Differentiating Instruction to Engage Learners

Sitting still inside a classroom while trying to listen attentively to an instructor for consecutive 50-minute blocks with only ten minutes to go from one classroom to the next could be challenging to an adolescent. Most of us remember our high school years as days when we really began learning more about ourselves and our relations to others. In high school, there seems to be a growing need to become more active learners inside a classroom. At the same time, there is now a desire to become more social. Science laboratory classes seem cool when done in groups and students work side by side on a given task. It is more active. It is much more engaging. Besides, we can then chat about things other than the subject we are trying to learn.

A high school classroom in the Philippines, crowded yet full of energy

Dividing a class into groups with each one carrying a specific task is differentiating instruction. Such style is learner-centered, allowing for a greater participation and therefore engagement of the student. However, differentiating instruction does require better classroom management so that the classroom does not end up as pure chaos. Unlike direct instruction, differentiating instruction requires planning that takes into account prior assessment and somewhat personal knowledge of the students. Groups are quite dynamic and social factors come into play. Various activities which provide an inquiry-based approach to learning are required. The following is an example of a differentiated instruction. This is a for a third grade class in mathematics (This is copied from Adams, C. & Pierce, R. Gifted Child Today Prufrock Press, Vol. 27, Issue 2, pp. 50-65, 2004):

Differentiating instruction does require a lot more time, attention and effort on the part of the teacher. Bryan Coe, a Math teacher at Rush-Henrietta High School in New York, provides a detailed account of his attempts at differentiating instruction in geometry and algebra in the Monroe Community College web page. This community college has a Community Center for Teaching Excellence. In the article, Bryan Coe writes:
"This action research experience with differentiation really had a huge impact on me as an educator. I learned a lot about myself and my beliefs in education. I believe that students get the most impact out of a class when they are actively involved in their own learning. They truly learn mathematics by doing and experiencing the problems. By differentiating, I shifted my focus to presenting the material based on the individual student needs and less on finding the most effective way to present the content to the entire class. One of the things that I learned is that differentiation is a time consuming process. It takes a lot longer to plan these types of lessons, but the impact it has on students is totally worth it. My students were much more engaged during the lessons. I was able to really focus on each individual student and what they needed. I was much more informed on how long I needed to focus on a specific topic, based on the exit tickets and conversations I had with each individual student."
Differentiating instruction is indeed a lot of work on the part of the teacher. It seems to require a different schedule of classes and make up of the classroom. Most importantly, it has to be done correctly with proper management. It can easily fail without adequate planning, initiative and resources.