Differentiated Instruction, From Teachers’ Experiences


Hundreds of book titles and articles extol the virtues of differentiated instruction, a practice that asks teachers to vary their teaching among individuals and small groups to create better learning experiences.

So why are so many educators supporting this model of instruction, especially in the midst of an increasingly prescribed curriculum? We thought 48 practicing teachers who spent a semester experimenting with differentiated instruction might have answers for its wide endorsement when significant empirical data of its effect on academic achievement is still limited.

Our Experiment
Forty-eight elementary teachers met five times during one semester to read the book Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom: How to Reach and Teach All Learners, Grades 3-12 by Diane Heacox before trying out some of the ideas. Each teacher planned and taught four lessons, one each for content, process, product and a final lesson that incorporated all three. Lessons included a pre- and post-assessment of the learning objective.

Teachers also were encouraged to differentiate in other areas, such as learning styles, interests and environments for learning. They coached one another, provided feedback during planning and suggested activities about how to engage their learners. They communicated in person and on-line about how the lessons went and reflected on how they might adapt their lessons.

The teachers taught 192 different lessons during the semester and accumulated a vast amount of knowledge about differentiated instruction. After each lesson they submitted a learning log in which they wrote on five topics: lesson objective; pretest results; how they differentiated instruction; post-test results; and reflections on what they learned about their students and how the students responded to the lesson.

At the end of the semester, the teachers shared their stories, successes and failures. We sought answers to two key questions: What were the greatest benefits and biggest problems associated with differentiated instruction? Each teacher answered the two questions individually and then shared results with the entire group.

Perceived Benefits
In all, the teachers identified 74 benefits. We grouped their responses into five categories. We’ve listed them in order of how often they were reported.

Students were motivated to stay engaged in learning. Students seemed to enjoy learning, showed more interest and motivation, maintained higher energy levels and stayed more engaged in the activities.

Student needs were being met. Students seemed appropriately challenged and worked comfortably at their level of ability, resulting in improved time-on-task and behavior. Flexible grouping allowed teachers to work with smaller groups or with individuals, and students were able to work with peers who shared similar interests or abilities.

Students experienced greater student success and felt learning was more relevant. Students worked diligently and the quality of their work improved. The teachers provided documentation of higher scores on post-assessments and more frequent successes among low-achieving students.

Students felt greater ownership of content, products and performances. In an atmosphere where students were given more options about how they could learn the material and demonstrate mastery of the content, they seemed to actively enjoy learning. There was an improved sense of wanting to share what was learned.

Teachers gained new insights. Teachers learned a great deal about how their students work and learn. Many felt challenged to find more creative instructional strategies, even while using a prescribed curriculum.

Some Challenges
The participants also cited 36 problems with differentiated instruction, which fell into two major categories:

The learning curve was difficult. Teachers reported that learning how DI works, finding activities, trying new ideas, developing the assessments for each lesson and working with so many different learning styles and intelligences among the children was daunting and sometimes overwhelming.

Finding planning time was an ongoing challenge. DI requires much more elaborate and individualized planning, which is time consuming. Finding that extra time on top of already demanding schedules and daily requirements was not easy. Lessons often took longer to complete, which interfered with other scheduled activities and responsibilities.

In the end, all 48 teachers were unanimous on one important point: Benefits to the students far outweighed the challenges of time and planning.

Ranae Stetson is an associate professor of education at Texas Christian University, TCU Box 297900, Fort Worth, TX 76129. E-mail: Elton Stetson is a professor of education at Texas A&M University-Commerce, and Karen Anderson is a leadership coach for Coaching For Results.