How to Use Differentiated Instruction: Getting Away from Standing in Front and Just Talking

Cartoon woman surrounded by thought bubbles of things she's worrying aboutWhat is Differentiated Instruction?

When teaching a diverse population of learners, it is important for the instructor to differentiate instruction. Not all learners grasp concepts and theories the same way. According to Fleming (2001), there are three types of learning styles which should be kept in mind when differentiating instruction:

  • Visual learners learn by seeing and through visual aids.
  • Auditory learners learn by communication involving speaking.
  • Tactile learners learn best through hands-on activities pertaining to the topic or concept being taught.

New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development shares information on the principles of differentiated instruction. One of the benefits of differentiated instruction is that the instructor can assess students’ needs on an ongoing basis rather than looking at formal assessments (tests, quizzes, research papers, etc.). There are also four aspects of classroom learning that can be differentiated based on the students’ readiness and interests:

  • Content
  • Process
  • Products
  • Learning

Differentiated instruction may seem difficult to some, but it can be accomplished in many simple ways. One way differentiated instruction can be accomplished is through placing the students in heterogeneous or homogeneous groups. Heterogeneous groups are mixed groups while homogeneous groups are not mixed. Individuals who are strong with a certain subject or concept can be paired with those who may need more guidance. This does not mean that the other individuals are not able to learn the information but they might learn better from working with their peers rather than with their teacher or instructor.

Learning centers are another form of differentiated instruction and can also be used with any age group. What makes this a good technique is that it allows students to work independently or in small groups (heterogeneous or homogeneous) and the students rotate to different centers after a certain amount of time, depending on the age group. Before beginning the activities, it is important for the teacher to explain each center to the entire class. Then students are sent to their first activity. It is important that the students are not in the same center or a long period of time because they can and will lose interest in the task. Learning centers allow for students to be actively engaged in the learning process. They can also learn hands-on or from small group discussion with their peers. Some examples of learning centers are:

  • Problem solving
  • Computers with an activity pertaining to the topics being discussed in class
  • Role playing
  • Topics or themes
  • Interests

Sexuality Education Example

In the sexuality education classroom learning centers can be used in a variety of ways. One type of center could be a computer with a simulation in which students make sexual decisions and are given a consequence at the end of their simulation based on the decisions they make. For example if a student chooses to have unprotected sex on the first date, their consequence might be unplanned pregnancy and/or a sexually transmitted infection. Another center could be a role play in which a small group of students are given a scenario and they act out the scenario in their group and decide what the plan of action could be for the protagonist(s) in the role play. I would try to steer away from using a worksheet at a station because it is not involving the students to interact with one another.

Differentiated instruction is also beneficial for learners in that it provides diversity not only among academic abilities but among various cultures as well. As educators it is important to understand that English Language Learners (ELLs) do not speak, read, write, and understand English. It is important that educators embrace and appreciate the differences among the students in their classroom.

Stack of notebooks and school supplies with an ipad and apple on top of the pileDifferentiated instruction is very important in our culture of technology and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). The days of lecturing in front of a classroom and writing on a chalkboard are long gone. Moving forward, I encourage both teachers and facilitators to differentiate the content that they are aiming to teach in their classrooms, workshops, etc. In the sexuality education classroom, differentiated instruction can bring learners of different backgrounds and experiences together. With differentiated instruction, all students and participants have a voice and have the privilege to learn based on their own learning style.

11 responses to “How to Use Differentiated Instruction: Getting Away from Standing in Front and Just Talking

  1. Thank you for sharing this instructional method. I have seen this down in k-12 classrooms, but not specially in sexuality settings. This would be a great approach for mid-semester post-secondary courses when students need a new way of engaging and moving around the room. The challenge would be making sure the room is big enough to have a number of centers and for the content to be focused on that topic for the week. I would think that topics that students are already familiar with, like STIs, would be better taught through centers. Rather than students memorizing STIs or the signs, they could do centers pertaining to symptoms, protection, and how to have conversations about being tested. I will definitely explore this option more for college students. SSR

  2. I really like the idea of learning centers as a form of differentiated instruction. It is a way to keep students moving, and therefore energized, but you are right, they can’t stay at one center for too long otherwise they will get bored. Also, learning centers are great because they keep students in small groups which is beneficial to learning. If a teacher implemented learning centers in a 4th or 5th grade sex ed class, I think it would be really beneficial, but I hesitate because the teacher would need an adult at each center, and that is hard to come by. This seems like it is a more practical form of differentiated instruction for middle school and beyond, when constant supervision is not as necessary.

