There are many questions that are just too embarrassing to ask: Do fish pass gas? There’s the speed of light and the speed of sound. Is there a speed of smell? What is differentiated instruction? You know, that phrase that gets whipped around the faculty meeting like a shuttlecock during a badminton match? There’s no way you can ask your principal or teacher friend what it is, right? That’s okay. WeAreTeachers is here to help.

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction is an approach that helps educators tailor their teaching so that all students, regardless of their ability, can learn the classroom material. Though differentiated instruction has likely been around since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, we started hearing the phrase in earnest during the 1990s, when Carol Ann Tomlinson’s work on the method gained traction. It later came to greater prominence with No Child Left Behind.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine going into a department store to buy jeans and finding the same pair on every rack. No slim. No relaxed fit. Nothing for a person with long or short legs. Just the same jeans on every rack. That would be frustrating, right? True, many shoppers with a certain body type looking for a particular style would be more than happy to buy those jeans. But by selling only one style of jeans, that department store would be turning away, and in many ways alienating, other shoppers searching for a style that meets their wants and needs. Besides, it would be a ridiculous approach to selling jeans.

Unfortunately, many times a similar strategy is used in the classroom. Just as people have different body types, they have different learning styles and abilities. So it doesn’t make much sense to present information in one way and expect every student to learn effectively. Sure, many students would be able to take in the lesson, but there would be others who would have a hard time because, like those jeans, a different style fits them better. That’s where differentiated instruction comes in.

Differentiated instruction honors students’ diverse backgrounds and learning styles. With differentiation, teachers recognize their students as individuals with varying needs and provide them with more options for learning. In other words, teachers use multiple strategies to make sure that all students can absorb the information being taught, share what they’ve learned, and meet long- and short-term goals.

Okay, got it. So how do I differentiate?

First, teachers must know their students well. Assessment and reassessment of students are key. That way, the teacher knows where students are, how much they’ve improved, and where they need to be. Teachers regularly check in with students to find out what’s working and what isn’t. Second, teachers provide flexible learning options. For example, a lesson on fractions might include traditional instruction on the whiteboard, pictures with visual representations of fractions, and, perhaps, pool noodles for students who need a hands-on experience. Third, teachers give students options for showing what they’ve learned: How about a book report, a group-written play, or an art collage on Ben Franklin’s inventions?

That sounds like more work—which I don’t need.

Of course, with a classroom full of kids, the idea of differentiated instruction may seem daunting. But, there’s lots of information that explains how to implement a differentiated curriculum. For example, you might include leveled readers, which allow students of different reading abilities to learn about the same subjects and genres; opportunities to explore ideas in small and large groups with students of the same or different learning style and ability; and scheduled breaks for students who learn best when they have time to refocus.

Start here for simple, helpful ways to differentiate your classroom.

Learn more about differentiated instruction:

Oh, and yes, fish do pass gas. Is there a speed of smell? Kind of?

What are the ways you differentiate in your classroom? Share in the comments!