Education has evolved tremendously in recent decades as our understanding of learning habits and diversity amongst students grows. Today’s educators know that each student has their strengths and preferred methods of absorbing and retaining knowledge and skills. Differentiated instruction is a form of teaching that embraces these different learning styles and seeks to accommodate every student’s needs through varied educational content, processes, and assessments.
Differentiated instruction is applicable at all levels of education and in virtually every subject, from physical education to STEM. In the latter, taking a differentiated approach to teaching will help to ensure an inclusive environment where all students feel comfortable and enthusiastic about STEM subjects, whether it’s learning a mathematics concept or programming a Sphero robot. Another objective of differentiated instruction is to bridge learning gaps in the classroom through cooperation and tailored content. Read on to explore different ways of integrating differentiated instruction into a STEM curriculum.
Incorporating Differentiated Instruction in STEM
STEM curricula can benefit greatly from differentiated instruction strategies, as it can help keep all students on track to meet learning objectives and keep them engaged and excited about learning. Let’s dive into some of the differentiated instruction methods and how they can fit into STEM learning.
Addressing Learning Styles and Interests
One of the first steps in implementing differentiated instruction in STEM education is to understand and address the various learning styles in the classroom. This can be done in many ways, including using:
- A variety of resources: in education, there is a general understanding that students acquire information differently. As per the VARK model, students often fall into one of four learning styles (visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic). Account for these diverse learning styles by integrating a variety of resources into lesson plans, like texts, videos, presentations, and hands-on activities, like those used with
- Learning stations: organize learning stations in the classroom with different activities and modes of learning at each. Learning station tasks can include games, videos, worksheets, hands-on experiments, and more. This will expose students to many styles of learning, enabling both students and educators to see what resonates with each student the most.
- Independent studies: collaborative work is an important part of differentiated instruction, but so is independent study. Carve out time for students to pursue independent study or activities, or assign them individual tasks within a group setting. This will let them pursue topics that interest them and enable them to work at their own pace. From an educator’s perspective, independent work will also give valuable insights into a student’s strengths and interests, and see where they may need more support.
Tailoring Content and Process
There are several differentiated instruction strategies for STEM content and processes that educators can use to meet the diverse learning styles of their students and ensure that all students are reaching learning objectives, such as:
- Flexible grouping: this technique takes a fluid approach to group learning and assignments. Educators (or students) can create groups as needed based on interests, needs, or skills. For example, groups can be homogenous or heterogenous (i.e. groups where all members share an interest or require a similar teaching style, or mixed groups) and roles within groups can be intentionally or randomly assigned. Ultimately, this approach allows students to work with a variety of their peers and to learn collaboration, while still having their diverse needs met.
- Tiered assignments: tiered assignments can be used to account for students' various learning styles and capabilities. The general idea is that all students will have the same learning objectives but will be given different types or levels of tasks to meet their learning needs. It’s important that tiered assignments challenge the students they are geared towards and should be equally dynamic so that no one feels left out.
- Choice boards: this method offers a way to be inclusive of different learning styles in a STEM lesson. Consisting of a menu with various project options, choice boards let students choose their preferred method for demonstrating their knowledge. For example, students can choose to illustrate an infographic or diagram, write a report, present in front of the class, or make an audiovisual project to showcase what they’ve learned about a specific STEM topic or concept.
Foster Collaboration and Communication
A big part of differentiated instruction is creating a collaborative environment that welcomes all learning styles and levels. This, as any educator will know, is also essential in STEM lessons, where historically some students have felt left out. The following strategies can help ensure an inclusive setting for every student.
- Cooperative learning: within differentiated instruction, cooperative learning encourages students to not only work in groups, but to learn from each other as they collaborate. This approach tends to work best in heterogenous groups, where students of diverse knowledge backgrounds and levels can give their input, share their understanding of a given STEM topic, and learn to work and learn together.
- Class discussions: part of creating a collaborative and inclusive environment in the classroom comes from encouraging discussions. For example, after having students go through different learning stations, invite students to discuss their different experiences and what they learned. This type of class-wide reflection can not only help students share new ideas and build bonds, but also allow educators to better understand what is and isn’t working for their students as they learn STEM subjects.
- Presentations and demonstrations: in addition to discussions, students can also benefit from sharing what they’ve learned in a more formal way. Assigning presentations or demonstrations will enable kids to review recent lessons, think through new concepts, and share them with the class in their preferred style, whether it’s an audiovisual presentation, a report, or even an interactive experiment. Integrating regular presentations into coursework will not only give students the opportunity to showcase their understanding but will also get them comfortable with sharing in front of peers.
Building a Foundation for Diversity in STEM
At the core of differentiated instruction is the acknowledgment that not all students are coming to class with the same background knowledge, skills, or learning behaviors. This means a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching isn’t viable. In STEM subjects especially, taking a differentiated approach to learning can ensure that no student is left behind and that every kid is learning the material at their own pace, in a style that works for them, and with the support of their classmates.
Ultimately, fostering an inclusive and diverse learning environment for STEM subjects from a young age—using dynamic lesson plans, group work, and interactive projects—will help to build more diversity within STEM both in higher education and the job market. For more STEM education inspiration, explore Sphero’s vast resources for teachers.
About the Author:
The Sphero Team
The Sphero Team is comprised of current and former educators, education content and curriculum writers, product designers, engineers, executive leadership, and other experts in their fields. Learn more about who we are and what we do at sphero.com/about.