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Differentiated Instruction

Updated on April 14, 2013

What Is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is a process that recognizes students' varying background knowledge, readiness, learning styles, and interests and then crafts experiences for students that are responsive to those differences.

The intent of differentiated instruction is to maximize each student's growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is and designing instruction that matches students' needs. That sounds good, but the challenge for teachers is to actually accomplish that goal. There are a number of resources available to help meet that challenge. From noted educators like Carol Ann Tomlinson to researchers like Ruby Payne, there are guides to help teachers meet that challenge.

This is an examination of the rationale for the classroom differentiation process as well as some concrete help for planning instruction that is differentiated to meet student needs.

Why Differentiate?

Anyone who has spent any time in a classroom knows that all kids are different and each has his or her own unique set of talents, gifts, problems, and needs. Definitely one size does not fit all. The strength of differentiation is not only that it is the practical thing to do to ensure student success. It also is the moral and equitable thing to do. By differentiating instruction one is providing all students with access to all curriculum. "Teaching to the middle" means that most students are left out in the classroon, Differentiation is planning for instruction that accepts the challenge of truly meeting student needs.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of "The Differentiated Classroom", says, "Differentiated instruction is a teaching philosophy based on the premise that teachers should adapt instruction to student differences. Rather than marching students through the curriculum lockstep, teachers should modify their instruction to meet students' varying readiness levels, learning preferences, and interests. Therefore, the teacher proactively plans a variety of ways to 'get at' and express learning."

How Does Research Support Differentiation?

Brain research indicates that learning occurs when the learner experiences moderate challenge and relaxed alertness -readiness. Unless one plans for students at different levels of readiness, it is impossible to be meeting students at their optimum levels where they will actually learn. Many students in a whole group setting are under-challenged or are stressed because work is too difficult. Either way they are not ready to learn.

Psychological research also reveals that when interest is tapped, learners are more likely to find learning rewarding and become more autonomous as a learner. This supports several differentiation practices including incorporating student choice into assignments and using student interest inventories to guide instructional planning. My personal experience also supports this clearly. Often letting students choose a research topic rather than assigning one resulted in amazing student products into which students had poured energy and creativity. The key in these cases was student engagement that resulted from tapping their interests.

"Students miss much of the original data (up to 50 percent) when the cognitive strategies were not fully or partially developed." (from "Building Learning Structures Inside the Head", Ruby Payne, Ph.D.) This idea of building cognitive structures supports the idea of scaffolding assignments for students as necessary (one type of differention) based on student readiness.

What Differentiated Instruction is NOT

There are many misperceptions about differentiated instruction so here are some things that Differentiated Instruction is NOT--

DI is NOT:

-Individual instruction (It's not writing an IEP--individualized instructional plan-- for every child).

-Chaotic or new (Good teachers have differentiated since the days of the one room school house).

-Just another way to provide homogenous instruction (You DO use flexible grouping* instead).

-Just modifying grading systems and reducing work loads (Differentiation should have all students working hard at appropriate levels).

-More work for the "good" students and less and different for the "poor" students (Differentiation doesn't "punish" good students with more busy work and doesn't give less able students coloring sheets to keep them busy).

*Flexible grouping here means that the groups are NOT like the unvarying "red birds", "blue birds," and "yellow bird" groups of earlier days that clearly were ability grouping. In a differentiated classroom, groups are formed for specific purposes and vary based on the rationale for the grouping and the activity. Groups may be formed and reformed, even within a class period, or they may be longer term for a specific project.

A Planning Guide for Differentiating Instruction

The following steps will aid you in planning instruction that meets the needs of varied learners:

-Create goals. What do you want students to know? What are your objectives?

-Create assessments. (Begin with the end in mind. How will students show you that they have mastered your objectives?)

-Unit plan. Plan the pathways that will help students reach your goals.

-Pre-assess. This necessary step lets you know what students already know or can do.

-Differentiate based on data. Use the information gained from pre-assessments to decide what scaffolding, tiering or other differentiation will be necessary for specific students.

-Use formative assessments along the way to guide instruction.

-Give summative assessments (formats may vary (including scaffolding); what cannot change is the KUD (the Know, Understand, and Do from "Understanding by Design" (see Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's works for this concept). Remember that there are a number of ways to assess student knowledge. Alternative assessments using well-crafted rubrics can be an important tool in instruction.

Points to Remember When Planning for Differentiation

Some Thoughts on Learning Styles and Preferences

Learning styles, modalities, and intelligences are preferences; all of us can and do learn in more than one way. Using available learning style inventories can provide you an understanding not only about individual students but also about the range and variety of learning styles that are present in your classroom.

The knowledge that students have different learning styles should shape your teaching to try to incorporate more variety. This can also be helpful in reaching students with whom you have not been successful in other ways. But, there is no way to teach to every preference every day. That is not the intention of using learning style inventories.

The relative difficulty of the skill or objective can help us determine when differentiation is worth the time and effort. Differentiation is not about showcasing one's abiltiy to develop multi-faceted lessons. It is about making good professional judgements about how to successfully reach and teach children.

