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Carol Ann Tomlinson, an author and educator, is credited with pioneering differentiated instruction. Since its inception, differentiated instruction has gained massive popularity. In many ways, it is connected to all forms of modern early learning approaches. Differentiated learning is often used interchangeably with differentiated instruction. They are one and the same.

In a survey of 601 teachers, 98% said they differentiate their instruction weekly. Of that 98%, 86% say that differentiation is extremely effective. 

In this article, we will define the term differentiated instruction, clarify what it means for early learners, highlight differentiated instruction strategies, and make the connection to other learning approaches for young students. We will conclude with a word on the future of differentiated instruction.

Differentiated Instruction. The Clearest Definition.

Differentiated instruction is described in many ways. We’ve chosen the following definition:

Differentiated instruction is a planned teaching approach that recognizes the differences and similarities among students and adapts accordingly. 

In other words, it acknowledges the diversity of learning needs, styles, and backgrounds of the student, and accordingly modifies instruction for each student.

Differentiated instruction is ready to help every early learner by knowing as much about them through assessments. It is also willing to modify instruction based on student responses at the onset of the school year, or at any other time during the school year.

From the student’s perspective, it’s called personalized learning, but from the teacher’s perspective it is differentiated instruction.

What Exactly Is Differentiated?

Having understood what differentiated instruction is, the best way to delve deeper into its nature is to highlight what exactly educators can differentiate to adopt such a teaching approach. 

There are four things that can be differentiated to provide a unique learning experience.

Content

Content refers to the knowledge, understanding and skills that young students have to learn. 

A school curriculum defines content for young learners. Curriculum mapping is the process by which teachers plan their instruction throughout the school year. This ensures the goals, objectives, learning materials and course assessments all align to what is being taught to the students. 

Example of differentiated content: Leveled readers, optional mini-lessons, text materials that are digitized through audio or video.

Process

Process refers to the activities or practices by which students understand content. 

By internalizing, practicing and by associating with the teacher and other students, the students figure out what they have learned and its applications beyond the classroom. 

Example of differentiated process: Different pace of instruction, different support, customized groups of students.

Product

Product refers to the outcome of the process and content. When a process is applied to certain content, learning occurs. The students then get to demonstrate this learning via assessments or other means. 

Example of differentiated product: Different check-in points, formative assessments and holistic assessments, different criteria for success.

Environment

Environment refers to the set and setting where content, process and product happens. It accounts for the student’s feelings on what they were able to learn as a result of following a process on particular content. 

Example of differentiated environment: Outdoor learning, individual instruction, centre-based learning.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

The four modifiable differentiation components offer many opportunities to tailor an educational pathway that is personalized for the young learner. 

It’s best to have learning strategies available that reflect all four components. Here are key examples:

Project-based Learning

Project based allows teachers to differentiate by teams. It’s a great way to cluster students according to their reading level, or other strengths, interests, or social skills such as collaboration and empathy.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments are used to monitor learning and provide ongoing feedback. They are distinct from summative assessments in that they are conducted throughout the school year, and not only at certain times of the year. 

They allow educators to take corrective action quickly when they see skills are not progressing as they should. Formative assessments were specifically designed as a tool for differentiated instruction in the classroom.

Learning Stations

Customizing learning stations is an effective teaching strategy. Stations are set up with different content and purpose in terms of the student in each group.  Teachers can also rotate students between stations so everybody has a chance to learn from each experience.

Learning Profiles

A learning profile looks at a student’s interest and readiness in various subject matters to accurately capture and support their learning strengths, needs and challenges. 

It allows teachers to focus on any learning gaps and optimize teaching based on what the students have a natural inclination towards.

Differentiated Instruction’s Relationship to Early Learning Approaches

There are other very popular approaches to early learning. We explore the connection between differentiated instruction and these other learning approaches. 

Play-based Learning

Also known as active learning or experiential learning, play-based learning is when young children learn through interactions with people, objects and the environment that they are in. 

