Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Standards Based Instruction Should Not Prevent the Use of Differentiated Instruction

When I talk to teachers about using differentiated instruction and assessment when including students with ASD and other disabilities in their classrooms, I often hear that they wish they could teach that way but with the emphasis on teaching the standards, it's impossible.  I don't really understand why standards based instruction would prevent the use of differentiated instruction.  The standards provide the curriculum, not the teaching and assessment methods.  Differentiated instruction means that teachers take that curriculum and differentiate the content (what students learn), the process (how students learn), and the product (how students demonstrate what they learned) to address the interests, learning profiles, and readiness levels of their students.  Today's classrooms are made up of a diverse group of students requiring teachers to differentiate their instruction and assessment.  Teachers cannot simply "teach to the middle" with pre-determined instructional objectives using the same teaching and assessment methods for all students and end up with a classroom of learners all performing at grade level and meeting all of the standards.  Without a doubt some students will be left behind and others will not be challenged who are performing above grade level.  To implement standards based instruction using differentiated instruction and assessment procedures, teachers can do the following:

  1. Assess the students' interests, their present levels of performance in all academic domain and how they learn best (learning profiles)
  2. Select a standard(s) that will be addresses for a particular unit of instruction
  3. Conduct a pre-assessment to determine what pre-requisite skills the students have and do not have and the knowledge and skills they may have already mastered related to the standard(s).
  4. Based on the pre-assessment, set differentiated instructional objectives selecting the "big ideas" (what all students will learn), and additional instructional objectives for most students, and advanced instructional objectives for some students.  When including a student with severe intellectual disabilities, it may be necessary to set individual instructional objectives if the "big ideas" are not developmentally appropriate for that student.  Also, for students with ASD and other disabilities, additional instructional objectives can be set to address their IEP goals within the lessons for the instructional unit.  This allows students to learn social, communication, academic, and independent functioning skills within the ongoing instructional activities in the classrooms enhancing motivation and generalization.
  5. Plan differentiated teaching procedures to address the learning profiles and interests of the students.  For example, students with ASD typically require active engagement strategies, the use of visual supports and instructional technology, and motivational strategies to fully benefit from classroom instruction. 
  6. Plan differentiated assessment procedures to allow students multiples ways to demonstrate what they learned.  This can include pencil/paper tests, essays/reports, oral presentations, artwork, music, drama, PowerPoint presentations, group projects, answering questions orally, etc. Make sure there are assessment procedures selected for all of the differentiated instructional objectives. 
While the differentiated instruction and assessment framework sounds like the best way to teach, it is also the most difficult way to plan, teach, and assess.  It is best done with collaboration among general and special education teachers throughout the planning, teaching, and assessment phases.  It can be quite overwhelming for teachers to plan for differentiated instruction throughout the school day.  Therefore, teachers should start small and gradually increase the quantity and quality of their differentiated instruction and assessment procedures. No teacher is ever finished learning how to improve their approaches to differentiated instruction.

The final "Yeah, but:" Teachers will often say that they have to "teach to the test" preventing them from using differentiated instruction and assessment procedures. I say this: Of course, you can teach test taking strategies and get students comfortable with the format they will see on the tests, but that should not be your sole instructional approach.  It should be a small part of what is done throughout the school year with some extra emphasis a month or two before the tests take place.  Teaching to the test does not address the unique learning needs of the students in today's classrooms, does not provide authentic learning experiences, and will not likely teach students to love learning or allow teachers to love teaching.

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