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Here’s a scenario that happens everyday…a group of teachers sit down to plan a unit of study. The topic is Native Americans regions. They begin to brainstorm. The following plan is quickly formulated.

Students will create a diorama that recreates a scene from one of the Native American regions. Students will create dream catchers. Students will simulate a teepee village on the playground using canvas fabric and bamboo stalks. Students will choose a Native American leader and research a biography and draw an illustration. Students will read various trade books regarding Indian tribes. The chapter in the text will be read. Students will color a map depicting Native American regions. Questions at the end of the chapter will be answered. Students will take the test provided by the text publishers. A culminating activity will be a celebration of Native American foods (corn?) that everyone can sample.

When are we going to learn that activities are not learning. Activities without content don’t meet the standards/objectives. They are disjointed activities that are fun but have no learning value for the student unless accompanied by other components of instruction.

Every year it seems we have new catch phrases in education jargon. Some of the phrases are simply gussied up versions of edu-speak that have cycled through before. This year I am considered educationally literate if I can converse with other educators regarding differentiated instruction. This idea is taking a victory lap because it WORKS!

I was recently handed an article to review in our leadership meeting. My job is to review the article and pass it around to my team for their review. We are then to discuss the article at a team meeting. “Mapping a Route Toward Differentiated Instruction” by Carol Ann Tomlinson was first published in Educational Leadership in September, 1999.

In the article Ms. Tomlinson states that differentiated instruction is necessary to achieve equity and excellence in education. She also poses several questions that educators should ask themselves about the ways that we “do school” such as “Is it reasonable to expect all 2nd graders to learn the same thing, in the same way, over the same time span? Can we reconcile learning standards with learner variance?”

Differentiation occurs naturally in the classroom. We create seating charts based on the needs of the students. We group students for reading activities. We allow students choices in center type activities and choices of research topics. According to the educators in the ivory towers this is only scratching the surface of what is meant by differentiated instruction. As you can tell from my scenario I posed above I agree with them.

Ms. Tomlinson’s articles goes on to present two very different types of classrooms. One teacher is very linear in use of the textbook, notes, study sheet, and test. Another teacher uses graphic organizers along with text. Visual aides such as pictures and diagrams decorate the room to add to the unit. Special celebrations are included in the unit where students can dress to emulate the time period and certain foods are brought in.

Neither of these classrooms are using differentiated instruction. The methods employed do not include the two main ingredients for successful teaching—student understanding and student engagement. They must truly understand what they are learning and they must achieve satisfaction in what they are learning. In the first classroom described above students are getting content but are not engaged. In the second classroom students are getting some satisfaction, but they do not understand what they are learning.

In a true classroom where differentiated instruction is occurring careful planning has taken place to support student success. The learning styles of each student should be taken into account. At the beginning of each year I utilize a learning styles inventory like the one found here (look in the right top corner) to assess the learning styles of my students. Teachers should plan for what students should know, understand, and be able to do at the end of a sequence of learning. Learning is differentiated to facilitate the goal. After assessment further differentiation strategies may be needed. Students use the adopted text as well as additional resources. Students take notes using graphic organizers and review games are utilized. Questioning in classes should range from the familiar and concrete to the abstract and unfamiliar. Other “activities” should include whole group planning, working, reviewing, and debating. Students are given projects to complete that include tasks that are completed at home and in class that can related to the cultural and social interaction of a particular time period. Not only do teachers work with students on data collection for these projects they also work with students on the correct manner in which to synthesize the data into a manageable project.

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