By engaging with what is around them, they exercise their impulse to play and understand the world. It is self-chosen and usually led by the child. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Play-based learning is a powerful way to differentiate the process of learning.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL teaches young students how to develop self-awareness, social-awareness and interpersonal skills. 

It leads to better academic performance, positive behavior and healthier life choices that influence the quality of life in future years. By better understanding their emotions, children are able to better manage themselves and make responsible decisions. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: SEL is all about the interaction with others and giving space to feelings. As such, it’s an extremely useful method to support those learners who are more social or affective.

Inclusive Learning

Inclusive learning recognizes that all children have the right to a learning experience that respects their unique situation or circumstance.  It enables all students to participate by removing all barriers to learning for anyone with a different background. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Differentiated learning is inclusive by nature. It ensures that no one is kept from reaching their potential simply because the content, process, product or environment was not right for them.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is an educational approach that modifies the lesson plan based on each student’s unique skills, abilities, needs and interests. The focus is on one student and it is from the student’s perspective. From the teacher’s perspective, it is called individualized instruction. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Individualized instruction deals with one student at a time. Rather than assigning the same group of students to an activity or assignment, each student is shuffled according to their pace of development and learning needs. It can be part of an overall differentiated instruction strategy, which deals with groups of students.

Is Differentiated Instruction the New Normal?

Research conducted on differentiated instruction demonstrates its effectiveness as a teaching strategy for students with varied needs. In a three year study, researchers found that differentiated instruction yielded positive results for several groups in mixed ability K-12 classrooms in Alberta.

To demonstrate its sway on the culture, there are now courses that offer early childhood development with differentiated instruction.

But as differentiated instruction can be resource intensive and time consuming, it has not become the norm just yet. The industry, the government and academia are working together to introduce new solutions that make it easier to apply differentiated instruction across classrooms in North America. 

When differentiated instruction is added to a program, early learners often show significant gains in oral language vocabulary, print knowledge, phonological awareness, and math. The ubiquitous nature of technology has definitely helped to propel the advancement of differentiated instruction.

Vince Hill, former principal at Grasslands School Division, states how over half of teachers surveyed say that technology helps them individualize their classroom instruction. Collaborating with Sprig Learning has helped him to apply differentiated instruction at his school, which has a mix of students from varied socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. He stresses the importance of collecting data in a safe and secure way to account for the learning needs of all and to measure the progress of such a diversity of students.

Holistic Learning–The Epitome of Differentiated Instruction

One of the best ways to create a strong foundation for early learners is through holistic learning. It makes use of holistic assessments that support differentiated instruction by not only looking at the student, but also their parents and the community they live in. 

Similarly to differentiated instruction, holistic learning has links to all other types of learning. It considers play, sociability, emotions, inclusiveness and personalization. 

Furthermore, holistic learning compliments Indigenous learning perspective where equal emphasis is given to the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual areas of development. This opens up many doors to learning such as visual learning, auditory learning, kinesthetic learning and of course reading and writing.. 

But to get to the level where early learners can build the foundational literacy and numeracy skills, early development such as oral language and problem solving is crucial! Holistic learning is thus key, where more than one mode of learning is available to the young student.

Differentiated Instruction as a Way of Thinking

Certain events can force you to think about differentiation. For example, alternate modes of learning such as e-learning, could have been seen as a differentiation tactic in the past, but the pandemic forced all schools to think about it regardless. 

Approximately four of ten school districts reported last year that they do not have the ability to provide e-learning for students, even for a single day. So when thinking about differentiated learning, it helps to be prepared so you will be able to serve different students based on their situation at the time.

But even beyond contingency plans, it is important to see differentiated instruction as a concept, and not as a tool or tactic. 

We hope this article sparks your interest in differentiated instruction. When you understand the fundamental concept of differentiated instruction, you can’t help but notice it in teaching methods and strategies already used in the classroom. If you ever need to brainstorm ideas, here is a list of 50 strategies to differentiate learning. But as educator and teacher advice columnist Larry Ferlazzo says “Differentiating instruction is really a way of thinking, not a preplanned list of strategies”.