By Vicki Gibson, Ph.D.
Practically speaking, differentiating instruction means teaching differently, or changing how instruction and practice occur in schools to enhance instructional effectiveness and increase student achievement. It means changing how we teach and how students practice using whole class and small group activities. It includes teaching and practice activities that are data-informed, student-focused, purposeful and productive. Classroom management is orderly and efficient. So, how do we make this happen in schools? We begin by changing our thinking, then our habits.
Imagine a school day that begins with a whole class activity. The teacher quickly reviews previously taught vocabulary or concepts or skills, engaging background information. Then, new information is presented as an overview as the teacher introduces key vocabulary word meanings and big ideas. The teacher uses a graphic organizer to summarize information and create a visual roadmap for the lesson journey enabling students to understand the instructional purpose…or why they are learning what they are learning, and how the information will be used in context.
The 10-15 minute overview ends and an orderly, quick transition occurs. One group of students participates in a teacher-led, small group lesson whose content and feedback are differentiated, specific to student need. How the teacher presents the lesson varies in response to diverse needs within each small group. While the lesson content or activity may be similar, instruction and pacing are adjusted, or differentiated, to enhance learning and comprehension.
Some students work independently at their desks or in assigned workspaces. Other students begin working in pre-assigned small study groups and/or with assigned peer partners. They complete guided practice activities from previously taught lessons. Students provide feedback to each other while the teacher works with another group.
Everyone is actively engaged in learning and all work is purposeful and productive. In about 20 minutes, a signal is provided and students change activities, some working with the teacher and others completing activities in small study groups or independently. Group memberships, activities and/or assignments may change. All students do not receive the same instruction, nor do they complete the same assignments at the same time.
While this may be easy to imagine, making it happen in classrooms can be challenging. This article defines organizational features of differentiating instruction that will help teachers and students establish routines and procedures for managing simultaneously occurring activities that include whole class and small group differentiated instruction and collaborative and/or independent practice.
Differentiating instruction: An overview
Increasing student failure rates signal the need for changing how we teach and how students learn in classrooms (NAEP, 2009). Providing high quality instruction differentiated to student needs is essential for improving instructional effectiveness for student populations with increasing diversity. Adjusting routines for teaching and practice is often met with resistance because professional development has not been provided. While many available resources describe characteristics of differentiating instruction, fewer resources assist with practical suggestions for making it happen in classrooms (Marzano, 2003; Tomlinson, 2000; Tomlinson & Edison, 2003; Marzano, Norford, Paynter, Pickering & Gaddy, 2001; Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006; Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).
Most of the research to date has focused on teaching skills or strategies to enhance reading performance and comprehension. Less research has identified how to implement small group instruction that is differentiated and specific to student needs. Alternating time periods for whole class and small group activities often involves managing multiple events happening in the classroom simultaneously, thus creating a management challenge. Many teachers and administrators need assistance with getting started. There is a practical process for differentiating instruction:
- Data is collected and used to inform decision-making (identifying needs, setting an instructional purpose, selecting curriculum and practice activities).
- Students are assigned to small group memberships, usually by similar skill strengths and needs for instruction.
- Small group guided practice activities utilize mixed skill groupings allowing students to benefit from collaborative “study group” support.
- Daily schedules are adjusted to include 15–20 minute time periods for whole class and small group instruction.
- Whole class activities are used for introduction, overview and quick review with students often responding in unison or to a partner to increase interactions and provide more practice opportunities.
- Small group activities are used for explicit instruction at the students’ instructional level for TEACHING, which is a performance level higher than students can work independently.
- Guided practice activities and written assignments include content and skills that have been previously taught and the work is not graded (students may earn points for completing the work); Readability (level of difficulty) is lowered to allow more working memory for applying skills; thus teachers assign slightly less difficult leveled readers for guided practice activities.
- Independent work is completed AFTER students receive teacher-led instruction in small group and collaborative, guided practice; this work is typically assessed for grades.
The purpose for differentiating teaching and practice is to increase the quality and quantity of instruction to ensure effective support for learning occurs in classrooms. Changing the behavior of teaching requires examining how instruction and practice are currently provided then analyzing what we teach to ensure curricula and skills are aligned to student needs and meaningful for differentiating instruction (Mathes, Denton, Fletcher, Anthony, Francis & Schatschneider, 2005). Developing an instructional purpose helps teachers identify why they are teaching what they are teaching to a specific student or group of students. Using data to align classroom practices with an instructional purpose is essential for differentiating instruction and practice.
