Two teenage girls using a netbook computer in the school library.

Differentiating instruction means creating multiple paths so that students with different ability levels, learning styles, and interests can all be successful in learning and in demonstrating what they have learned. One way to think about differentiated instruction is by using the framework of “content, process, and product:

  • Content – What you teach and expect the students to learn (e.g., how to complete a long division problem)
  • Process – How you teach and expect the students to learn (e.g., through explicit instruction, modeling, manipulatives, use of multi-media, and classroom practice)
  • Product – How you expect the students to demonstrate what they have learned (e.g., by passing a written test on long division, using long division to complete an authentic task, teaching another student, etc.)

To implement differentiated instruction, the teacher looks at content, process, and product to see how each area can be differentiated to match the maximum number of students in the classroom. Sometimes you differentiate only one of those areas, sometimes two, and sometimes all three, based on your students’ strengths and needs, your curriculum, and your resources.

Here are some examples of how you might differentiate content, process, and product:

Content – During your pre-assessment to gather information about your learners, you discover that some of your students already have a solid foundation of the content to be taught. To maintain interest for these students, enrichment activities related to the application or extension to more advanced content should be developed. In addition, the original content you had in mind should be taught to the other students who do not yet have a good grasp on the content. Flexible grouping strategies or learning stations could allow these different learning opportunities to occur simultaneously.

Process – By assessing your students, you also find out how they learn and what engages them. You then offer multiple ways for the students to interact with the content – e.g., digital texts, books on CD, PowerPoint presentations, films, individual work, small group work, etc. – all chosen because they will help the students in the particular class you’re teaching.

Product – Again, by assessing your students, you discover how they can best express what they have learned in both their in-class and homework assignments. Then, give students a menu of options for demonstrating their learning, some of which may be required while others may be student-choice. Examples could include writing a letter or song; creating artwork; making a video; creating a performance; working alone; and working in a team. Guidelines, expectations, and/or a rubric for each type of product must be available to the learners so they know how the product will be evaluated before beginning the task/activity.

Strategy

Lessons framed as questions, issues, and problems to be solved engage children with greater interest than those presented as straight facts and data. For example, an eighth-grade class studying ancient Roman history could begin with the question, “Why do you think the ancient Roman civilization was eventually destroyed?” Presented this way, the topic has drama and an infinite number of potential answers.  This leads to a study on Ancient Rome that focuses on the workings of government, the uses of the military, and the competition among people for resources.

The wide-open nature of the question stimulates thinking and gives students a springboard for investigation.  This inherently prompts the learners to think critically and creatively and to use their own strengths to discover the information and master the material as they learn to answer the question.

Tips

Have no fear – if you have 30 students in your classroom, you do not need to present your content in 30 different ways. Offering just two or three options can be enough to reach everyone in the class.

Check out Differentiated Instruction in Action to learn more about how you can specifically implement differentiated instruction using the framework of content, process, and product.