Differentiated instruction in science

I am a science specialist and I teach students in first through fifth grades. My school is becoming the resource room building in the district. I expect to have large class sizes, 25–30 students, with mixed ability levels. I could have as many as 12 special education students in one class. I’d like to try differentiated inquiry science instruction. Can you suggest some resources?
—Jane, Waltham, MA

In an online interview, Carol Ann Tomlinson, a teacher and author of many publications on the topic, says differentiated instruction is a result of a teacher “acknowledging that kids learn in different ways, and responding by doing something about that through curriculum and instruction. A more dictionary-like definition is adapting content, process, and product in response to student readiness, interest, and/or learning profile.

Many teachers have been differentiating without ever attending a workshop on the topic. They have realized one-size-fits-all instruction doesn’t work with the diversity of students in their classrooms. Strategies such as flexible grouping, cooperative learning, learning contracts, learning stations/centers, tiered assignments, independent study, direct instruction, authentic and alternative assessments, multimedia, inquiry, and problem-based learning can be used skillfully and purposefully to fit the many needs and varied interests of their students.

On Tomlinson’s website, you can find out more about the topic. I would recommend her book The Differentiated Classroom, an easy-to-read discussion of the topic with examples and suggestions. On YouTube, use the phrase “differentiated instruction” to find videos of what this can look like in real classrooms, where students are engaged in the learning process through a variety of activities. It’s also encouraging to see how students are taking more responsibility for their learning in these classrooms.

For your science classes, consider the book Differentiated Instructional Strategies for Science, Grades K-8 available through NSTA’s Science Store with many sample lessons and assessment activities. You could also look at the February 2010 issue of Science Scope, which had differentiated instruction as its theme. Some of the ideas in the articles could be used in your upper grades.

The resources noted at the end of this response have more suggestions for planning and implementing differentiated instruction. An important consideration is  to relate the instructional activities to the learning goals of your curriculum and state standards. I observed a class in which some of the “differentiated” activities included coloring pages and find-a-word puzzles. I would certainly question their value in helping students learn science content and skills.

Your teaching assignment sounds like a challenging one. You mentioned in a follow-up note that you will see the students once a week in your role as science specialist. If the classroom teachers also provide instruction in science, it will be important to communicate with them to help students make connections between the lab and classroom activities. A quick glance at a few science notebooks would let you know what the students have been doing since their last visit to your lab. And the homeroom teacher can see what projects the students are doing with you.

With your special education students, you may have the opportunity to co-teach with a special education teacher or to work with a paraprofessional. Having another adult in the classroom to work with the students can be a valuable resource for your differentiated instruction. I’m hoping you also have planning time with them to learn more about the students and their learning plans.

Last month, a colleague in a similar situation asked about cooperative learning roles in the lab. The blog also has suggestions for organizational strategies and procedures in a lab situation.

Additional resources:

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504443770/

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One Comment

  1. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted July 17, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    The students will benefit if the classroom teachers stay in the room to work with you as you teach the science lesson. The teachers can share or demonstrate strategies which work well for individual students and they will get the science content they need to be able to answer students’ science questions later in the week.

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