lesson in a manner that gives Timmy, Suzy and Biff a different learning opportunity to better match their learning needs in order to master the same concepts as everyone else, that teacher has differentiated his or her instruction for those students.

Differentiation also may be the single most difficult task for teachers to pull off. There have even been articles written that claim that differentiation is impossible or doesn’t work.  If planning and preparing four, five or six lessons each day for twenty or more students is not difficult enough, add to that extra activities and scaffolds for students who are struggling to keep up, and then add to that some more extra activities and extensions for students who are cruising past the rest of the class and are on the verge of boredom.  

In a class of twenty or so students there will include some who struggle, as well as a few who might be especially swift learners.  A lesson might meet the needs of the majority of students, but some students are not being effectively educated.  The No Child Left Behind Act implied in its very name that it is the teacher’s responsibility to address the needs of not just the majority, but every learner.  This differentiation trend is predominant today.  Principals expect their teachers to differentiate to meet the needs of every learner in the classroom.   

It is not likely this trend will change any time soon.  While the No Child Left Behind Act has been replaced, the new Every Student Succeeds Act implies the same expectation, again, in its very name.  Teachers and schools must differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all learners.  Differentiation in the classroom is possible, but not an easy task.  Where differentiation is happening, it is not always super effective.  

Blaming teachers for not effectively differentiating is pointless, akin to blaming the customer service agent for a product that doesn’t work.  There is plenty of literature out there devoted to giving teachers ideas for differentiating their lessons, and differentiation is a big part of most teacher training and professional development. But that doesn’t make effective differentiation less difficult to pull off in the classroom. It takes technique, it takes practice, it takes planning, perseverance, and it takes patience.  A lot of patience.  Many professionals teach for years before they discover ways to effectively differentiate their lessons, and others fail at it repeatedly. It is common, for instance, to focus a lot of attention on struggling learners, and neglect the rest of the class.  

I had been teaching for a number of years before an instructional coach gave me some terrific advice.  She told me: “Put a table in the middle of the room, and sit there when students are doing independent or group work.  Let them know they can come to you for assistance.  When you have a waiting line at the table, send them back to their seats and reteach the concept to the whole class.”  That didn’t make me an instant expert differentiator, but it gave me a valuable system for multi-tasking…  I could work with struggling students and monitor the whole class at the same time (just as long as I was positioned in a way that allowed me to see everybody).  It was a lot better than zipping around the room trying to get to everyone who had his or her hand up.  It was a simple tip from a veteran teacher that really helped me.  It allowed me to differentiate more effectively.

But it was still a major challenge to meet everyone’s needs in the classroom.  In math, a student might excel in one area, such as geometry, and struggle in another, like algebraic concepts.  Geometry and algebra are often intertwined, but they are two completely different types of mathematics, and in order for a math teacher to know his or her learners, one has to know who is strong and who is weak in every aspect of the mathematics he or she teaches.  The same is true of other content areas.  Science has many subcategories, as does reading and social studies.  The same is also true of art and music and physical education.  Meeting the needs of every exceptional student requires constant monitoring and lesson adjustment, as well as pacing.  

I launched The Unrealized Maine Classroom nine weeks ago in an effort to start a conversation about what it takes to infuse excellence and innovation in the lessons taught in public schools in Maine and elsewhere.  There are some exciting possibilities of what can happen in the public education setting, and some teachers have found ways to pull it off.  The sacrifices that are made in so many of those cases are extraordinary.  Planning that special lesson that really inspires and engages students can take hours and hours of work, beyond a typical eight hour work day, and far beyond what is allotted for planning time during the contractual work day. Personally speaking, when I think of the most exciting lessons I taught, the most engaging, hands-on, outside-the-box lessons, where students collaborated to design and build things, questioned each other, made giant athletic-field sized mathematical models, calculated acceleration rates in the hallway, predicted sales trends and matched them with real time data… Those lessons took enthusiasm on my part to plan, and a lot of time, and trial and error.  Some of them never quite worked out the way I wanted them to.  In those cases, there were some that I never had a chance to go back to the drawing board and revise.  

Differentiating instruction eats up planning time just like finding ways to engage students in their learning does.   We want Maine children to come home from school with new knowledge, new curiosities and budding interests.  We want students to feel like their brains were activated during the school day.  We want to activate neural pathways to build greater understanding and better problem solving abilities. Orchestrating that alone is a full time job!  Executing it is another.  Yet we continue a somewhat archaic tradition of asking teachers to teach lessons back to back almost all day long, with an average of 45 minutes to an hour of professional planning and prep time, total.  Many teachers experience that only on certain days of the week, and have no planning or prep time at all some days.  This is something I experienced in three separate school districts.  

