What does Differentiated Instruction Mean?

I’ll never forget the first time I overheard a parent asking her child’s first grade teacher how she was planning to differentiate instruction for her child.  The teacher later told me that many parents were beginning to expect differentiated instruction for their children.  This was in a public school with over 30 children in each and every class. If parents are using this term (even incorrectly) we need to be sure we understand it and what it means for our practice.

Differentiated instruction does not mean that every lesson is adapted for every child.  That would be crazy.  According to the Illinois Professional Teaching Standards, Standard 3 – Planning for Differentiated Instruction, “The competent teacher plans and designs
instruction based on content area knowledge, diverse student characteristics, student performance data, curriculum goals, and the community context. The teacher plans for ongoing student growth and achievement.

Knowledge Indicators – The competent teacher:
3A) understands the Illinois Learning Standards (23 Ill. Adm. Code 1.Appendix D), curriculum development process, content, learning theory, assessment, and student development and knows how to incorporate this knowledge in planning differentiated instruction;
3B) understands how to develop short- and long-range plans, including transition plans, consistent with curriculum goals, student diversity, and learning theory;
3C) understands cultural, linguistic, cognitive, physical, and social and emotional differences, and considers the needs of each student when planning instruction;
3D) understands when and how to adjust plans based on outcome data, as well as student needs, goals, and responses;
3E) understands the appropriate role of technology, including assistive technology, to address student needs, as well as how to incorporate contemporary tools and resources to maximize student learning;                                                                                           3F) understands how to co-plan with other classroom teachers, parents or guardians, paraprofessionals, school specialists, and community representatives to design learning experiences; and                                                                                                             3G) understands how research and data guide instructional planning, delivery, and adaptation.”

As far as I can tell, the standards do not require individual lesson plans for each and every child, but it does ask that teachers consider each child’s needs and plan accordingly. Most children do not require differentiated instruction; they fall within a typical range of development and ability.  Therefore, classroom planning, curriculum development, and goal setting is done at a global level, with considerations made for any child with a learning difference.

In an ECE program, one way we do this is by providing open-ended materials and activities that are adaptable for children and by the children themselves.  Manipulatives have many uses and are used to scaffold learning. Interest areas are complex and provide infinite possibilities for learning.  Good activity/lesson plans consider CLAD (culturally, linguistically, and ability diverse) children and provide quality learning experiences for all children.  The environment is adaptable as we are not bound by desks and rigid scheduling.  Good ECE programs differentiate learning all of the time.

So the next time a parent asks you how you are planning to meet her child’s needs via differentiated learning, be sure to quote the Illinois Professional Teaching Standards and explain that in early childhood, our entire curriculum is designed for differentiated learning.

7 Replies to “What does Differentiated Instruction Mean?”

  1. Yes! Early Childhood Education IS differentiated instruction. Other areas of Education are just catching on now. Ironically, it\’s even more challenging to do well with all the pressure to make things \”more academic\”. Maybe the word play should also be included in our answer to how we are differentiating instruction…

  2. Hi Jen!

    We will refer to this timely article this morning in class as we develop lesson plans for the Curriculum Webs the students will be working with in class today making sure that our plans address NAEYC standards in place to make sure childcare professionals remain focused on engagement and appropriate practice for all children in our care

  3. I realy enjoyed reading this post! As a student in child development program, learning about the differentiating instruction is so important for us. differentiation is a way for teaching, the teacher have know his or her student very well, inorder to provide each student better learining experiences.

  4. I thought that this was an interesting blog entry because it clarified what differentiated instruction really means. It is very important for teachers as well for parents to know what this really means and what it refers to.

  5. I think you all said what we have to know; differentiated instruction focuses already on each student\’s learning ability, and each student\’s level. As Ms. Carrie said, it\’s better that professionals includes play. In Ms. Ellen\’s classroom, we have had so many guests that came this semester. What I learned from their message is that children learn better when they\’re having fun; meaningfully, if the lesson is enjoyable, students pay more attention, and try to figure out, or to understand the teacher\’s message. I remember observing my son\’s instructor teaching math to her kindergarteners; she was so engaging that one hour passed, I didn\’t realize it. It was so interesting, and I saw a big change with my son; he easily count by 2, 5,and 10. It\’s awesome!!! The way this instructor was teaching helps her students followed her. My son first quarter report card tells me a lot. He was having fun, and even though he\’s not feeling well, he does not want to miss class.

  6. Dear Jen,
    The parents concerns about their children are good things. But when the parents start to differentiated instruction with the teacher, I think, the parents may not understand the purpose of their roles. Also, I think teacher-parent should have prepared for and conducted many conferences, so the teacher can offers feedback and consider more helpful stances regarding child’s behavior and ability by considering the individual child’s progress and show the child documentation for their parents. I think the teacher should provide different communication methods, so when the parents have questions; they can easy contract and receive the quickly respond.

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