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Differentiating the How You Teach Not the What

When the words Differentiated Instruction comes up in teaching, many automatically think about modifying assignments for students rather than modifying how we teach. With having anywhere between 30 – 150 students daily, modifying assignments can be tiresome for teachers and, possibly, for the students. In the sixteen years that I have been teaching secondary education, I’ve learned how to change the way I view the term, differentiated, by focusing on differentiating how I teach instead of differentiating the assignments.

Change the ‘HOW’ I teach

I started to focus on making sure my students understood the material rather than completing the work. After an initial lesson during a secondary education sophomore class, several students were not focused or just sat there. I thought they were just not completing the work and decided to not use their class time wisely. It wasn’t until one student came up to me after class and stated that she did not understand what she was supposed to do and was afraid to ask questions. That was the moment that I realized that truly all students do not learn the same way. Instead of focusing on teaching one ‘standard’ way, I modified the way I taught my lessons.

After my conversation with the student the previous day, I retaught the lesson in case other students felt the same way. I knew that if I collected the assignment at the beginning of the hour, it may be incomplete or not completed at all. Instead of looking at 28 confused faces that day, I had them hold onto their assignments as I reexplained the lesson, in a different way. But it wasn’t just one way I taught it, I explained it in several ways using connections to their own life or connecting it to mine. These connections made a difference to how students understood the material.

While it seems, at times, that the instruction may be at a slower pace than normal, students are aware that they can move ahead without the direction of the teacher. Students are given the summative assessment (unit exam / project) at the beginning of the unit. This allows students to review the assessment (sort of like a pre-assessment) to know their strengths and weaknesses. It also gives me the opportunity to focus on how I will teach the lessons so that each student will be able to effectively learn at their own pace.

Directions for the time spent in class are written on the board of where they should be each day. If a student is able to complete all of day 1 with time left in class, they continue working on day 2’s “assignment.” This creates a continuous learning atmosphere where there is no loss of instruction time. This was a trial and error on my part when I first tried to implement a Problem Based Learning (PBL) or a Genius Hour type of activity. As the groups worked, I realized a couple of groups completed their work with time left in the hour and either just sat there or took out their phone. I did not want students to rush through their assignments or have incomplete parts just to have “extra time.” I focused more on what the students should be learning than the end goal of meeting the standards.

It’s not the “what” I teach

Many times students will say, “Why do I need to know this” or “When will I ever need to use this” throughout the year. While I want to say that it’s probably true that they will not need to use everything they learned in school, I do tell them that it’s the skills needed that they are learning. As an English teacher, students do not understand why we read short stories or novels in the 19th Century or even from other countries. They will likely say that if they are not going to visit that country, why should they care.

A student’s cognitive learning style starts with how they perceive the information, usually based on their prior knowledge. If they are not taught how to utilize those skills, they will not have a clear understanding of why reading a short story from the late 1800’s is analyzed today or what the purpose of learning how to round (or estimate) will be useful in the future. Even differentiating the what aspect still may not be enough to understand. But focusing on the how will increase knowledge of the what.

Kristen Koppers, NBCT

Twitter: @Mrs_Koppers

Kristen Koppers is a National Board Certified Teacher who brings innovative ways to her teaching. She has been a teacher since 2003 where she currently teaches high school English at Joliet West in Joliet, IL. Kristen is passionate about her ways of teaching where she is always finding new methods to incorporate into her classroom. Kristen has been presenting and attending conferences since 2004 being a teacher as well as a learner. Kristen earned her Bachelor Degree in English, her Masters of Arts in English, and her Master's in Education.

Learning how to differentiate learning starts with modifications to current assignments. It all begins with knowing the students’ needs and interests while giving them the opportunities to take ownership of their work.In this text, the author focuses on how the use of interdisciplinary units and collaboration connects educators together to share a common goal of focusing on student achievement. Learning how to differentiate shouldnʼt involve hours of recreating assignments. Differentiated Instruction in the Teaching Profession is an innovative way to use critical thinking skills to create strategies to help all students succeed. This book is for educators of all levels who want to take the next step into differentiating their instruction.

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