4 research-backed ways to differentiate instruction 

When I think about what it takes for kids to master grade-level content in school and get the support they need to reach their potential, I recall my son’s experience. He’s in his late twenties now, but his early outcomes in language arts were mixed. His ability to read informational text was way above grade level, but his patience for literature was practically nil—and it showed in his reading scores. It’s easy for students like this to feel overlooked and fall behind in certain areas. The fortunate ones have teachers who know how to differentiate instruction so that every student has the right mix of support and opportunity.

But how exactly do you go about differentiating in a way that plays to students’ strengths while also challenging them to improve where they need it? It’s easy enough to say that all students deserve instruction that recognizes and meets their individual needs. But we can’t just snap our fingers and “make it so” at a time of stubbornly low rates of academic growth, increasing inequities, and the lingering effects of the pandemic. And it’s not just students who need dedicated support—our busy teachers need it, too.

That’s why NWEA—committed to making sure teachers have the resources they need to succeed—launched the High Growth for All project, featuring a suite of actionable tactics called the Transformative Ten. High Growth for All started with a deep dive into MAP® Growth™ assessment data from 700,000 students in 24,500 public schools. Combing through this data, NWEA researchers identified four highly effective teachers at two high-growth schools, conducted extensive interviews and additional data collection, and documented the best practices that have proven to be effective in these schools. These best practices informed what we are now calling the Transformative Ten.

You may sometimes feel alone in your classroom, but so many of your peers are grappling with the same issues.

One of these tactics, differentiating tasks within a unit, seeks to help teachers navigate the tricky task of giving each student the personalized instruction and learning opportunities they need to thrive, while continuing to provide all students with access to grade-level content.

To help you put this tactic into practice, I’d like to share four straightforward and impactful tips drawn from my experience working with superintendents, principals, and professional learning communities. I’ve gotten a firsthand look at the obstacles teachers face in meeting the instructional challenges of our time—and I’ve also seen the brilliant and inspired work teachers are doing in this area.

1. Start with the evidence of “who”

It may sound obvious, but determining exactly which students need which types of support is a crucial first step before you begin to differentiate instruction. And while there’s a lot to be said for teachers’ intuition—they do, after all, know their students better than just about anyone—doing this correctly involves more than simply making a judgment call. We all have our blind spots and biases. Like my son, there are an awful lot of students out there who don’t fit neatly into a “low” or “high” performing group, depending on the subject, and it does them a disservice to label or tag them as such. That’s why, before assigning students into differentiated learning groups, you need clarity on their preparedness for specific tasks within a larger subject area.

And how exactly do you gain this kind of clarity? My best advice is simply this: Look to the data. There’s so much valuable evidence to be gleaned from instruments like pretests, summative assessments, and interim assessments like MAP Growth, to name a few. The point isn’t to rely entirely on numbers, but rather to combine this quantitative information with your own intimate knowledge of the kids sitting at the desks in front of you. When you figure out how to bring quantitative and qualitative data together, you take a big leap in your ability to sort your students into the learning groups that are best tailored to their needs.

There’s no question that data can be a powerful and helpful asset—if we can only learn to trust it. As my colleague Lindsay Prendergast and I write in our forthcoming book, Habits of Resilient Educators: Strategies for Thriving During Times of Anxiety, Doubt, and Constant Change: “When paired with the quantity of decisions teachers find themselves facing on a daily, even hourly, basis, data can empower teachers to become masters of highly effective instruction and extraordinarily efficient users of a most precious resource: time.”

2. Create small groups

Have you noticed that students often feel more relaxed and confident working in small groups? And have you noticed that small-group work gives you an informal way to watch students more closely and see how the instruction they’re getting may or may not meet their needs? There’s so much a teacher can learn in these moments, simply by observing.

It takes time—valuable time—to form and manage small groups. But it’s worth it!

Nevertheless, there’s a persistent myth that tier-one instruction—the curriculum, instruction, and assessments given to all students at a given grade level—is somehow incompatible with small-group learning. Even though we can see the benefits of small-group learning with our own eyes, I’ve noticed a widespread assumption that when it comes to tier-one instruction, only the traditional “all eyes on teacher” model is appropriate.

I’d like to push back against this assumption. In fact, I’d argue that for all instructional groups—including tier one—the smaller, the better. I encourage you to keep this in mind at the start of each instructional unit. You can do some really great teaching in small groups. Your students can all be working on the same project within the same rubric, and you can deliver targeted support where it’s needed as they engage in this work.

When I see small groups in the classroom, I see more kids who are on task, more teachers with greater insight into how each kid is doing, and more overall growth. The challenge, of course, is that it takes time—valuable time—to form and manage small groups. But it’s worth it!

3. Know your standards

Many, if not most, of the teachers I know are multitasking geniuses. They manage busy classrooms, extensive to-do lists, and various priorities and directives handed down from the school or district level. It’s a juggling act they perform with great skill. But in my observations, there’s a common downside to multitasking: a lack of clarity and focus around the academic standards for which teachers are responsible.