Engaging and inspiring students in their learning is essential in today’s world, if we want to send students home with a net gain in knowledge and understanding of the material we teach.  And differentiating our instruction to meet the needs of every learner is just as essential, if we hope to provide every student with opportunities to be engaged and inspired in their learning.   

Maine is as economically diverse as almost any state in the country, and that means our students come to us with all kinds of life experiences and backgrounds.  As a commenter on a recent post noted, some of these students arrive in our classrooms wondering when their next meal will be, and others wonder where they will be sleeping that night.  Some students show up to kindergarten having spent very little time outdoors, but no shortage of time spent in front of a screen.  Others have never been read to.  Some students show up on the first day of kindergarten with advanced social awareness, and having played counting games with dice and cards and having already learned some essential reading skills.  From day one in kindergarten through the last days of high school, a typical classroom in Maine is likely populated with dramatically different learners.  Many teachers will tell you the learners in their classrooms span “multiple grade levels,” even when everyone is technically in the same grade.  

Teachers aim to engage every student, including the outliers on both ends of the achievement spectrum.   Most work really hard at it.  It is heartbreaking for a teacher to see a student in his or her classroom is not being engaged or is not benefitting from the learning experience.  Sometimes, a teacher will successfully reach an impressive spectrum of learners in a single lesson, but still not reach all learners.  It is an achievement in itself to differentiate a lesson for most learners, but when one student is not engaged, from a teacher’s perspective, it feels like failure.   

Professional development devoted to the topic of differentiation is great, and we need more of it.  But one of the reasons professional development so often seems futile to teachers, is there is so rarely time to process the new teaching techniques, and to put them into meaningful action.   

When one takes a graduate academic course, there are usually days between each session to digest what was discussed or lectured during the class session, and there are homework assignments to dig deeper into the academic content.  This collegiate format for teaching and learning is an adequate model.  Even if the course is taught in an old fashioned lecture format, students are taking notes and listening, and likely observing a visual display.  That is active learning!  Listening, writing, watching. You’ve got my attention, anyway.  Professional development is often delivered the same way, which is understandable.  Most adults in the teaching profession should be capable of listening, taking notes, viewing a Power Point display and reading handouts.  But when the professional development has ended, teachers go right back to work planning their next lessons for the next day.  There is little to no time to reflect, little to no time for further research, and little to no time to incorporate new techniques into future instruction.  There is just so much going on during a school week, namely teaching five back to back lessons every day, that teachers can’t fit reflection time in their schedule.  So we just trudge onward, and hope to retain some of the big ideas.    

Putting together a lecture, like planning elementary or middle school lessons, takes a lot of planning.  I remember the biology lecture course I had during my first year in college back in the 90’s, and it amazed me how much information was being dispensed in each lecture, and how detailed the slideshow was that accompanied the lecture.  There was absolutely no differentiating going on.  There was no formative assessment mid-lecture to check for understanding among the three hundred of us out in the auditorium.  It was a slide show and a lecture.  We watched, listened and took notes.  Eventually we took a test.  

The biology lectures were fifty minutes long, three days a week.  I have no idea how dense a course load the lecturers in that class had (there were two of them, esteemed, published professors, who took turns delivering the lecture), but it would be unheard of for a college biology professor to teach, say, Intro to Biology at 8:00, Microbiology at 8:55, Advanced Microbiology at 9:50, have a “prep period” at 11:00, then another section of Intro to Biology at 11:55, followed by a 25 minute lunch at 12:50, and then Anatomy and Physiology at 1:15, and then have that exact same schedule the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that.  

That would never happen, because that would be crazy.

Yet we assign that exact schedule to our public school teachers, with an even more diverse set of subjects to teach to a much more challenging population of students, and we ask them to differentiate those lessons.  

Teachers should be differentiating their lessons, and there should be high quality professional development for teachers devoted to differentiated instruction.  But when one considers the degree of differentiation that is necessary in most Maine classrooms, and how much time and careful consideration differentiated instruction requires, and how very little time (if any) is allotted for such consideration, one should begin to understand why truly effective differentiated instruction is a rare phenomenon in our public schools.

Adequate professional time for lesson planning and preparation is a recurring theme in The Unrealized Maine Classroom posts.  So many amazing things could be happening if teachers were allotted substantially more planning and preparation time between the lessons they teach, and that includes planning  for effective differentiated instruction.

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James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.