  3. So, I am a Howard Gardner devotee. I will wax poetic about the multiple intelligences for days. He recently wrote an editorial in the Washington POst regarding learning styles, multiple intelligences, and sensory learning.

    While the soldiers in the Fleming camp of learning styles may take issue with some of the…language used in his article, I think the summative point, that educators need to tailor lessons to their student’s learning needs and incorporate as many different ways to absorb information, is one that both camps can get behind.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I like the idea of learning centers. I think long ago one of my grammar school teachers implemented differentiated instruction and it worked very well in our classroom. I think it is an awesome way to reach to each type of learner to see if they are understanding the content being taught.

  5. I enjoyed your blog post also. I believe this is a great way for students to also test and ensure they have an understanding of the topics presented. As a student, I know if I am not sure if I understand the topic, I like to discuss the information with fellow students to ensure I understand the material. Having the option to learn information multiple ways within the classroom also, gives people with different learning styles and opportunity to learn completely.
    This learning technique can assist all participants in the class learn and develop a complete understanding of class material. I can see this theory as a great tool to help bridge the gap between students who differ in any aspect like, culture background, age, and/or understanding of topic(s).

  6. Krissy, what do you think the best methods are for teachers to engage their students across social media platforms? And at what age would you think would be ideal for this to occur?

    I love the concept of a learning center to discuss safer sex and all thing sexuality. I agree with Erin that educators need to tailor their lessons to their students needs, and to their learning styles, as you suggested.

    • Justyn, I never considered using social media platforms. Personally, I would think social media platforms for educational purposes is a good idea. I suggest that social media platforms for education be utilized among high school and college students more so than late elementary and middle school students. With platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, classmates can post questions or concerns pertaining to their class(es). Since many of us have smartphones, we are able to see those questions or concerns and assist with them. Students can also share views and opinions, and other helpful information pertaining to classwork.

      Working with kindergarten we use centers…EVERYDAY! The kids are able to work on them independently so the classroom teacher and I can work with small groups on guided reading. During guided reading, the kids are only allowed to work in “quiet” centers (i.e. computers, listening center, books). We take out the “noisy” centers (i.e. learning games, puzzles (yes puzzles can be a noisy center for small children), iPods) later in the day.

  7. Krissy this is awesome. Sometimes we get caught in a rut and we use lecture because in most cases that is how many of us were taught. However, experiential exercises, visual cues, and didactic learning come together is a way of reaching most students. Taking the time to understand and develop a student’s learning style serves to make us better at what we do and enhance the outcomes of those we serve!

  8. I really liked this post, and I agree with swmcmurchie that it would probably work best with middle school age students and beyond who can operate without as much supervision. Another challenge to this would be covering as much material as you want to cover. This style is excellent for driving home one main point in several different ways to ensure that it sticks in every students’ mind. However, if you simply have to cover a lot of material in a short amount of time, and you do not have time to split into groups, you may need to get creative and find a way to simultaneously include visual, auditory, and tactile components. Using the example of STI’s, you could project the information on a screen for the visual learners, address key topics out loud for the auditory learners, and pass out the stuffed-animal versions of each STI for the tactile learners.

  9. This is such a great topic, thank you for covering it! Using differentiated instruction feels overwhelming to me, but you broke it down very nicely. I appreciate that you included a sexuality education example. Stressing that this approach can help to include learners from different cultures and backgrounds helped me see its value in sex education. This type of education helps me as a student understand the unique learning styles of my peers, gaining insight that I can later incorporate into my own lesson plans.

    The use of learning centers seems like a very effective way to differentiate instruction. I’m wondering how you keep students engaged when they are at stations that may not cater to their learning style? I know when I was younger and would experience learning centers I loved the stations where I was able to solve equations, but would instantly freeze and disengage during stations that required hands-on activities. As an adult I see the value in learning in different ways, but as a child I was far more stubborn. Is there anyway to combat this?

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