Recommended Books - Try one of these by Carol Ann Tomlinson--

Carol Ann Tomlinson is definitely the "guru" of Differentiated Instruction. All of these are great user friendly books that offer practical help for both the novice and the veteran teacher. She is truly an inspiration.

Activities to Use in a Differentiated Classroom - Online Resources

The following are some activities to use to provide multiple pathways to learning. These can be offered as centers or enrichment or used with whole classes while still allowing student choice and varied pacing.

Use Technology Resources to Differentiate

Technology has broadened the teaching possibilities in amazing ways, yet many of us are still hanging on to our horse and buggy methods. I am constantly amazed at the new resources available that make it possible to reach and teach so many different kinds of students in one class. If you have not done so before, you really need to do some research on the tools made possible through using technology including SmartBoards (or Promethean or other brand names---all essentially interactive white boards). Skilled use of this resource will let you make your lessons not only visual and auditory, but also interactive allowing you reach many types of learner with the same lesson. Another benefit of this technology is that there are numerous prepared resources you can use or adapt for your own use which saves time in lesson prep which sometimes seem daunting when trying to differentiate. There are also numerous classroom applications of iPad and iPod technology for differentiating instruction. Explore some of the links here for more on these topics.

iPad for the Classroom

Explore the features of the new iPad and its classroom uses. Have you been wanting a document camera? Skip that. Buy an iPad, download an app for less than $5 and project your students' work onto your whiteboard for immediate class feedback. Do a demonstration, dissection, or art project while students see every detail on the whiteboard projected from your iPad being used as a document camera. This is just one tiny example of the multiple uses an iPad could have in your classroom with just one of the many, many available educational apps. (And think of how much fun you can have with the iPad when your're not using it for your classroom.)

Alternative Assessment

Alternative assessment is an important tool for teachers in the journey to differentiate instruction appropriately for students. One challenge in differentiation is recognizing that just as "one size fits all teaching" is not effective for many students, neither is "one size fits all" testing. In order to assess students whose verbal or reading skills are not strong, alternative assessments should be considered. The term covers a number of different things, but is often used to refer to more project based teaching and assessing. In developing this type of evaluation, it is important to be clear on exactly what you want students to know and understand. Then consider the variety of ways other than paper and pencil tests in which a student might demonstrate that they know that concept or skill. This is valuable for all students but is vital when dealing with students such as English Language Learners, or students with reading disabilities (dyslexia, etc.) Here are some tools to help you in developing and using alternate assessment strategies.

Please let me know if this information has been helpful or if there are suggestions for more content.

Reader Comments and Questions

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I differentiate on a daily basis for 12 students in grades 2-5 in an accelerated gifted program. The number of lesson plans I implement in a day equals what one grade level teacher does in a week. 12 students - 12 places in math, 5 places in science, 12 places in writing abilities, etc etc. I can be done! And, it is what is right for kids!

    • bushaex profile image

      Stephen Bush 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Presumably there are many educators who disagree that differentiated instruction makes sense. We homeschooled all three of our children from day one through high school precisely because this common sense approach to education is not commonly available in most schools. In the business world, there is also typically a rush to applaud "cheaper" training programs that similarly ignore individual differences. In primary and secondary education as well as the business environment, overlooking critical individual abilities is almost always a losing strategy. SquidAngel Blessings.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very informative lens. I enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

      Li Li

    • sbilden78 profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for your helpful lens. Lots of great stuff here- I will be using it!

    • canoz profile image

      Heather Bradford 

      7 years ago from Canada

      I have just finished a lens on my own son's journey to learn. He had some extra challenges (auditory processing and some dyslexia) and I was very interested to read what you have to say here. Thanks for this lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      First time hear about this method but I think it's pretty reasonable!

    • KarenHC profile image


      7 years ago from U.S.

      My husband is a newer teacher (mid-life career change), and he's trying to come to grips with differentiated instruction. Some of the books you listed are also lying around our house :-) It sure can take extra work to come up with the necessary plans to take into account every student's needs!

    • AbhinavB LM profile image

      AbhinavB LM 

      7 years ago

      Definitely good instructions to follow...

    • ltraider profile image


      7 years ago

      Very well explained

    • ChrisDay LM profile image

      ChrisDay LM 

      7 years ago

      Motivation is everything and can be turned on or off by good or bad input from an educator or teacher. Recognising a child's individuality has to be so very important.

    • GonnaFly profile image


      8 years ago from Australia

      A very interesting lens. As a homeschooler, I totally agree that students will learn much better if an interest is tapped or a need for the skill is seen.

    • verymary profile image


      8 years ago from Chicago area

      It's hard for a school to achieve real excellence without differentiation, but so many struggle with the concept & practice. I know it is complex, but wish more teachers and administrators would take this on.

    • KarenHC profile image


      8 years ago from U.S.

      My husband is a fairly new high school teacher (career change), and he's fully supportive of differentiated instruction. He's frustrated with the teachers that are happy with the status quo, but he and a few other teachers are trying hard to work in this way.

    • Nancy S Oram profile image

      Nancy Oram 

      8 years ago

      This is such important information. Our district is still teaching one-size-fits-all. What's sad is that they had it right years ago.


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