All student work must be academically profitable and productive for improving learning. Most importantly, sufficient high quality, explicit, student-focused instruction in a teacher-led small group must occur before students are expected to practice collaboratively with their peers or independently. Selecting lesson materials and practice activities for instruction that align with the instructional purpose is also necessary. Most importantly, implementation of differentiating instruction requires orderly management in the environment so small group teaching can occur with minimal disruptions.
Managing differentiating instruction
Changing old instructional habits represents some of the most difficult challenges to overcome when getting started with differentiating instruction (Gibson & Hasbrouck, 2009; Marzano, Marzano & Pickering, 2003). The two most frequently asked questions by teachers illustrate concerns associated with differentiating instruction:
What are other students doing while I am working with a small group?
How do I get everything done?
Managing the classroom and student behaviors to include flexible grouping and collaboration presents a huge challenge for some teachers whose delivery habit is lecture-format that is followed by independent practice. Survey data from administrators and teachers indicates that they have not received training or professional development that develops their expertise for differentiating instruction effectively for students with increasingly diverse needs (Shanahan, 2008; Stanovich & Stanovich, 2008; Tilly, 2003). Minimal guidance has been provided for evaluating quality teaching and practice, or for monitoring or supporting differentiating instruction (Chen & Chang, 2006; Lyon, 2009).
Having students work collaboratively in small groups for guided practice will require established routines and clearly defined expectations for performance in order for the teacher to provide student-focused, small group instruction — instruction led by a teacher who uses data to plan lessons that address specific student needs (Kosanovich, Ladinsky, Nelson, & Torgesen, 2006; Marzano, 2003; Tomlinson & Eidson, 2003). Establishing routines will provide the structure that clearly helps students know what to do, how to perform successfully, and how to manage the freedom that comes with collaboration and small group work.
Differentiating instruction and practice: Five steps
Changing practice to differentiate instruction works best when teachers create orderly, predictable environments with clearly identified behavioral expectations (Gibson & Hasbrouck, 2009; Marzano, et.al, 2001). There are five steps for establishing routines and implementing changes that create opportunities for differentiating instruction to occur in classrooms:
- Establishing the environment
- Using data to inform practice
- Managing resources
- Creating routines and procedures
- Providing high-quality teaching and practice
STEP ONE: Establishing the environment
This step involves organizing the physical environment. Classroom furniture is arranged to include work areas. One area is for small group, teacher-led instruction. That area is often called the teaching table, even though the group may not always officially meet and work at a table. The term teaching table simply communicates a performance expectation to the student. Lessons presented at the teaching table will include new and more challenging content so the teacher’s role is to lead, model and teach.
Additional classroom areas will be needed for workstations, or designated areas where students gather and work collaboratively. Usually teachers create 2–4 work areas for small group/partner guided practice activities. This may be done by pushing desks together to form tabletop workspaces or simply directing students to specific areas where they can sit and work on the floor. Dispersing students around the room for collaborative practice activities invites discussion and cooperation to complete assignments. If students need hard surfaces for writing, they can use notebooks or clipboards.
A third work area appears on the Rotation Chart as Worktable. Teachers use the term worktable to denote when students are expected to work independently, either at their desks or table spaces, or in another area specifically designated in the classroom. Because the term is intended to clarify student performance expectations, the worktable may not include a table. Students may work alone at a desk or table, completing independent assignments during the time period designated as the worktable. Often homework assignments are started during worktable time periods. Teachers may assess students’ work from the worktable to monitor progress or evaluate achievement.
STEP TWO: Using data to inform practice
This step involves using data to inform teaching. Teachers initially examine evidence (assessment data, work samples, student observations) and identify specific instructional strengths and areas for improvement. Then, using data, teachers develop an instructional purpose to achieve standards-based goals and assign small group memberships. Student memberships may be homogenous (grouped by similar skill) for explicit, teacher-led instruction or heterogeneous (mixed skill groupings) for small group practice.
Collaborative or student-led practice activities using mixed-skill groupings allow students to provide constructive feedback to their peers when the teacher is unavailable. Group memberships are flexible, changing dynamically to align instruction with need, and to accommodate activity choices or available resources (time, equipment, or personnel). Data is constantly used to inform teaching and make instructional adjustments for grouping and differentiating instruction and practice.
STEP THREE: Managing resources
An important step for implementing efficient and effective instruction involves managing resources to ensure high quality learning experiences occur daily. Efficient time management is essential; therefore, teachers develop daily schedules that clearly identify when small group and whole class activities will occur. These tools assist teachers with managing time and student participation during instructional periods:
- A flexible Daily Schedule that ensures specific time periods are assigned for small group instruction that occurs daily when possible.
- A Job Chart that delegates classroom responsibilities to students who help with monitoring workstations and distributing materials, thus allowing more time for teachers to focus on instruction.
