On June 20th, I’ll be presenting at PBL World on Differentiated Instruction (DI). As I immerse myself into that process, I thought this would be a good time to make several posts in the theme of DI. What follows is a way to kick things off…

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an efficient structure for Differentiated Instruction (DI). Here is a breakdown of suggested means to differentiate within the 8 elements of PBL. Additional references are at the end of this document.

1.     Significant Content
Scaffolding content and skills based on students’ readiness is important when differentiating content. The Project Teaching and Learning Guide is a necessary tool for breaking down the concepts and skills learners must acquire. Based on this analysis, teachers design scaffolded lessons for supporting learning in case students do not succeed with the 1st or 2nd attempt.
Suggested strategies:
Tiered activities, Think Dots, Graphic Organizers, media that represents content differently, RAFTs, Homogenous study groups, Guided Reading, Mini-Workshops, Multiple Intelligences (such as Robert Sternberg), Readers Apprenticeship

2.     21st Century Skills
Skills such as Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Innovation are important learning tools as well as global skills. Effective teams help each other grasp content and think critically in a thoughtful manner. Assessment should be a varied mix of approaches such as written, oral, and media-based. Evaluations should include feedback from the students about themselves and each other. These practices support development of 21st Century Skills, learning content, and foster more accurate outcomes.
Suggested strategies:
Teaming heterogeneously and homogeneously  jigsaw, fishbowl, tiered activities, learning contracts, learning profile cards, Critique groups, Writer’s Workshop

3.     Driving Question
The DQ is a focus for the PBL unit. Students must answer the question by the end of the project to demonstrate understanding of the key concepts. Students find content purposeful when a DQ is targeted for an audience beyond the classroom or building. Often generated by teachers, students can generate their own so as to focus on their interests within the unit. DQs can be framed to address different levels of content complexity.
Suggested strategies:
Tiered composition, RAFTs, Self-generated, Mentors

4.     In-Depth Inquiry
Deep research and understanding of content is essential to critical thinking and analysis. We coach students, sometimes with scaffolds, to help them practice thinking tools. Metacognitive skills help learners make sense of targeted outcomes.
Suggested strategies:
Mini-workshops, Tiered activities, RAFTs, Fishbowl, Socratic Seminars, Graphic Organizers, Jigsaws, Multiple Intelligences (such as Robert Sternberg)

5.     Need to Know
Relevance and purpose are critical factors to learn something. How we connect the concepts and skills to students’ schema for what is important or related to them leads to deeper roots of comprehension. Entry events and entry documents when combined help build the initial buzz for a unit when strong relevance is made apparent. Relating the DQ to daily lessons helps students to understand how what is work today connect to the final product or presentation at the end of the unit.
Suggested strategies:
Multi-media, Field Trips, Guest speaker, simulation, team-based activity, on-going connections to contemporary world of students, multiple intelligence (such as Robert Sternberg)

6.     Voice and Choice
Students build interest when they have choices. They have buy-in when they have voice in their learning. The “Need to Know” activity fosters buy-in because students determine when content is sufficiently addressed. Having an open-ended product, aligned to clear criteria, encourages students to express themselves in whatever medium that allows them to best demonstrate understanding. Choices are good when teachers need to maintain a narrow scope for student responses. Voice promotes deeper understanding, driven by the curiosity and interest of the learner.
Suggested strategies:
Frayer Model, Think Dots, RAFTs, multiple intelligence (such as Robert Sternberg)

7.     Revision and Reflection
Learning how to review, reflect, and revise work and thinking helps students to make deeper connections with content. Coaching students on how to have constructive conversations ties neatly with developing 21st Century Skills and In-Depth Inquiry. These PBL elements work together seamlessly.
Suggested strategies:
Critique groups, Writer’s Workshop, Reading Circle, fishbowl, Socratic Seminar, gallery walks

8.     Public Audience
Having an authentic audience builds meaning and context for learning. Sharing their understanding helps students more deeply root the content and critical thinking. As with 21st Century Skills, students communicating their learning in an engaged session with others is an effective way for them to get what they need in achieving academic goals.
Suggested strategies:
Multiple intelligence (such as Robert Sternberg), multi-media, mentors, gallery walks, mentors.


Carol AnnTomlinson. Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching. ASCD (2003)

John McCarthy. The Learning Classrooms. http://learningclassrooms.pbworks.com