Differentiated Instruction I | NCCAT

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Differentiated Instruction I

Thanks for joining us today. This week, we will be posting a series of blogs from NCCAT Lead Fellow Dr. Deb Teitelbaum on Differentiated Instruction . We hope to hear from you with comments, questions or observations as we go along. Below is the first blog post.

Differentiated instruction, or DI as we will refer to it hereinafter, is one of those edu-speak terms that everyone likes to use, but very few people actually understand. Other such terms include assessment, The Common Core, PLCs, and learning styles, among others. We’ll address each of these in the fullness of time, but this week I’d like to focus on DI—mainly because I’m reading an outstanding book on the subject, Good Questions: Great Ideas to Differentiate in Mathematics by Marian Small. The book is wondrously practical and jargon-free. I’ve included the link to its Amazon page below.


The first time I ran a seminar on DI, I asked my participants what assumptions they made when they heard the term. When you hear a word often enough, you tend to think you know what it means, and I wanted to know what these first year teachers thought they knew. The most memorable response was from Erin, who offered in a lovely Western NC twang, “I dunno. It just sounds like a crap ton o’ work.”

A crap ton is not a standard unit of measure, but is generally understood to be a lot.

Let’s start with what DI is NOT. It is not creating an individualized lesson plan for each student in your class—thus burying yourself under the aforementioned crap ton o’ work. It does not require you to twirl fire batons while singing a song about your subject matter in an effort to reach each student’s so-called learning style. See the video below for an amusing take on this belief about DI.


It will not make a bad teacher good. Neither will technology, but we’ll get to that later. It will not fix all your students’ learning deficits. It will not transform your classroom into a cavalcade of whimsy. Here is the least you need to know about DI:

1) You must first determine what each of your students can and cannot do, and you must do this continually. This is called assessment, and we’ll talk more about it later.

2) You can differentiate in no less than three ways: by content, process, or product.

Because I’m trying to keep these posts short and user-friendly, we’re only going to discuss differentiation by content today, and we’re only going to do that on a superficial level. If you want to dig deeper, I highly recommend any book by Carol Ann Tomlinson. The Differentiated Classroom is a good place to start. Once again, I like a classroom practice book that’s long on practice, short on theory, and free of jargon.


Differentiating by content means that you offer different content to your students, based on their readiness. For example, your students who read at grade level should be able to handle the textbook, while your struggling students might read something on the same topic but with less challenging syntax and vocabulary from Discovery Kids.

The problem with this approach is that everyone immediately knows who the students in the low-ability group are, most especially the kids in that group. This is humiliating and cannot be mitigated by giving your leveled teams cool nicknames. You may call them The Blackbirds, but you ain’t foolin’ nobody. Kids know if they’re what my dear departed Grampa Irving called “the nail and hammer kids.”

A less apparent move is to provide a choice in which the same skill or knowledge is practiced or learned, but the complexity or required levels of processing are increased or diminished. The website www.newsela.com offers teachers the option of raising or lowering the Lexile scores of current events articles with the click of a button. The articles look exactly the same and have the same information, but the vocabulary and sentence structure is different. Only you have to know who has which article. To differentiate in mathematics, consider the following three options:

1.You have two numbers whose sum is 9. What are those numbers? Write a story problem that uses all three numbers.

2.You have two numbers whose sum is 28. What are those numbers? Write a story problem that uses all three numbers.

3.You have two numbers whose sum is 17. What are those numbers? Write a story problem that uses all three numbers.

Each requires students to “use addition and subtraction . . . to solve word problems.” The complexity is altered by the number of answer choices from which the student must choose. Question 1 has only 18 choices, while question 2 has 56.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What if students pick options that are too easy for them? Not a problem. Praise them when they get it right, and then challenge them: “You were just warming up, right? I think your brain is ready to try a bigger number.”

What if students pick options that are too hard for them? Not a problem. First off, they might surprise you and get it right. If not, praise them for shooting high, and then challenge them: “Twenty-eight is a big number!! My mom is 28. Do you think you could start smaller and work up to such a big number?”

All of the students in your class are practicing the skills that will eventually lead them to fulfill the CCSS Standard 1.OA.A.1, but they’re doing it at their level of readiness.

“Okay, Deb,” I hear you saying, “That’s great for elementary math, but I teach middle school science. How am I supposed to differentiate by content?”

Well, first off, mind your tone.

Second, it may be that sometimes you can’t differentiate by content. At those times, you may consider differentiating by process. We’ll discuss that tomorrow.

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