- A Rotation Chart that clearly communicates student performance expectations by illustrating group memberships and how participation in instruction and practice activities will occur.
The rotation chart helps students know what to do, how they participate in activities, and when they have choice options in workstations. In addition, the rotation chart serves as a visual roadmap for the teacher to clarify expectations and encourage organizational planning. Students know when they will work with the teacher, their peers or alone. Used with established routines, these tools create an environmental structure that allows students to safely perform within preset boundaries and expectations. Students learn to self-regulate, make responsible choices, and participate successfully.
STEP FOUR: Creating routines and procedures
It is critical that teachers create routines and procedures that facilitate small group management and ensure efficient transitions between activities. Since multiple activities happen simultaneously, routines and procedures are necessary to maintain an efficient yet flexible pace. The rotation chart and daily schedule establish an order for student participation during instructional activities. The job chart is used to delegate responsibilities for clean up and checking student work during transitions. Students work as monitors to check work areas and student assignments.
Teaching and modeling expectations for students will encourage compliance and help establish new habits for efficient classroom participation and collaboration. During initial implementation, teachers should provide frequent practice opportunities using discussions and role play to ensure students clearly understand and can perform expectations for attending to tasks, completing assignments, and making timely transitions. When teachers consistently enforce routines, they report significant reductions in behavioral distractions. Thus, more time and attention is focused on effective instruction.
STEP FIVE: Providing high quality instruction and practice
Improving the quality and quantity of instruction provided in whole class or small group instruction is the purpose of differentiating instruction. However, improving instruction comes after managing the classroom and student behaviors. Once classroom routines are operating efficiently, teachers can focus and teach differently using small group lessons. Some basic procedures for getting started are included here.
Use data to group students for instruction and practice.
Teaching in small groups is documented in the research for increasing opportunities for successful teaching and learning (Gersten, 2001; Gersten & Domino, 2001; Gibson & Hasbrouck, 2009; McLeod, Fisher, & Hoover, 2003). Assigning students to small groups occurs more often in lower elementary classrooms, but providing student-focused differentiated teaching and practice is less common, especially in upper elementary, middle school and high school. Elementary teachers are more likely to group students for reading instruction, and sometimes math, but often, the teaching and activities for each group are not differentiated and responsive to diverse student needs.
Effectively providing high-quality differentiated instruction involves more than grouping and simply moving students from one activity to another. Merely assigning students to small groups and having them move between activities at workstations does not guarantee that teaching is changed within a small group lesson or practice activity is meaningful or productive. In that sense, grouping represents only a procedural change in how instruction is delivered.
Change teaching and practice to address specific student needs.
Determining what content or skills will be presented in whole group lessons or taught in small group lessons will require reflection about the instructional purpose and expectation for outcomes. The instructional purpose, content, method of delivery (teaching), and feedback must be student-focused in order to differentiate instruction. That means teachers may need to adjust the lesson presentation (increasing talking, providing pre-reading or vocabulary instruction, or adding more modeling) or the lesson content (instructional purpose, pacing or how much/how fast) to differentiate teaching and learning. Similar materials and activities may be used in whole class overview introductions then presented again for teacher-led small group lessons.
Increase student interactions and adjust activities to goals.
In whole class, the instructional purpose is to provide a quick review of previously taught information and then, the teacher may introduce new content and have students repeat information to a peer partner nearby. In small group, the instructional purpose is to develop sufficient understanding so students can continue learning. Partnering is also used in small groups for repeated practice.
Teach using small group lessons that allow you to differentiate instruction.
The teacher may change the pacing and lesson difficulty by beginning the lesson at a different entry level or by extending the challenge to a higher level of difficulty. The teaching (purpose, content, and pacing) is adjusted, or differentiated, to enhance student learning. The way a teacher introduces, models and uses materials to differentiate instruction may differ between groups, even using the same content or materials or activity. Most important for differentiating instruction is what the teacher does to adjust teaching and practice so it is learner-friendly and productive before students work collaboratively in small study groups with peers or independently.
Changing how we teach and how students practice will require differentiating teacher preparation and professional development to ensure classroom management and high quality instruction will occur in classrooms. Additionally, professional development may be needed for “teaching teaching” and improving instructional effectiveness within whole class and small group lessons.
Differentiating instruction means teaching differently, and the changes to make that happen in classrooms often departs from traditional habits and practice, presenting a management challenge. Establishing routines and procedures for organizing resources (classroom space, time and materials or activities) and implementing changes will be necessary. Stakeholders, administrators and teachers, must clearly identify and articulate how the change process will occur to establish well-managed classrooms, and provide support for teachers, students and parents. Differentiating instruction and practice will ensure teaching and learning are purposeful and productive at any grade level — so let the changes begin.