Differentiation & Dangerous Minds

Differentiated Instruction in teaching is a powerful strategy for not only engaging and motivating student participation, it is also a way to ensure you are varying course content to meet the various learning styles of your students.

Differentiated instruction can be a lot of fun for both the teacher and the students, however, should be approached with careful planning, in the end, you want to ensure that the content is still being covered and that your performance objectives are still being met without over stimulating the group or allowing the curriculum to be lost.

The text Student Engagement Techniques a Handbook for College Faculty (2010, E. Barkley) summarizes some idea’s from a variety of sources to apply differentiated instruction in your classroom:

  1. Level: challenging those who demonstrate existing knowledge, while building capacity for those who the learning is new.
  2. How Students Access Course Material: Mixing it up! digital media, presentations, textbooks, movies and music etc.
  3. Process: Vary the activities to include, writing, discussion and creating together in groups as well as individual work.
  4. Product: Replacing summative assessment with products  like essays, demonstrations, digital media projects.
  5. Classroom Space: Change up the classroom, move the desks or seating arrangements around for different learning activities, think about the lesson, is it lecture? perhaps theater style seating is it round table discussion, perhaps you want no seating or chairs at all for a particular activity.This does not have to be limited to physical classroom space! take your classroom online through peer media platforms or video chats.
  6. Materials: Using quotes to generate discussion, listening to podcasts or reviewing a video, tour a facility or exhibit.
  7. Time: Plan accordingly, will your lesson involve the whole group all of the time, will there be individual time for reflection, what will students be doing with any leftover time as a result of finishing products or activities early?

I often want my students to be thinking outside of the box, in fact, I just want them to be thinking! challenging what they have just learned, reflect about how this learning fits in with their experiences and how it directly applies to them.


As I was thinking about differentiated instruction I got to thinking about one of my favorite films Dangerous Minds (1995) and how the films character Teacher Louanne Johnson approached teaching inner city school kids… she needed to engage and motivate the students while ensuring she was covering the appropriate content. Through her obscure methods, she was not only building the relationship, she was also teaching these kids how to critically think, critically reflect on how the content applied to their lives and started their journey in becoming lifelong learners! in some cases, this was very subtlely and others it was very blatant.

  1. Level: There was a wide range of students in her class. While there were common threads like their shared experiences and socio-economic status, there were some students that she could challenge directly with more advanced ideas and others she needed to build a foundation with.
  2. How Students Access Course Material: She used it all! Culture, Discussion, Music Lyrics etc.
  3. Process:  Ms. Johnson did vary the activities to include, writing, discussion and creating together in groups as well as individual work.
  4. Product: The Dylan Dylan Contest comes to mind, now that being said, it was not for marks but reward so some may disagree with me here.
  5. Materials: Ms. Johnson used quotes and poetry to generate discussion.
I should add the disclaimer that films such as Dangerous Minds have a number of inaccuracies or pieces that I would caution educators from emulating in the classroom! 


Here is a video that touches on both the concepts found in differentiated and inclusion instruction. It is a bit longer than I would normally post, however, I felt there was a lot of value in this video ranging from Dangerous Minds to Dead Poets Society… heck even a little Kindergarten Cop.


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