Students are Differentiated Puzzles that Teachers Must Solve

students are differentiated puzzles
Getty Images/Erik Isakson

The Declaration of Independence famously states, “that all men are created equal.”  While this most certainly applies to the individual freedoms and liberties that every citizen of the United States should have, it does not apply to the make-up of each individual human being. In fact, it could not be further from the truth. Each of us is uniquely different.  Though we certainly share certain qualities, talents, and abilities, we are unique in the entire package that makes us who we are.

For educators, this is inherently becoming more important and regularly accepted.  Differentiated instruction is a trending buzzword in education that has garnered much attention over the past decade.  The fact is that every student is different. They are not robots. Each has their own individual strength and weaknesses unique to them. Students are differentiated puzzles that teachers must essentially solve. 

For too long schools have grouped students incorrectly by chronological age.  Arguably, this practice sets many students up for failure, while even limiting a few others that are cognitively advanced for their age.  Teachers have limited their effectiveness by teaching to the middle of the class.  This is a disservice to those above and below that middle threshold. Differentiated instruction ensures that every student is getting what they need. This takes a major commitment from the school and the administrators, but no one will have a greater burden than the teacher.

Meeting the needs of each individual student is no easy task. It is extremely time-consuming. The amount of time needed to plan and prepare for instruction is the biggest adjustment for teachers who embrace the differentiation culture.  Beyond cognitive abilities, teachers must examine the whole student.

They must break down the student into tiny puzzle pieces and formulate a plan that utilizes those individual pieces to maximize each student’s learning potential. This is complex, but it is also necessary.  Understanding each of these components helps customize a legitimate learning plan that can help every student succeed.

Cognitive Ability

Some students are naturally more intelligent than others. This statement while crude and often exasperating for teachers is also very true.  Many students with lower cognitive abilities get frustrated and give up early on in school.  Many students with higher cognitive abilities become bored with school. Both of these issues lead to student discipline issues, bullying, and eventually high school dropouts.  Teachers must meet students where they are and take them up the next step of the ladder.  Though some students’ ladders naturally have more rungs than others, it is essential that teachers continue to help their student climb to that next rung no matter how high or low it is.

Developmental Maturity

Maturity comes sooner for some than it does for others. The middle school student is the quintessential example of examining the differences in maturity between students.

  Teachers are keen as to figuring out quickly which students are mature versus those that are lacking maturity. When building an individualized plan of learning, this factor must play a role.  A mature student will be able to handle more than an immature student.

External Distractions

Life happens. Though school is important, we as educators are naïve if we believe that some things happening in our students’ lives will not or should not interfere with learning.  Divorce, the death of a close friend or family member, an argument or break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, abuse, neglect, drugs, alcohol, and working to support a family are just a few of the distractions that many of our students face on a daily basis.  Teachers must account for these distractions.  An essential part of differentiated instruction is taking care of the whole student going beyond the simple lessons taught in the classroom by providing support to help them get through these issues.

External Influence

Friends and family members impact student learning.  Those with highly involved parents who value education give their children a leg up on learning compared to those who do not.  As students get older, their friends have a profound impact on them.  Sometimes this impact is positive while other times it is negative. When creating a plan for differentiation teachers must consider these influences.  Those students surrounded by positive influences will need less attention than those who do not. Those surrounded by negative influences will most certainly require more direction and time.

Instructional Preference

Most adults are keen on recognizing what our instructional preference is. Some people learn best when listening to a lecture while others learn best when conducting a hands-on activity.  Any plan for differentiated instruction should be tailored towards a student’s preferred learning style.  This does not mean that students should not be exposed to other methods. Learning through multiple approaches is also beneficial. However, regularly incorporating aspects of an individual student’s instructional preference will boost retention, interests, and ultimately learning.


Every student has an area that they are drawn to, things that they enjoy doing, or outside interests. It is advantageous for teachers to incorporate these things into their lessons on a regular basis.  For example, a teacher can incorporate Legos into some lessons if they have students who talk about them all the time.  Connecting a lesson with students’ interests only helps reinforce the concepts that are being taught and helps maintain engagement throughout.


Every student is motivated by something. Sometimes that motivation is intrinsic and requires little from the teacher or anyone else. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to figure out what motivates a student. It often takes a lot of conversation, a trial and error approach, and even a little luck.  Teachers should attempt to find something that sparks an interest, keeps their students coming back for more, and ultimately looking forward to being in class each day.


Personalities vary greatly in a classroom with twenty students.  When one student responds to something positively, another may be offended by it.  Gauging individual personalities is complicated at best.  It requires time, trust, and openness.   Ultimately, instruction must be tailored to fit these personalities. You cannot expect an introvert to give a speech about political correctness in front of the entire class successfully. Likewise, you cannot expect the class clown to lead a small group discussion about asexual reproduction in plants.  Knowing the personalities of students is essential in successfully solving the puzzle.