The Importance of Personalized Instruction Part 2: Differentiation by Process and Product

We know that all children are unique, and that they have different talents, skills, and interests. Personalizing, or differentiating instruction, helps address their specific needs and leads them to becoming more engaged, interested, and successful learners.

The process of learning is the way that kids make sense out of what they are studying.  You can differentiate the process of learning for kids by providing alternative activities that lead them to the same goals.  You can target activities for those who perform at different skill levels, have different learning styles, interests, talents, or proclivities. There are many ways that this can be accomplished:   

Differentiation by Questioning: The simplest and most obvious way of differentiating the process of instruction is through questioning.  The best-case scenario is when the questions come from those who are at the center of learning, namely, the kids themselves. If you encourage kids to ask lots of questions, and to explore the answers to their questions, it prevents them from becoming passive learners.  It also gives them the message that their curiosity can lead to greater understanding.  Celebrating student questions encourages them to be inquisitive and to seek help when they are confused.  


Differentiation of Assignments by Broadening and Narrowing their Scope

There are several simple ways to differentiate the assignments that you give kids based on their skill level.  You can vary the complexity of any assignment by either narrowing or broadening its scope.  For struggling students and for English Language Learners, you may narrow the scope of any assignment by limiting the requirements. You may also add context for these students by providing additional resources such as video clips, illustrations, or diagrams. You may break the assignment into manageable parts, review each part as it is completed, and provide additional activities to help fill in missing gaps in their background knowledge. For advanced students, you may broaden the scope of any activity by providing open-ended questions.  You may also give them assignments that call for interpretation, require more complex and advanced thinking, or ask them to do independent research.  

Inquiry and Choice-Based Learning

Two other ways to differentiate or personalize instruction is to give students choices or to have them involved in inquiry-based learning.  In choice-based learning, students decide which activities to complete depending on their interests, preferences, or learning styles.  In inquiry-based learning, students explore materials and grapple with interesting and thought-provoking questions to construct meaning in their own way.

Differentiation by Product

The simplest way to differentiate by product is to give kids a choice about how they want to demonstrate their understanding.  If kids choose how they will demonstrate mastery, they are more likely to be invested in it and more motivated to do a good job.  Of course, students must completely understand the goals of the instruction, and how their efforts will be evaluated.  

Even if you differentiate by product, you can still take their different skill levels into consideration.  Kids who struggle, and English Language Learners, may need requirements that are narrower in scope and require more concrete thinking.  You may require your above grade level students to demonstrate their thinking in more complex or advanced ways.  If you differentiate by product, just make sure that every student feels that they are doing something personally challenging, and that they all can share what they have learned.