Guest Post by Matt Herndon

What do Thomas Edison, Steven Spielberg and Winston Churchill have in common? They were geniuses. And beyond that? They were bad students. Teachers considered Edison "dull", Spielberg dropped out of college and Churchill failed sixth grade. How could that happen? Obviously it wasn't because they were dumb. Maybe it was because their school environments just weren’t right for them.

Back in the old days, teachers treated all students the same. You may remember being in a classroom with rote memorization, rigid rules for each concept and identical treatment of each student. Maybe you fit the mold; maybe you didn’t. Like millions of students, the brilliant men listed above may have had different learning styles than the one that teachers accommodated. Maybe they would have done better in school with differential learning.


What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is the theory that all students learn differently and should be taught using a variety of methods. This idea separates classic teaching—in which all students are expected to learn the same way. Some students may do better with interactive lessons; others may prefer to listen or read. Some need to use all of these techniques. Each classroom consists of students with a variety of abilities. Differentiated instruction is responsive to learner needs.


Getting Started

Carol Tomlinson of Reading Rockets identifies four components to focus on when implementing differentiated instruction in your classroom. Consider each one carefully, placing more importance on your students’ needs than on what you perceive as standard practices.


1.       Content: What do your students need to know? This may be part of a mandated curriculum or some information that you feel is important.

2.       Process: How will they learn it? Will you give a lecture, draw a picture or have your students do some research?

3.       Products: Do you need additional materials? You may need a computer, a device such as a video recorder or some software, such as an interactive game.

4.       Learning Environment: How does your classroom feel? Is it friendly, warm and welcoming, so that all students are comfortable making mistakes without feeling threatened?


A Few Extra Tips

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics suggests a few tips for differentiated instruction.

  • Make use of instruction in class, individual and group settings.
  • Accept and value differences and diversity. Each student has different learning styles and basic knowledge, so design lesson plans so that all students can excel in their own ways.
  • Evaluate results. You need to be sure that your students are learning what you want.
  • Offer choices. Students will be more invested and do better if they feel that they have chosen what they are doing.


Online Learning and Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction goes hand in hand with online education. Instead of only choosing your own hours and locations for studying and attending lectures, you can also tweak your learning to match your needs. Visual learners can read books or online materials; audio learners can video chat, and lectures help you learn through sight and sound simultaneously.

Differentiated instruction may be worth considering if you’re a teacher who is trying to maximize each student’s potential, if you find yourself struggling in your classes or if you are considering online learning. You may be the next Einstein, or, just as fulfilling, you may end up with a college degree, a new set of skills and some extra respect from yourself and your colleagues.


About the author: Matt Herndon is a freelance writer living and working in the Indianapolis area. His undergraduate and graduate work was done in Upper East Tennessee where he studied communication and institutional leadership. He writes on behalf of American InterContinental University.