“What are we doing today?”

“Are we having a battle?”

“Can I be a general?”

My very hopeful and enthusiastic students often asked questions like these when I was teaching. Knowing that we found ways to bring history to life in our class, from reenacting battles to creating entire civilizations to role-playing the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, among other things, my students arrived each day in full expectation of having an adventure in which each of them could fully participate. As teachers, you and I would call this student engagement. What may not be readily apparent is that it’s also differentiation.

What is Differentiated Learning?

Ask a group of teachers how they differentiate learning, and you’re likely to get several responses. One is differentiating lesson plans, another is differentiating tests, and yet another is differentiating classroom activities. But what does it all really mean? After all, if it looks different in each classroom, conforming to each teacher’s idea of what differentiation means, it’s somewhat difficult to reach a consensus on what it is. However, what we likely all agree on is that our overall goal in differentiating is to make education more accessible to our students. Now let’s add one more element: student engagement. Differentiation can engage students’ minds, their voices, their passions.

If you’re thinking that this means more work for the teacher, it really doesn’t have to. The truth is that differentiation, unlike personalized learning — with which it’s often confused — is directed by the teacher, although just as focused on the student. This gives teachers the opportunity to make learning dynamic, fun, engaging — exactly what learning should be.

Sure, you have enough to do just trying to teach and prepare students for exams without having to come up with ways to implement what seems like another educational flavor of the month. But the good news is that what engages students is often fun for teachers as well. And anything that engages both you and your students is worth trying.

Differentiation and Student Engagement

The way to do it is to focus on the engagement part, and the differentiation will often take care of itself. Then, instead of being a tedious chore for teachers as well as an eye-glazing bore for students, differentiation can acknowledge and celebrate students as individuals within the group, making for a richer learning experience for the entire group. Here are four ways to try it:

1. Target learning styles.

If, for instance, you role-play the dialogue in a classic novel or the events in a battle, you simultaneously appeal to visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. By incorporating all learning styles into lessons, each student in the class can more readily participate, eliciting a greater amount of engagement. Students come alive given the opportunity for active learning that goes beyond reading the book and answering questions at the end of a chapter. They remember more, too.

2. Target ability levels.

Perhaps you’ll assign students to devise their own science experiments, for example, or to develop challenging math problems to contribute to a class assignment. Essentially, you’re bending lessons to fit multiple ability levels at once. This automatically differentiates learning by ability level, engaging students in creativity and innovation, which is always more fun than “prepackaged” assignments.

3. Target gender.

Boys and girls enjoy many of the same learning activities, but there are definite differences. At the risk of making too broad a generalization, boys, for example, are happy to engage in the most active, kinesthetic activities every day. They haven’t seen a battle that they don’t like! While girls enjoy these activities too, they generally prefer to vary them from day to day with those that demonstrate their creativity or allow for more discussion, role-play and debate. Adapting learning to include aspects of both of these effectively differentiates for gender while engaging both genders at once.

4. Target culture.

Using your own students’ cultures as your guide, add cultural music; include novels and short stories by culturally diverse authors; introduce historic, scientific and mathematical contributions of other cultures; in short, find ways to differentiate lessons culturally to engage students’ interests so that they can see themselves reflected in their learning. Regardless of grade, infusing your lessons with your students’ cultures differentiates learning in ways that make it more relevant to students, which is always more engaging.

Of course, these are just suggestions. The point is to find effective ways to engage your own students, differentiating learning to reach them where they are. Doing this, you’re likely to develop lifelong learners.

By Denise Fawcett Facey

Denise Fawcett Facey is an educator, professional development facilitator and author of two books on education: The Social Studies Helper: Creative Assignments for Exam Success (Rowman and Littlefield Education) and Can I Be in Your Class?: Real Education Reform to Motivate Secondary Students (Rowman and Littlefield Education). She can be reached via her website. Follow Denise on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.