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Differentiated Instruction: What is it?


There's a term buzzing around the education world these days that has thousands of us in professional development: differentiated instruction.

   You can't figure this out over night. Cut yourself some slack. Pick one class, preferably one just before a prep period so you can reflect and take good notes, and concentrate on it.

What the heck is differentiated instruction?

This video is a good introduction, but it furthers the myth of learning styles and multiple intelligences, two bits of educational snake oil that help frame thinking but don't bear out in the science.

Well, it's just what it says: instruction that is different (or customized) for each student.

"But I have 700 students," you might say. "How the heck can I do that?"

There are some steps to take to build a foundation to begin differentiated instruction. I'm figuring out these steps this year. You can't begin this process until November in the school year. The first 6 weeks of school are for getting to know your students, review, and developing rapport. Some students need to warm up to you before they show their skills. That's a personality type, not a learning disability. Allow for that.

I'm beginning this process in January and expect to have the first 4 steps about done by March. Here are the steps.

Step 1: Pick a sample class

a. Re-read the IEPs and 504s for the students in that class.

     1. Note instructional differences on your seating chart. (e.g.: simplify directions, attention prior to directions, check-in during writing, needs check-lists, etc)
     2. Notice any similarities in your recommendations? I had a class that had 5 kids who needed "check-lists" for instructions. I decided to just teach the kids using a check-list on the board. It was so helpful, I began using a check-list to enhance my spoken directions for all the classes of that grade level. It really helped with classroom management.

Give this step a month. Note what you try and how it works. Make adjustments.

Step 2: Reflect on the class

     1. Are there students who you are not reaching, even paying closer attention to the IEPs etc? Do you notice similar students in other classes who are also in need of more help? Who knows these students best? The special education teacher? A particular classroom teacher? The school psychologist?
     2. Talk to your colleagues about those students and pick their brain. When are they most successful? How do they like to learn? When do they feel safe to take risks? Do they have a particular person they really like to be near? What cues do they need from the teacher? Do they need frequent breaks? What should those breaks consist of?

Get as much information as you can and note it. You are assessing what the learning needs of your students are. This takes time. Be patient and collect data.

Step 3: Teach assessment lessons

1. Choose an area of skill to start. 

I'm using a 3rd grade class with a couple autistic students as my focus. I haven't felt like I'm meeting the needs of the autistic students. I also have some gifted students who aren't being stimulated enough. The special needs kids, including the autistic ones, have above-average achievement in certain areas of music as well.

Recorder is a major milestone of 3rd grade and one that many special needs students struggle with. I decided to focus on this as my entry point into differentiated instruction. I chose it because:
A. Students can learn independently, from the teacher, and from one another.
B. It's important learning to the students.
C. There is a wide range of skill in the students within a month of introducing recorders.

You could choose dance, singing, or literacy. It's important that the students are invested in the learning. Engaged students help drive curriculum.

2. Design a lesson

 The lesson needs to review, introduce something new, and allow students to exceed expectations. Allow yourself to be surprised. You may not anticipate which students will (or can) assume the teacher's role. You may need to repeat this lesson for two weeks. This is what I did. 


  • Who holds pitch well?
  • When the class rushes, is there someone who keeps them in check?
  • Who memorized the lyrics with greatest ease?

Recorder Review

  • Teacher playing, students echo
    • Who does this with greatest ease?
    • Who is still struggling to feel the holes under their fingers? To use the left hand? To connect covered holes with changed pitch?
    • What are the similarities and differences between the sets of students who were expert singers and expert recorder players?
  • Playing a known song
    • review with teacher guidance then from memory. 
    • Who struggles? What might their struggle be? You may notice that many children not on IEPs have similar struggles to those who are, just at a different point on a spectrum of skill. Note the percentage of the class that struggles with those skills. 
  • Improvising on BAG
    • Teacher plays a simple rhythm and students play the same rhythm but end on a different note. 
  • Student-led improvisation
    • Can a student play a simple rhythm (give them the rhythm) on BAG, ending on B or A? 
    • The class ends their "answer" on G. 
    • Note who can do this and who cannot. If they cannot, how close do they get? Where are the holes in their skills? 
Back-track at any time if the students become too frustrated. 

Step 4: Reflect on the results

  • Make categories of students using the skills you just assessed. 
    • I ranked students who were expert singers and successfully volunteered to lead the class at the top
    • Students who could successfully lead the class but were not quite expert singers were next
    • Students who were expert singers or pretty good singers and tried to lead the class but struggled were next. 
    • Students who I believe had the skill to lead but did not take that risk were next.
    • Students who struggles with recorder were then ranked in the severity of their struggles
    • Students who struggled with singing and recorder were in lowest ranking
  • If about 1/3 or fewer of your students are struggling, go to the next step. If more than 50% of students are struggling, THE PROBLEM IS YOU. Reassess your teaching and teach the kids again. You missed something. 

Step 5: Begin playing with differentiated instruction techniques

This is the most exhilarating and most terrifying part of the process. You are actually going to try this thing that nobody taught you. It's scary and exciting. You are on the cusp of becoming a better teacher. I'm nearing this point and am finding it wonderful. It's like falling in love with teaching again. I'm trying things and seeing what sticks. I'll keep you posted as I try new things. Just search "differentiated instruction" and the posts will come up. 
Here are some useful videos that can help you learn about differentiated instruction. There are no good videos on differentiating in the music classroom that I could find. Please remedy this. I will try too. 


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