By Aviv Weiss, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Educators at Khan Academy and former Teacher
What Is Differentiated Instruction?
Differentiated instruction is basically the Holy Grail of education. While traditional education with a single teacher and dozens of students usually has to offer one-size-fits-all teaching, differentiated instruction is all about personalization for every student.
To take a very simple example, imagine that you had two students in your classroom:
Lola is struggling with adding fractions but is incredibly proficient at reading comprehension.
Meanwhile, Rhonda is having a hard time following the stories you read but is an absolute virtuoso at fractional sums.
In a traditional classroom, you’d likely aim your instruction at the average student in both subjects, meaning that Lola may feel overwhelmed by your math lessons while Rhonda is bored out of her mind—and vice versa for reading comprehension!
If you could provide the perfect beginner-level fraction support and advanced reading challenges for Lola (and the mirror image for Rhonda), you’d not only reduce frustration and boredom, but Lola and Rhonda could also learn at the absolute edge of their abilities!
What Are the Biggest Challenges to Differentiated Instruction?
The most obvious challenge with the above scenario is if you’re providing two sets of different experiences to two students and that feels like a lot, imagine doing the same thing for 25 or 250 students!
There just isn’t enough time in the day or enough teacher capacity to differentiate at scale, which is why so many educators have no choice but to fall back on that one-size-fits-all approach.
How Can AI Help with Differentiated Instruction?
While human capacity is limited by the sheer number of hours in a day, the new breed of generative AI tools has no such constraint. In just a few seconds, they can generate a nearly infinite range of lesson plans and learning materials.
As an example, let’s look at how Khanmigo, Khan Academy’s AI teaching assistant, can help educators quickly differentiate a grammar lesson for both advanced readers and English Language Learners:
Here’s the rough draft Khanmigo provided:
Objectives/Standards: Students will be able to identify and use nouns correctly. This aligns with the Common Core Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.1.A: Use collective nouns (e.g., group).
Essential Question: What is a noun and how do we use it in our daily language?
- Chart paper and markers
- Picture cards of various nouns (people, places, things, animals)
- Worksheets for practice
- Children’s book: A Mink, a Fink, a Skating Rink: What is a Noun?” by Brian P. Cleary
Hook: Start the lesson by playing a quick game of “I Spy” using only nouns.
- Direct Instruction: Read aloud the book A Mink, a Fink, a Skating Rink: What is a Noun? Discuss the different types of nouns mentioned in the book.
- Collaborative Practice: Divide students into small groups, and give each group a set of picture cards. Ask them to sort the cards into categories: people, places, things, and animals.
- Discussion: Bring the class back together, and have each group share their sorted cards. Discuss why they categorized the cards the way they did.
- Individual Practice: Give each student a worksheet to practice identifying and using nouns. For advanced learners, include sentences that require them to replace a common noun with a proper noun. For ELL students, provide sentences that use basic vocabulary and clear context clues.
Assessment: Check students’ understanding through their worksheet responses and group discussions.
Potential Higher-Order Thinking Questions:
- Why is it important to know what a noun is?
- Can you think of a sentence that doesn’t have any nouns? Why or why not?
Extension Activities: Have students write a short story using as many nouns as they can.
Differentiation: For students who are proficient readers, challenge them to come up with their own collective nouns. For ELL students, provide additional visual aids and bilingual resources.
You’ll notice that this is a great start in that it covers all of the most important components.
However, as with all AI tools, Khanmigo benefits from multiple revisions.
So let’s follow up with this prompt:
Can we make this even more differentiated? I’m worried that my ELL students are going to feel overwhelmed and my advanced readers will be bored.
And look at how Khanmigo offers us several paths forward:
And by focusing on activities, we can now get to a deeper level of differentiation:
- For ELL students, provide picture cards along with word cards in their sorting activity. This will help them associate the nouns with the images, making it easier for them to understand and remember.
- For advanced learners, include some abstract nouns in the word cards. This will challenge them to think beyond concrete nouns and consider concepts, feelings, or ideas as nouns.
- For ELL students, provide a worksheet with pictures and simple sentences. They can label the nouns in the picture and underline the nouns in the sentences.
- For advanced learners, provide a worksheet with more complex sentences related to the pictures. Ask them to identify the nouns and also replace common nouns with proper nouns.
- For ELL students, allow them to describe their PAW Patrol character in their native language first, then in English. This will help them bridge their understanding between the two languages.
- For advanced learners, challenge them to write a more detailed description of their character, including the character’s personality, job in the PAW Patrol team, and a brief backstory.
How Can AI Drive Differentiated Instruction Across Different Interests?
In addition to supporting students with different levels of proficiency, differentiated instruction enables learners with different interests to feel engaged.
As an example, let’s imagine teaching decimal multiplication to a 5th-grade classroom full of kids with incredibly diverse interests. Some of the kids are just obsessed with outer space while another group are all about pirates!
Is there any way to possibly hook (see what I did there… ) both groups of kids?
With Khanmigo, it’s totally possible via the Lesson Hook designer:
Not only is the AI up to the task, it even gives you options (with a nice sense of humor):
Ahoy, matey! I see we’re setting sail on a journey to the stars and the high seas, all while multiplying decimals! Here are two lesson hooks that might just do the trick:
- Space Pirates’ Treasure Hunt: “Imagine you’re a space pirate, sailing through the cosmos in search of hidden treasure! You’ve found a treasure map with coordinates written in decimals. To find the treasure, you need to multiply these decimals. But beware, if you multiply incorrectly, you might end up in a black hole instead of finding the treasure! Are you ready to embark on this adventure?”
- Galactic Pirate Ship: “Picture this: You’re the captain of a pirate spaceship, and you’ve just discovered a new planet full of treasure! But there’s a catch—the planet is surrounded by dangerous asteroid fields. The only way to navigate through is by multiplying decimals that represent the coordinates of safe passages. If you multiply incorrectly, you could crash! Can you lead your crew to the treasure?”
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Differentiated Instruction Strategy in the Age of AI
So there you have it—our age-old quest to serve each student’s unique needs has finally led us to a uniquely powerful tool.
And while AI may not provide the full Holy Grail of offering the perfect instruction to every student at every moment, it has challenged some of the constraints (time, energy, and creativity) that previously seemed unbendable.
So here’s wishing you tremendous success exploring this world—and driving incredibly personalized learning for your students!