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Differentiating Instruction in the Alternative Education Setting

Nancy Grimes, Project Advisor
Former Coordinator of Gifted Education
Waterloo Community School District, Waterloo, Iowa
Adjunct Instructor
Viterbo University, La Crosse, Wisconsin

Students differ as learners. Teachers recognize that children have different personal experiences, learn at different rates and depth, and when given the opportunity will choose to learn content in methods or styles that best suits them. Sometimes the content might be difficult and complex while other times due to prior knowledge or a keen interest the information is relatively easy for students to incorporate into their schema.  Classrooms abound in differences, yet often instructional delivery remains a constant. Content, materials and activities often remain the same for all regardless of how a child best learns. 

Differentiating instruction is a way of thinking and systematically planning that acknowledges differences by providing students with choices in how they apply content and skills at appropriate challenge levels.  When given the opportunity to learn as much as possible even with different starting points, students can and do soar.  Teachers who utilize differentiated methods often observe an increase in student engagement and motivation with stronger achievement results.  Once having experienced “choices”, students many times ask for more choices and often suggest tasks. Students become learners when they routinely seek to be responsible for their own learning.

Carol Ann Tomlinson(1), University of Virginia, is the leading authority on differentiating instruction.  Her body of work clarifies that key considerations must be given to differentiating content, process, product, and the learning environment in response to students’ readiness, interests, learning profiles, and affective needs.  Various methods and approaches can be used; however six main elements form the basis of planning differentiation.  These are:

  1. Knowing the Learner
  2. Clarifying the Curriculum and Learning
  3. Assessing Learning
  4. Adjusting Grouping
  5. Varying Approaches
  6. Managing DI (2)

Specific considerations for each element are as follows.

Knowing the Learner
  • Learning styles
  • Multiple Intelligences
  • Readiness, Cognitive levels
  • Cultural learning preferences
  • Inventories, Observations
  • Journals/Learning Logs
Clarifying the Curriculum & the Learning
  • Setting clear objectives
  • Defining concepts, facts & vocabulary
  • Connecting learning to bigger ideas; understandings
  • Determining skills to embed in student tasks
  • Using Effective Instructional Strategies
Assessing Learning
  • Formal and informal
  • Varied preassessments
  • Checking during & after
  • Using rubrics
  • By self and peers
Adjusting Grouping
  • Large group instruction
  • Small group instruction
  • Cooperative groups
  • Alone, Independent practice
  • Flexible groups
Varying Approaches
  • Offering Choice. e.g. menu
  • Tiered Instruction
  • Projects & Performances
  • Problem-Based Authentic Tasks
  • Addressing learning styles
  • Increasing cognitive challenge
  • Types of Acceleration
Managing DI
  • Room Arrangements
  • Students managing their work
  • Reflect, refine, & file units
  • Maintaining activity matrices

Differentiating instruction honors and benefits all students.  And for gifted students this can be liberating for now they can probe deeper, learn faster, examine content in relevant contexts, and synthesize their learning by producing meaningful work.  Gifted students especially benefit from differentiation when preassessments are used to plan instruction.  Advanced content, authentic performance tasks, compacting curriculum and acceleration are viable options for gifted learners.  No longer must gifted students “stay the pace of middle-road” instruction or unnecessary repetition.  Challenging choices become their “mainstream.”

Students attending alternative education schools and programs represent a cross section of abilities, aptitudes, learning styles, and interests.  These young people have elected an alternative setting for various reasons.  For some, change is needed from the general classroom. When regular classroom instruction reflects the one-way of teaching and learning, school can become disheartening resulting in a detachment from learning.  Some students drop out of school, others, especially gifted students, might opt to stay in school but drop out of learning.  Completing minimal work with minimal effort becomes the mainstay for some gifted students.  Too often this work ethic is reinforced by receiving above average grades.   When gifted students opt for an alternative program, their desire to learn may need to be reignited.  Differentiating instruction provides the spark not only for them but for other students in alternative schools.

Teachers in alternative schools should integrate principles of differentiation and weave choices and challenges into coursework.  The following five units developed by alternative school teachers illustrate different approaches.  Sometimes content differs for advanced learners.  There are several examples illustrating relevant, open-ended tasks aligned to content objectives.  As readers will conclude, differentiating instruction reflects multiple pathways.  Differentiating instruction is “doing whatever it takes to ensure that struggling and advanced learners, students with varied cultural heritages, and children with different background experiences all grow as much as they possibly can.” (Tomlinson)

(1) Carol Ann Tomlinson.  How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms,  2nd edition, ASCD, 2001.  Plus numerous other books, articles, and presentations.

(2) Nancy Grimes. “Elements of Differentiating Instruction,” 2007.