If education is a journey, then the route to success is littered with acronyms and initiatives. It’s easy to pluck one from the roadside only to discard it a few miles—or years—down the road. Few other professions are as inundated with buzzwords as education, and it’s easy to be pulled off course by becoming entranced with them. Your teaching practice is only as strong as your vision, though, and having a clear understanding of the language describing your tools will help you focus on delivering the best possible education to your students.
Two terms that are often used interchangeably are differentiated instruction and personalized learning. Both sound great, particularly within the context of education enhanced by devices. Everyone seems to have a vague sense that these teaching techniques are designed to make education less of a one-size-fits-all proposition, but the two ideas are quite different. You need to know them to use them, so let’s dig into the differences.
Who’s in Charge of the Learning?
The fundamental line that separates differentiated instruction from personalized learning is who has agency over the choices made about delivery of the lesson. Karen Beerer, Vice President of Professional Development at Discovery Education, sums it up best:
“The differentiation is what the teacher does, and personalization is what the student does.”
In differentiated instruction, teachers know their students’ strengths and weaknesses well, which allows them to come up with a plan to modify the lesson based on different needs. Reading groups are the classic example of differentiated instruction: The teacher modifies delivery of the material to reach students grouped by reading level, perhaps changing the text or allowing for more independent reading in one group while providing phonics review and additional supports in another. In this model, the teacher determines how the students will learn based on an assessment of their needs.
Personalized learning, on the other hand, puts the students squarely at the center of the lesson. In this model, the student chooses a topic of interest and has a say in selecting the materials used to learn. Students may also choose their own assessment or presentation of learning. While this doesn’t often happen in traditional public school classrooms on a regular basis, an individual research project is a common foray into personalized learning. Personalized learning, according to Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, is fully learner-centered and requires the teacher to be a “guide on the side” instead of the “captain of the ship.”
Differentiation in Today’s Classroom
Differentiation is a crucial component of education in the era of standards-based learning because teachers need a way to help all students meet the same learning expectations. Many aspects of a lesson can be differentiated. The instructor can offer different settings in the classroom, materials to use, teaching techniques, and supplementary materials as well as varied forms of assessment. In some cases, the subject matter itself is also up for grabs. For example, if the goal is to understand metaphors, some students may read Shel Silverstein while others dive into Langston Hughes. As Dale Basye points out, differentiation is, above all, about the teacher’s flexibility and willingness to alter “assessment, grouping, and instruction to create the best learning experience.”
It’s also easy to forget that differentiation isn’t just about modifying lessons to comply with special education students’ IEPs—though this is certainly important. Differentiation can enhance the learning experience for all students, and technology often makes it easier for teachers to provide what students need. For example, math practice on iPads can include several different problem sets tiered by difficulty. The teacher can assign students a specific problem set based on their needs and utilize a software program to track progress to simplify recordkeeping.
“Differentiation is about great teaching,” according to Beerer, who points out that it takes seven different avenues to truly learn something. Providing students with many ways to access information—perhaps via learning centers or new delivery of old information during spiraled review—is good for everyone, and it allows all students many ways to access new knowledge.
Personalization in Today’s Classroom
Though full personalization is uncommon in classes with 20 to 30 students, teachers can and should provide opportunities for students to make choices and take charge of their learning whenever possible. Allowing students to choose a topic of further study within a unit is a good start; you can also allow them to design assessment projects that harness their strongest skills to show their learning. For example, musicians will love writing a song about lizards while a math whiz might center their lizard assessment around a statistical accounting of local species. Using tablets and other devices in the classroom allows students access to streaming videos and additional background information about the subjects they’re passionate about, so all students can be engaged at the same time even though they’re not working on the same assignment.
It’s also possible to personalize learning by organizing units of study around essential questions. These open-ended questions get at the big picture of a topic while addressing learning standards at the same time. Eric M. Carbaugh and Kristina J. Doubet offer several examples of how a big question like, What role should humans play in safeguarding the environment?, can be leveraged to encourage individual reflection while directly addressing science concepts. The more opportunities your students have to connect their learning to their own lives, the more personalized their education will be.
The Bottom Line
Both differentiation and personalization help to meet students’ individual needs, but they aim at that target from two different angles. When you differentiate, you take charge of your lesson plans and delivery based on your expert understanding of where your students are and where they need to go. When you personalize, you extend some of that control to your students and encourage them to use what they know to explore on their own. Both are valuable tools in your arsenal to make sure each learner has what they need to succeed.
Elizabeth Trach is a professional writer and editor with 18 years of classroom teaching experience in both Spanish and English language arts. In addition to working with students from kindergarten through college, she also design curriculum and original teaching units. When she’s not in front of the computer, you can find her at work in the garden or singing in a band. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Port Potager, or connect on her website.