Sprig Learning believes that every child is truly unique with their own learning gifts, strengths and challenges. Naturally, we endorse differentiated instruction, or differentiated learning, as a teaching method. It is the act of varying instruction based on the needs and progress of groups of students. When customized for just one student, it is known as individualized instruction.
Multiple studies prove the efficiency of differentiated or individualized instruction. It is starkly different to whole group instruction, which is the traditional way of teaching to the whole class, instead of groups or individuals.
It’s a lot to ask a program or an educator to introduce or change their current curriculum or teaching practice to adopt new content or teaching methods. One of the benefits of differentiated instruction is that it doesn’t require teachers to implement a complete overhaul. Differentiated instruction only requires that one of the following elements be modified to suit the needs of the student group: teaching content, process, assessments or environment.
There are many ways to vary these elements, it’s likely you already employ the concept of differentiated instruction at some level.
Some of the most popular teaching methods in preschools and kindergarten—such as the hands-on approach, cooperative learning, conference learning and play-based learning—are not mutually exclusive. Mixing and matching them is one form of differentiated instruction. The educator sees what type of learning certain groups of students are most receptive to, and modifies instruction for that group to optimize their learning.
Need for Effort and Seeing the Benefits of Differentiated Instruction
Of course, everytime you modify an aspect of teaching, it requires planning and effort. There is also the aspect of follow up thereafter, to see if the varied instruction had its intended effect on the students.
It’s why understanding the benefits of differentiated instruction is crucial. With proper understanding, greater clarity is achieved on why there is a need to differentiate.
For this article, we browsed through both industry and academic literature to gather all the benefits of differentiated instruction. Each benefit is matched with a strategy. The benefits can be realized by following the respective strategy.
Differentiated Instruction Benefits & Strategies to Realize Them
Addresses Learning Gaps
Differentiated instruction is effective at providing appropriate instruction to students with a wide range of abilities. Some young students learn very quickly, while others need more time to learn and absorb specific concepts. Differentiated instruction takes both speed and depth into account when tailoring instruction.
Strategy: When flexible grouping and self-selected reading time are used, targeted students are able to improve their phonemic, decoding and comprehension skills.
Considers Both Active and Passive Learning
As everything depends on the unique learning strengths and opportunities of the student in differentiated instruction, the differentiated instruction teaching method is very open to active learning, which is experiential in nature. Usually early learners prefer to engage more in play-based learning, but there are some who prefer a more informal learning.
Strategy: For active learners, teach outdoors as well as in the classroom. Scheduling a lot of movement breaks is considered a teaching best practice for early learners.
Caters to Individual Strengths
Young students have both learning strengths and challenges. If any course material or learning style does not consider learning strengths, then they are less likely to overcome learning gaps. It’s very common for students to struggle with certain concepts and skills, but by focusing on learning strengths, it is possible to unlock a child’s full potential.
Strategy: The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities indicates that one out of five children struggle with the process of learning to read. It is important to remind ourselves that there have been many studies conducted prior on this topic and that the evidence suggests that “teaching children to decode letters and words, incorporating a whole language technique, and utilizing phonics instruction” are useful for gaining reading proficiency.
Values Individual Interests and Abilities
Differentiated instruction is student-centered. Early learners inform educators how they best learn and what interests them. This is especially relevant in children from different linguistic and cultural communities. Relevant educator resources are needed to appeal to them.
Strategy: In a study involving 48 elementary school teachers where they documented lesson objectives and recorded pre- and post-differentiated instruction results, students felt greater ownership of the class content and their performances when they were given choices in how they wanted to learn and be assessed.
Does Not Neglect the Benefits of Group Learning
Differentiated learning is not the same as individualized learning, where learning takes place on a one-to-one basis. Differentiated learning can accommodate the individual learner as well, but it recognizes all the advantages of group learning where early learners can interact with their peers.
Strategy: Use the think-pair-share method where students conversate amongst themselves before sharing their ideas with the whole classroom.
Equally Qualitative and Quantitative
Differentiated instruction uses both qualitative and quantitative data to teach and assess early learners. When varying teaching content between differently skilled learners, it’s important to vary the difficulty of work. When assessing young students, it’s important to note all information about their learning environment.
