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Helping All Learners: Interest

How do I leverage my students' diverse interests?

Differentiation by interest means building instruction based on the interests that students bring to the classroom, or by offering students choices within a chunk of instruction that they want to dive more deeply into. At EL Education, we believe that it is essential for units of study (i.e., modules, expeditions) to focus on content and skills required by Common Core or state learning standards and local curriculum maps, so that all classroom time is spent on work addressing what is essential. Therefore, the topics studied are usually determined by school-wide structures, such as standards-aligned curriculum maps. While topics of study are standards-driven, the means by which students study them can vary by interest. This ensures that the knowledge, skills, and concepts students learn are always based on standards.

The same is true of the summative products that students complete. Having students working on an unlimited range of formats at the same time generally elicits poor-quality products or performances and prevents the teacher from leading the class together in understanding what the criteria for "high quality" of a specific format looks like. Therefore, we recommend providing students with some structure when creating their final products or performances.

The opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference. Elie Wiesel

A useful strategy for leveraging student interests in the products they develop is to include both mandatory and optional components. For a project on artists from the Harlem Renaissance, for example, each student may be required to complete mandatory pieces that receive deep classroom support (e.g., a timeline, biographical sketch, essay on influences and impact) and at least one optional piece that is less deeply supported but that students can choose based upon their interests (e.g., portrait, map, artistic review, family tree, art done in the style of the artist, copy of an artifact from the artist’s life). 

An additional way to tap into student interests is to give students choices in terms of the research topics. For example, in our Freaky Frog module in grade 3, all students research frogs, but they have some choice related to which type of frog they most want to learn more about.

Our stance is that the process of learning is where differentiation in concert with student interest can be most effective. Consistent learning targets will ensure that all students are working toward the same, standards-aligned goals.

Learning Target

I can explain the approach of differentiated instruction based on student interests. 

Watch: Menu Math at Odyssey School 

  1. What is the impact of the “grapple problem” on student engagement?
  2. Consider Ms. Goodrich’s “Menu Math” a model of offering students choices within a chunk of instruction. In your own classroom, how could you provide for student choice, as Ms. Goodrich does, while maintaining alignment to Common Core or state learning standards?
  3. How will you create the opportunity for your students to become self-aware of their interests, needs, strengths, and areas of improvement as learners?

Dig Deeper


Differentiating with Learning Menus: This video and accompanying resource from The Teaching Channel feature a creative and highly engaging strategy for differentiating instruction based upon student interest. 

Differentiating by Interests:  A brief article by Deborah Reynolds on the many ways teachers can differentiate lessons based upon student interests. 


Interest inventories are a useful tool for determining the interests of students and getting to know them better:

Student Interest Inventory- items to consider when creating a student interest inventory.


For Teachers...

  1. How will interest-based differentiation enhance student engagement? 
  2. What method-of-learning options could be presented to your students during an upcoming lesson or unit that would capitalize on their individual interests?
  3. Would differentiating the way in which students can demonstrate their knowledge or learning pose any challenges? If so, how will you overcome these challenges?

For School Leaders...

  1. What are the school-wide benefits to interest-based differentiated instruction?
  2. How will you coach teachers who are reluctant to differentiate based upon student interest?
  3. What strategies will you recommend your teachers use to begin learning about their students’ interests?