7 Myths About Differentiated Instruction

The classroom is on fire!   Literally!   And your only way to put out the flame is to use differentiated instruction strategies.  Could you do it?

I bet many teachers would say no.  Or they would say that they have tried DI in the past, but it was too confusing, took too long to prep, or was not needed.

But guess what?   I bet you are already doing it on a regular basis and didn’t even know!  Being aware though is an important component of a successful DI classroom.

You can’t improve on what you are doing, if you don’t know what you have in place already.

The classroom is on fire! Literally! Your only way to put out the flame is to use differentiation strategies. Can you do it? Here are some myths about DI.

Let’s talk about some false ideas about differentiated instruction – and see if you can relate to any of them.

7 Common Myths About Differentiation

1.   It takes too long to figure out who needs what.

When you hear the word differentiation, do you cringe thinking about pre-assessment, assessment, post-assessment, formal assessment, benchmarking, informal assessment, or more?

I totally get it.  Sometimes it seems as though you are spending way more time testing what they do or don’t know than actually teaching them!

DI doesn’t have to encompass eons of testing.  Even do a picture walk through the upcoming story of the week in reading will give you some knowledge as to what students know ahead of time.

And that just covers the ability part of DI.

You also want to think about the interests of your students.  Knowing that Stella is interested in snow because she has never seen in real life before could be a huge reason to correlate the story of the week in reading with the water cycle in science with standard vs customary measurement in math – all tied back to the white stuff.

You can be sure Stella will be an active learner.

Example:  Interest surveys are a wonderful way to see which students might be interested in a related topic.  Tie in those topics with the background knowledge – and you have a lesson in which students are engaged beyond the norm.

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2.  My students only need to master the current year’s standards.  That is what I am responsible for providing.

That is partially right.

But think about this way:  keep the content and change the delivery.

Do you like to eat the exact same meals day after day after day?  Maybe if you are on a special diet out of necessity.  But doesn’t that take some of the joy out of eating?

If your students are all learning the exact same material in exactly the same way day after day (think lecture style), you are taking some of the joy of learning away from them, even if you are not knowingly doing this.  Students can still be required to learn the grade-level content, but simply by changing the format of the learning often, they are more invested in showing up and giving more effort.

Example:  Open-ended projects can be great lead in or lead out activities for a unit.

3.  That’s what my gifted intervention specialist and special education teacher are there to do.

Wellllll – not exactly.  While having additional teachers who push in or pull out students throughout the day can help to get students some more individualized learning, those specialists typically only have the student for a portion of the day.

In addition, those teachers also usually have huge caseloads of other students in various classrooms ranging a huge spread of grade levels, that all need help all throughout the day.

Imagine being on a  field trip at the zoo where your students have all scattered to different places.  They are interested in different animals, have varying degree of understanding about those animals, and want to learn the facts about the animals in different ways (by hearing a podcast, seeing a handler explain, or even by touching the animal).  This is how a GIS or special ed teacher feels most days.

Instead of being to individual units working on the same curriculum that every other student is taught, work together to create something unique for the student.  Two heads is better than one.

You can move mountains when you work together for a common result.

Example:  Work with your extra hands to use the student’s interest, readiness, and/or learning profile to individualize a special lesson that will not only be fun for the student, but fun for the co-teachers as well.

4.  Differentiated instruction lesson plans take too long to document.

Use a highlighter (or highlight the text if you are a computer-based lesson planner) and highlight anything that changes up the content pink.  If you are changing the processes of the lesson, use a blue highlighter.  And use yellow for the times when you are asking for varied products from students.

In addition, grab a green highlighter to show variations based on interest, ability, or learning profile!

Example:  When you teach mini lessons or with small groups, you are using DI.  How about listening to a story on tape?  That too.  Graphic organizers also fall into the DI category!  I challenge you to go through your current lesson plans and highlight when you are changing up the content, process, and/or product.  I bet it’s more than you think!

5.  Preparing multiple assessments and manipulatives is too confusing for the students.

I know some teacher who have taken DI to a new level and have even gotten to the point of differentiating weekly center rotations!  WOW!

While I LOVE the idea of completely individualized everything, I also wonder whether those teachers ever sleep because we all know setting up something that intense will definitely take up serious time.

Not to mention – students MIGHT be confused if they show up to a center/station and there are 3 choices, but they are only to do one.

I like easy, but effective.  If there is a way for me to make it be simpler to understand – and still get the same benefit, I will always choose the simpler route.

Example:  A differentiated assessment doesn’t always have to involve individualized rubrics and tons of moving pieces.  Use an exit slip to test for understanding of the lesson that day.  Use that basic information to pull small groups the next day based on whether to reteach or extend the lesson concepts.

6.  DI only works on paper – not in a real classroom environment.

If you have students who are far below grade level standards and those who are far above (which is pretty much a typical mixed-ability classroom), and you are teaching all students the same, some students will be bored while others are going to be overly-frustrated.  And you will have behavior issues.

In my opinion, I would rather have behavior issues because students are trying out new ways to learn than have behavior issues because of the academic ability gaps that I am not addressing in my teaching methods.

Will students need to be trained on how to work differently with inquiry projects than lecture style?  Absolutely.

Another thing that will need to be addressed is varying degrees of work.  One student might be asked to complete ALL centers available that week, while another is asked to complete just 2 centers.   That is the difference between fair and equal.

Example:  Make sure you are taking the time to explain the difference between “fair” and “equal” in the classroom.  Once students grasp the notion that everyone has unique learning challenges, they are far more likely to jump in and help one another rather than complaining if learning doesn’t look the same.   Here is a great lesson from Denise at Sunny Days in Second Grade.

7.  I provide DI:  my higher functioning students are able to assist the lower ability students.  It not only helps me, but they benefit as well.

So this is a sticking point for me.  I used to be 100% against this method.  But along the way, I have read current research and I can see the pros and cons of using this strategy in your DI classroom.

Being able to “teach” something to someone else is a gift.  We know that from the line of work we do.  And you only truly deepen the understanding of the concept when you are immersed in teaching those principles to another person.

High ability students can be used to assist lower ability students, but only if both students agree to the situation.  If the high ability student feels as though he or she is being shortchanged by not learning anything new, resentment will soon follow.

Not to mention:  can the high ability student successfully instruct the peer?  Just because they may understand the topic, doesn’t mean he or she is a competent (or patient) teacher.

If the lower ability student feels talked down upon by another student, it may create social situations that happen inside and outside of the classroom.

Example:  Assign peer helpers when the student feels comfortable doing so – and when the partner student asks for assistance from the peer only.

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Differentiation in your classroom doesn’t have to be challenging, over time-consuming, or confusing for your students.

Be noting what you are already doing, you become aware of what is working and what can be added or changed up.

I don’t know about you, but some days I like McDonald’s for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and a fancy steak restaurant for dinner.

Differentiation is a critical part of successful instruction.  Your students will be excited to hear what is coming next!

Happy DI-ing!


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