Here’s how Lindsay Prendergast and I put it in our book: “It is common for teachers to know instructional groups of standards generally but not all of them masterfully. The powerful move of collectively and collaboratively unpacking and investigating standards allows all teachers to gain pedagogical tools and a deeper understanding of the appropriate level of rigor when instructing students. This practice of collectively analyzing standards allows teachers to fix their eyes on the goal of supporting growth and achievement for all students.”

Let’s bring this to life with an example. Say you have a literature standard that pertains to identifying the character and setting of a book. This is a simple enough task, but you’re excited about the material and your mind is racing ahead not only to other standards, but also to your own ideas for what you’d like your students to know. You may be tempted to launch into the lesson with a discussion of other elements—the front and back cover, the title page, the author, the illustrator—before getting to the standard. All these things can and should be covered, but you need a game plan.

To home in on standards and make them second nature, I recommend two powerful tools that you already have in your toolkit: conversation and collaboration. By getting together with your peers and sharing what you know while remaining open to their insights, you can all benefit from collective teacher efficacy, a concept that’s been studied and affirmed by numerous educators and researchers.

Maybe you have a knack for informational standards and you’ve become skilled at differentiating instruction of these standards in your classroom. Bring what you know to a professional learning community, and you will probably find that others have brought different but equally valuable perspectives, tips, and tricks to the table. You can use these collaborative environments to drill down into the substance of what you’re teaching this year. Try breaking down clusters of standards in particular units with graphical tools like T-charts (yes, T-charts can be for teachers, too), for example.

One final note on getting the upper hand on standards: Make it a daily practice. Start each day in the classroom by getting as clear as possible about your learning intentions for the day, and know when your strengths—e.g., multitasking skill, adaptability—could also inadvertently cause you to lose focus. Identify which standard, or which part of a standard, has the potential to deliver the most impact for the day, and be sure to hit that one first.

4. Get support—and get vulnerable

I know the tactics to differentiate instruction I’ve described so far aren’t just minor adjustments or quick fixes. It might sound like a lot of work. That’s why the last tactic I’d like to share is one that will make the other three possible. To put yourself and your students on the strongest footing possible, I encourage you to seek out, use, and trust the resources available to you.

Start each day in the classroom by getting as clear as possible about your learning intentions.

It’s understandable when teachers, who usually (and for good reason) feel they know their students best, strike out on their own with their own materials. But they—and their students—may miss out on readily available, evidence-based instructional resources that are getting better all the time. Our mission of partnering to help all kids learn reflects the importance of getting these resources into teachers’ hands and fostering the equal opportunities that kids deserve. However, to be frank, there is currently a gap between the availability of superb resources and teachers’ willingness to use them. I encourage you to be open in this regard. You may be pleasantly surprised.

That said, resources are best thought of as a menu, not a script you have to follow. Order from the menu as you see fit. You can find resources to help guide you through all phases of instruction, from whole-group to independent to small-group learning. If you find yourself thinking that every step you take to seek out resources or support has an associated cost in terms of your time, you’re right. There’s no denying that. But just as your second year of teaching was probably a bit easier than your first, the investment you make in reaching out for support will pay dividends over time.

Finally, remember that no teacher is an island. You may sometimes feel alone in your classroom, but so many of your peers are grappling with the same issues. Be vulnerable and give yourself permission to seek out support. Tell your principal what your goals are and what you need. Your administrative leadership may already have prioritized getting more curriculum-based resources into teachers’ hands and will do what they can to facilitate this for you or offer incentives to stretch yourself in this way. Find other teachers in your building who seem to have figured some of this out already. And, of course, as you learn from others, you can share your own expertise, too.

Putting it all together

As you ponder the ideas I’ve shared above and how you might be able to put them to work in your classroom, there are a few additional pitfalls and key principles to consider:

  • Beware the implementation dip. We know from research that in the immediate aftermath of rolling out a new resource or instructional strategy, academic data may temporarily move in the wrong direction. But we’ve also learned the importance of sticking with it.
  • Differentiating instruction does not mean lowering rigor. We want to accommodate all our students, but that doesn’t mean bringing the overall standard down to a point where our grade-level and advanced students no longer have what they need to feel engaged.
  • Set ambitious, achievable goals. As Lindsay and I write in our book, “clear and attainable goals allow students to have a vision of where they need to go while providing checkpoints along the way to help them monitor their progress and celebrate their small milestones toward academic growth.”
  • Seek out feedback from supervisors, mentors, coaches, fellow teachers, parents and guardians, and students themselves. The great thing about feedback is that you get to decide how, when, and why to receive it—and how to integrate it into your work.

I invite you to learn more about High Growth for All, the Transformative Ten, and other resources to help you on your teaching journey. If you’ve got three minutes to spare, watch our video about differentiating tasks within a unit. And keep an eye out for other blog articles on the Transformative Ten strategies—all intended to help you bring these tactics to life in your classroom.

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