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Differentiated Instruction and Assessment

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If teaching were as simple as using the one best way to teach everything, it would be considered more of a science. However, there isn't just one best way to teach everything and that's why teaching is an art. If teaching meant simply following a text book and using the 'same size fits all' approach, then anyone could teach, right? That's what makes teachers and especially special educators unique and special. Long ago, teachers knew that individual needs, strengths and weaknesses must drive instructional and assessment practice.

We've always known that children come in their own individual packages and that no two children learn the same way even though the curriculum may be the same. Instructional and assessment practice can (and should) be different to ensure that learning happens. This is where differentiated instruction and assessment comes in. Teachers need to create a variety of entry points to ensure that student differing abilities, strengths, and needs are all taken into consideration. Students then need varying opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge based on the teaching, hence differentiated assessment.

Here are the nuts and bolts of differentiated instruction and assessment:

  • Choice is key to the process. Choice of learning activity as well as choice in the assessment (how the student will demonstrate understanding).
  • The learning tasks always consider the students' strengths/weaknesses. Visual learners will have visual cues, auditory learners will have auditory cues etc.
  • Groupings of students will vary, some will work better independently and others will work in various group settings.
  • Multiple intelligence is taken into consideration as are the students' learning and thinking styles .
  • Lessons are authentic to ensure that all students can make connections.
  • Project and problem based learning are also key in differentiated instruction and assessment.
  • Lessons and assessments are adapted to meet the needs of all students.
  • Opportunities for children to think for themselves is clearly evident.
Differentiated instruction and assessment IS NOT NEW! Great teachers have been implementing these strategies for a long time.

What does differentiated instruction and assessment look like?

First of all, identify the learning outcomes. For the purpose of this explanation, I'll use Natural Disasters.

Now we need to tap into our student's prior knowledge.

What do they know?
For this stage you can do a brainstorm with the whole group or small groups or individually. Or, you can do a KWL chart. Graphic organizers work well for tapping into prior knowledge. You may also consider using a who, what, when, where, why and how graphic organizers individually or in groups. Key to this task is ensuring that everyone can contribute.

Now that you've identified what the students know, it's time to move into what they need and want to learn. You can post chart paper around the room dividing the topic into sub topics. For instance, for natural disasters I would post chart paper with different headings (hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes etc.). Each group or individual comes to the chart paper and writes down what they know about any of the topics. From this point you can form discussion groups based on interest, each group signs up for the natural disaster they want to learn more about. The groups will need to identify the resources that will help them gain additional information.

Now it's time to determine how the students will demonstrate their new knowledge after their investigations/research which will include books, documentaries, internet research etc. For this, again, choice is necessary as is taking into consideration their strengths/needs and learning styles. Here are some suggestions: create a talk show, write a news release, teach the class, create an informational brochure, create a powerpoint to show everyone, make illustrations with descriptors, give a demonstration, role play a newscast, create a puppet show, write an information song, poem, rap or cheer, create flow charts or show a step by step process, put on an informational commercial, create a jeopardy or who wants to be a millionaire game. The possibilities with any topic are endless. Through these processes, students can also keep journals in a variety of methods. They can jot down their new facts and ideas about the concepts followed by their thoughts and reflections. Or they can keep a log of what they know and what questions they still have.

A word about assessment
You can assess the following: completion of tasks, ability to work with and listen to others, participation levels, respects self and others, ability to discuss, explain, make connections, debate, support opinions, infer, reason, re-tell, describe, report, predict etc.
The assessment rubric should contain descriptors for both social skills and knowledge skills.

As you can see, you have probably already been differentiating your instruction and assessment in much of what you're already doing. You may be asking, when does direct instruction come into play? As you're watching your groups, there will always be some students who will need some additional support, recognize it as you see it and pull those individuals together to help move them along the learning continuum.

If you can answer the following questions, you're well on your way.

1. How are you differentiating content? (variety of leveled materials, choice, varied presentation formats etc.)
2. How are you differentiating assessment? (students have many options to demonstrate their new knowledge)
3. How are you differentiating the process? (choice and variety of tasks that consider learning styles, strengths and needs, flexible groupings etc.)

Although differentiating can be challenging at times, stick with it, you will see results.

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