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Louder and Slower is NOT Different: Getting Differentiated Instruction to Work

By Ellis Scott

Differentiated instruction is a buzzword that won’t be going away anytime soon. As an instructor it is one of the best things you can do to make learning gains in the classroom, as well as to help manage behaviors. However, not all methods of "differentiated" instruction are effective.

Effective use of differented instruction often comes down to student engagement. If students are not being taught in a way that allows them to easily process the information, then you are going to lose their interest and they will no longer be engaged in what you are doing. Once they are bored or distracted, the learning ends.

What Differentiated Instruction Does Not Mean

iStock 000000830600XSmall It’s important to get a firm grasp on what differentiated instruction is and what it is not if you want to successfully implement it in your classroom. Let’s take a look at what it is not as this is where I see most teachers making their mistakes. Repetition of the same concept the same way is not differentiated instruction. Repeating something LOUDER and SLOWER is not different.

A good way to remember this is to think about a person trying to communicate in a language they are not fluent in. I’ve had the unique opportunity to spend time overseas studying various languages. One of the most frustrating moments for a language learner is when you explain to somebody that you don’t understand and they respond by repeating the exact phrase louder and slower. In your head you think “umm… I just said I don’t understand that”.

Unless they explain it using different terminology (hopefully with words you know) you will never understand what they said. After all, you don’t know the words they are using. The fact that they repeat the phrase 5 times won’t change the fact that you don’t know what those words mean. You won’t magically understand the words the 5th time they say them either. The only way you will understand what they are trying to communicate is if they use different words (or add some hand motions) to convey the same meaning.

This is the frustration your students can feel when you teach the same concept in basically the same way. If they don’t understand it the first time (or the second time) then you need to find a creative way to teach it differently. Louder and slower isn’t different. It will do nothing for them to repeat what you said the same way.

What Effective Instruction Looks Like

iStock 000016533242XSmall For differentiated instruction to be effective, start with the concept you are trying to teach and then think of as many ways as possible that you can teach the concept. Try to embed a few of those different methods into one lesson and you will have better results. Don’t be a lazy teacher and assume because you taught it one way, everybody got it.

The most important element of differentiated instruction is engagement. Are the students engaged in what you are doing or are you talking to a group of students who are not mentally in your class? Boredom is the enemy of learning. Students may physically be in your class, but if they’re not paying attention the battle is lost. Focus on using differentiated instruction to increase student engagement and you will find that the more students are engaged, the more they learn and retain. Differentiated instruction is about making connections in their little heads.

Could you use a manipulative to help explain a concept? What about using technology? Maybe you could play a game that would teach students a concept while they are having fun. How about a story? Stories are fantastic… if they have a purpose. I love telling stories because if they are interesting students are engaged and when they have a concept attached to them, students remember the concept. Please don’t be the teacher who tells stories just to pass the time.

Remember that not every child will learn the same way and louder and slower is just what it is… louder and slower, NOT different. Different is different. Also be aware that differentiated instruction is not going to work if you are just winging it. You need to plan out the lesson methodically with different instructional methods embedded in the lesson. The goal outcome is that when you are done with a lesson (filled with different learning styles) most of your students will understand the concept. The reason most teachers end up simply being louder and going slower is because they didn’t spend time planning like they should have.