Strategy: The whole basis of differentiated instruction is that not everyone is equally good at everything. Thus varying the length or quantity of assessment exercise or scaffolding the same learning activity into varied levels of difficulty are popular differentiation methods. While they are more tactics than strategy, they can be collectively looked at as a strategy.
Differentiated instruction has been proven to increase student engagement. Without active or passive participation, learning can often screech to a halt.
Strategy: In the same study mentioned prior for “Values Individual Interests and Abilities”, it was found that students were more “motivated to stay engaged” in classes when they had greater say in the course content and methods of assessments. They displayed higher energy levels.
Includes Comprehensive Assessment
In order to differentiate, there is no getting around the need for a holistic assessment. It’s interesting that a distinction is made between educating the “whole child” versus targeted learning. In reality, both can be combined where the right targeted learning can be applied only after understanding the whole child.
Strategy: Use holistic assessments to unleash a comprehensive understanding of student learning. Not only does this approach gather numerous data points when screening students to properly understand them, it also considers subsequent formative assessments that will be conducted on the basis of this initial understanding.
Ensures Flexibility for Teachers
The majority of this article is about students. But what about teachers? Differentiated instruction also takes educator preferences into account, where it provides them the opportunity to design lessons meant for particular groups of students. The approach is not restricted by a rigid curriculum, but can be creative in finding solutions of how to best teach the curriculum content to all students.
Strategy: Regardless of the learning approach chosen, it must consist of “respectful activities”. Carol Ann Tomlinson, an education innovator and teacher, considered to be the pioneer of differentiated instruction, uses that term to refer to activities that are not dull drills or just fluff. Students have to continually work on tasks that motivate them and are considered valuable.
Is Inclusive Towards All
Differentiated instruction is aware of the current inequity in education. Based on this understanding, it attempts to provide students a high-standard quality of education so students have the opportunities and resources to excel regardless of their background or circumstances.
Strategy: Depending on where your school is located, it’s important that the curriculum is reflective of the needs of the student body. When children see their culture and language reflected in classroom materials, they are more inclined to learn.
Assessment is Thorough and Ongoing
Differentiated instruction uses formative assessments to monitor the growth of all students. It’s often that a student’s interests change or that their improvement accelerates or decelerates over time. Thus, in between summative assessments such as yearly progress reports or report cards, it’s important to keep track of learning trajectories.
Strategy: Allow for do-overs when it comes to assessment. Sometimes young learners understand a concept but for whatever situational reason, may not be able to demonstrate that learning. In such instances, allowing them more chances to prove themselves before shifting anything else is worth exploring. It is an underutilized strategy.
Gels Well With Technology
Differentiated instruction is no doubt linked with collecting data. For years teachers have painstakingly collected notes on student files and organized them into folders. All of this takes time away from their actual teaching activities. Thanks to the ease of technology, all observatory notes, performance evaluations, and assessments can be stored electronically.
Strategy: Technology assisted self-paced learning is optimal for differentiation, but for early learning all such activities must be supervised by adults. Despite the advantages of gamification of learning, it’s better that learning happens offscreen but that adults (teachers and parents) have a way to track progress using technology.
Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) Are Accommodated
IEPs are a form of individualized instruction, where teachers are required to modify their teaching practices for special needs students. But just because a student is a part of an IEP, does not mean that their unique strengths and challenges cannot be differentiated further just like any other student. They can also be grouped with similar students with learning difficulties so they can benefit from group learning.
Strategy: IEPs have specialized and intensive supports specific to a child’s IEP information, goals and objectives. Examples include waiting for a longer period of time for responses and prompting when response is not given.
Further Differentiated Instruction Strategies
While any other differentiated instruction benefits can be grouped under one of these benefits, it’s not the same for strategies of which there are plenty more. For example, there are choice boards, learning contracts, tiered assignments, etc.
Differentiated instruction’s positive impacts have been proven in both preschools and kindergartens, so it’s important that educators, school leaders, and education technology providers are on the same page when it comes to determining the best strategies.
But before that happens, it’s important to ask if differentiation instruction is serious enough to be considered a major objective? If the answer to that question is yes, then the right strategies (both included in this list and others) can be proposed. But first, we should closely examine the need for differentiation. We hope the list helps.