The Problem with Differentiated Instruction

Differentiation

Apr 04

​When you hear the phrase “Differentiated Instruction” what comes to mind first?

If you’re like many of the teachers and administrators I work with, you’re probably thinking…

…Multiple assignments
…Extra lesson planning
…More work (for the teacher not the students)
…Learning styles, multiple intelligences, and learning modalities
…Dumbing down


It’s a shame really.

Differentiated Instruction is a way to make the learning accessible to all students, and yet, over the years, it has become so weighted down by prescribed methodologies that it has become little more than an extra box to check on a lesson plan.

But here’s the truth:

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 common differentiation practices have evolved that actually make student success LESS likely.

The following are four differentiation 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. 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.

​[NOTE: For more on planning differentiated lessons that rely on ONE assignment, check out The Differentiation Workbook for a lesson plan and process.]

The Differentiation Workbook


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 can be static while learning needs constantly change and shift depending on students' current content and procedural knowledge. ​Focusing on learning needs gives 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. ​

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, even 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 a student's 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 in order to reach the standard. All assignments are written at or above grade-level. Differentiation occurs when you find various supports to help students reach or exceed the standard. We can offer students varying degrees of support and different routes to success but the target itself should never change.

There is a better way to differentiate your instructional practice. Next time, I’ll show you exactly what that is and how you can use it to seamlessly incorporate differentiated instruction into every lesson you teach.

Now share in the comments below other differentiation practices you’ve noticed that are actually hurting, not helping students.

When you hear the phrase “Differentiated Instruction” what comes to mind first?

If you’re like many of the teachers and administrators I work with, you’re probably thinking…

…Multiple assignments
…Extra lesson planning
…More work (for the teacher not the students)
…Learning styles, multiple intelligences, and learning modalities
…Dumbing down

It’s a shame really.

Differentiated Instruction is a way to make the learning accessible to all students, and yet, over the years, it has become so weighted down by prescribed methodologies that it has become little more than an extra box to check on a lesson plan.

But here’s the truth:

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 common differentiation practices have evolved that actually make student success LESS likely.

The following are four differentiation practices that actually interfere with effective differentiated instruction.


<strong>Creating multiple assignments rather than multiple pathways</strong>. 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 <a href="http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?llr=bh96b5bab&amp;et=1104481419469&amp;s=0&amp;e=0010B2UE0eEuiGPLVnPO4veamib1r_MRJqJD7dEO_zuBuGaDPR8RlFBQg-DdXyxuHQtel0qrqE3qBzo5vFhlneRRqQjX-PbrEVVdZFBbs-Ub8vfvmYCKVkVemz9m_3QhKfV" target="_blank">The Differentiation Workbook</a> 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.

<strong>Differentiating by learning style versus learning needs</strong>. Not every lesson you give will accommodate students' preferred <a href="http://www.teach-nology.com/teachers/methods/multi_intelligences/">learning style</a> - 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. They 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. (For more on creating customized learning pathways for students, check out our workshop <a href="https://www.mindstepsinc.com/differentiated-instruction-for-teachers/">From Differentiation to Customization</a>).

<strong>Differentiating by achievement level rather than by students' current learning level</strong>. 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.

<strong>Differentiating down rather than up</strong>. 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.

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