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What Is Differentiated Instruction?

As early as 1953, the premier publication, Educational Leadership, was discussing “The Challenge of Individual Difference.” Since then, educators at every level have weighed in on the importance of recognizing student differences and preferences as they impact learning.

When teachers consider student learning styles, pace and ability as they plan, it is referred to as differentiated instruction. According to author, educator and speaker Carol Ann Tomlinson, “Differentiation can be defined as a way of teaching in which teachers proactively modify curriculum, teaching methods, resources, learning activities, and student products. The needs of individual students and/or small groups of students are addressed to maximize the learning opportunity for each student in the classroom.”

Why Differentiate?

Many elements of the school environment are not subject to negotiation. We have rigid standards of safety and cleanliness. Districts establish building-wide schedules for meeting educational mandates as well as providing art, music and physical education services to all students. Attendance is not optional and students are expected to be on time every day.

In addition to these basic organizational requirements, the national and state learning standards spell out detailed expectations for students at each grade level. While students with identified special needs are, at times, excluded from these expectations, all other students are expected to master or understand each standard at a specified milestone.

Because students come to the classroom with different abilities, interests, experiences and support systems, they do not all learn in the same way or at the same pace. It is up to the teacher to present required concepts in a variety of settings and formats to ensure that every student has an opportunity to be academically successful.

By differentiating, teachers can meet the needs of all students. Although not every lesson can appeal to every learner in the style of their choice, teachers can make small changes to direct instruction and individual or group assignments to make big ideas, concepts and information accessible to all students.

Three Ways to Differentiate

Teachers can differentiate in three distinct areas of instruction, according to the students’ needs:

Content. As teachers plan for instruction, they identify the big ideas and essential questions for each topic or unit. Teachers who differentiate seek to continually review these ideas and questions as they search out the most appropriate materials and activities for the students in their classroom. Students functioning much higher than grade level or well below grade level will be focusing on the same ideas and asked the same questions, but they may be using materials more suitable to their abilities.

In addition, student interest does not always match the curriculum and textbook provided by the selected publisher. For example, if the big idea is identify and create examples of figurative language, it may be appropriate for the teacher to provide a variety of literature choices, including poetry and picture books, or self-selected books, rather than the basal reader. When students are given the choice of the materials they will be using to study the same big idea, they have opportunities to work with a subject or genre most familiar to them.

Product. The ultimate goal for every lesson is students’ demonstration of mastery or understanding. While some lessons are ancillary to the big idea, there is always a concept or element that brings students closer to mastery.

Students must be able to independently demonstrate their own understanding of each lesson. Differentiated instruction provides for assessments which may involve different products — or demonstrated understanding — for different students.

Perhaps some students will write a poem with figurative language while other students take a written test. For some students, a simple conversation in which the student can explain the concepts without writing is the most effective and fair assessment.

When teachers differentiate, the assessment is not simpler or tougher depending on a student’s academic standing. Instead, the manner of assessing, or the product required to demonstrate understanding, is tailored to the student’s strengths.

Environment. Successful differentiated instruction pays attention to the physical learning environment. Although not every preference of every student can be met in one space, many accommodations for learning success can be achieved with thoughtful classroom design. Well-defined areas for quiet work or listening, group project centers with larger work spaces, carefully selected decor and easy access to classroom materials offer students choices while maintaining a sense of order.

How Does Differentiation Help Students?

The value of differentiation goes beyond fair and equitable access to education and assessments. When students feel understood, heard and respected by teachers, they are more confident that they can succeed and more willing to be challenged. For example, if a student who struggles with writing has the option of giving an oral report, the student can focus on learning the material without having to battle the anxiety and frustration surrounding the assessment of a written report or an essay test.

For students working below grade level, differentiation offers them opportunities to succeed academically while maintaining a sense of pride in their work. Tomlinson maintains: “Effective differentiation will almost inevitably incorporate what we call respectful tasks. All of us want to feel that we’re regarded with respect.” When teachers assign respectful tasks at every level, students understand that they are included, that they are intelligent and able, and that what they are doing is important.

Students who are working above grade level are often overlooked when planning for differentiation. Those continuously bored with the age-appropriate assignments often “check out,” and their motivation disappears. Simply giving students who excel additional work does not motivate them to work hard to succeed. It simply teaches them to work more slowly on assignments that do not challenge them. The content and product for these students must be carefully crafted to engage and challenge them.

Differentiation — Just Good Instruction

Tomlinson says, “Differentiation is, at its base, not an approach but a basic tenet of good instruction, in which a teacher develops relationships with his or her students and presents materials and assignments in ways that respond to the students’ interests and needs.”

Experienced teachers who have an interest in enhancing their differentiated teaching practice may consider a Master of Science in Education in Curriculum & Instruction from Northwest Missouri State University. This degree will give you the tools and expertise to “demonstrate diversity, equity and inclusion through improvement of practices related to curriculum and instruction.”

Learn more about Northwest Missouri’s online MS Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction program.


ASCD: A Brief History of Differentiated Instruction

WETA: What Is Differentiated Instruction?

WETA: Differentiation Tips for Parents

Scholastic: What Is Differentiated Instruction?

ASCD: Non-negotiables of Differentiated Instruction: Respectful Tasks

Education Week: Differentiated Instruction: A Primer

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