Ideas > Differentiating Learning FAQ

Differentiating Learning Frequently Asked Questions


1. How do you change the content when you can’t change the standards?
The standards remain constant; they determine “what” you teach in terms of concepts, skills and attitudes.  Yet, the actual content you use to deliver the information can change by complexity levels, resources you choose to use, and the actual learning environment employed.

2. How do you change the assignment and maintain the dignity of every student?
Teachers foster an awareness of differences in learners; of brain science facts about how every brain is different in how it accesses information; about how learning preferences are designed into the curriculum and lessons. Differentiation becomes part of the classroom culture.

3. How do you assess various assignments for high school?
When different students do different assignments to accomplish the same goal, they are graded on how well they do their assignments even though they are accessing the information differently. However, when it comes to grade point averages (GPA) . . . the question takes on another dimension.  Is an A for a simpler assignment equivalent to an A for a complex assignment?  Obviously, the answer is, “No, not really!” While both students may accomplish the standard, the one who does the simple assignment is judged on a scoring rubric as “meeting expectations,” while the other with the more advanced assignment “exceeds expectations.”  These concerns must be addressed in the GPA  situation. Often a “weighting” of the assignments with allotted points is used to designate basic, average or advanced assignments. District leadership and high school faculties must have this discussion and determine their policy for grading differentiated assignments.

4. How do teachers prepare all students for the test at their grade level?
In order to prepare all students for the grade level exams when they may be performing below the grade level materials, explicit test prep activities must occur. It simply is not fair to plunge students into test situations without some familiarity with the types of tests, the types of questions, and the guidelines for acceptable responses.  Using sample questions, test-taking strategies and attention to the “tricks of testing well” are appropriate preparation techniques.  However these test prep strategies must be in balance with the teaching/learning processes of the class.

5. How do teachers do all this active, engaged learning and still keep up with the district or state pacing guide?
Active, engaged learning occurs in robust, integrated curriculum models such as problem-based and project-based learning and performance learning tasks. By combining various elements (concepts, skills, attitudes) into a rich learning experience, the pace can remain brisk, yet the learning can strive for deep understanding.  Pacing guides are signposts to keep teachers on track, on the pace.  They do not replace teacher creativity and ingenuity in designing rigorous, relevant and purposeful learning episodes.

6. How do teachers do cooperative learning in open concept/ open spaces classrooms?
Teachers do A. and/or B. and/or C listed below.

A.    You manage the noise level (six inch voices) and movement (how to move a chair or desk) within the given environment.  
B.    You create sound barriers whenever possible (curtains, book cases, file cabinets).
C.    You find another area to use for the activity (gym, cafeteria, library, school yard).


7. How do teachers write a lesson for every child?
Teachers don’t!  Students who need that level of differentiation have an IEP written for them.  What teachers do is modify, alter, tweak and differentiate the basic lesson to fit the strengths and weaknesses of various students.  They do not attempt to write an individual lesson for every child.

8. How do teachers differentiate for 120-150 students in high school?
Teachers have a robust repertoire of teaching strategies. They use multiple methods in teaching the lesson; they often offer options, choices, and various kinds of tasks. It’s like a pot roast with potatoes and peas; some need lots of salt and pepper; some omit the potatoes and need two servings of pot roast; others need to mix their peas with their potatoes in order to appreciate the flavors.   None of them get an entirely different dinner.  They just get the pot roast “their way.”

9. How do teachers co-teach effectively?
They do basic plans and use a consistent color-coding for various kinds of differentiating strategies.  Then each can visit the lesson separately and make notes accordingly.  They try to find time at lunch, or before or after school to talk.  They request time together in the schedule when it is possible to do so. Principal support is elicited for the scheduling situation.

10. What do teachers do to differentiate and address standards at the same time?
Teachers honor the standards for their content and their grade level, yet they change the delivery, the process and the accessibility of the learning.  They offer different doors for students to enter into the learning, and different ways for them to show what they know.

11. How do teachers differentiate every single lesson?
Many teachers already differentiate the lesson. Teachers modify, tweak, alter and shift their basic lesson easily for students. They differentiate in subtle, yet effective ways. For those just starting it eventually becomes a natural part of their planning.

12. How do teachers justify whole class direct instruction teaching?
Teachers may introduce a lesson to the whole class and review the lesson as a direct instruction strategy.  Yet, they will also include learning centers in the elementary classrooms and learning stations within a block of instructional time in the middle and high school classroom.  Whole group instruction is only one small part of the active, engaged classroom.