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What is differentiated instruction?

theory of differentiated instruction

By Geri Coleman Tucker

theory of differentiated instruction

At a glance

Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to students’ different learning needs.

It lets students show what they know in different ways.

It doesn’t replace the goals in a child’s IEP or 504 plan.

Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to all students’ learning needs. All the students have the same learning goal. But the instruction varies based on students’ interests, preferences, strengths, and struggles.

Instead of teaching the whole group in one way (like a lecture), a teacher uses a bunch of different methods. This can include teaching students in small groups or in one-on-one sessions. 

Students have “multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn,” says Carol Ann Tomlinson, an educator who has done innovative work in this area .

According to Tomlinson, there are four areas where teachers can differentiate instruction:

This approach works well with the response to intervention (RTI) process used in some schools. The goal of RTI is to address learning struggles early. Students get extra support before they fall behind their peers.

Dive deeper

How differentiated instruction works.

Differentiated instruction can play out differently from one classroom to the next — and from one school to the next. But there are a few key features:

Small work groups: The students in each group rotate in and out. This gives them a chance to participate in many different groups. A group can include a pair of students or a larger group. In all cases, it’s an opportunity for students to learn from each other.

Reciprocal learning: Sometimes students become teachers, sharing what they’ve learned and asking classmates questions.

Continual assessment: Teachers regularly monitor students’ strengths and weaknesses (in both formal and informal ways) to make sure they’re progressing in their knowledge and mastery of schoolwork.

Educators, learn more about how to use flexible grouping with small groups.

Differentiated instruction and special education

A teacher uses differentiated instruction to give every student multiple paths to learning. That includes students with Individualized Education Programs ( IEPs ) or 504 plans . 

Differentiated instruction doesn’t replace the goals in an IEP or a 504 plan. Instead, the teacher personalizes teaching to help kids meet those goals.

Learn more about setting annual IEP goals .

How it compares to other approaches

Differentiated instruction is not the same as individualized instruction. That type of teaching changes the pace of how students learn. It also requires an individual approach for each student, which isn’t the case with differentiation.

Differentiated instruction is also different from personalized learning. With personalized learning, students have their own learning profiles and paths to follow.

Find out more about personalized learning and the difference between individualized instruction and differentiated instruction .

What to watch out for

Critics say differentiated instruction doesn’t work in every classroom. If there are too many students in a class, or if the teacher isn’t experienced with the approach, the classroom can get distracting and chaotic. It can also be time-consuming for teachers.

Other critics say that differentiated instruction is a reaction to students’ needs. They say educators should use Universal Design for Learning to proactively create an environment that suits all students’ needs.

Discover more about Universal Design for Learning . 

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About the author.

Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for

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What is Differentiated Instruction?

theory of differentiated instruction

Teachers know better than anyone that students each have their own unique gifts and challenges; interests, aptitudes and learning styles. Differentiated instruction is the practice of developing an understanding of how each student learns best, and then tailoring instruction to meet students’ individual needs.

“I think differentiated instruction actually is just teaching with the child in mind,” writes Carol Ann Tomlinson, an author and teacher regarded as a pioneer in differentiated instruction. She describes the practice as “a way of thinking about teaching which suggests that we establish very clear learning goals, that are very substantial, and then that we teach with an eye on the student.”

In her book, “How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms,” she explains: “Kids of the same age aren’t all alike when it comes to learning any more than they are alike in terms of size, hobbies, personality, or food preferences. … In a classroom with little or no differentiated instruction, only student similarities seem to take center stage. In a differentiated classroom, commonalities are acknowledged and built upon, and student differences also become important elements in teaching and learning.”

At its most basic level, Tomlinson continues, “differentiating instruction means ‘shaking up’ what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content , to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively.”

Tomlinson’s emphasis on “Content, Process and Product” is fundamental to the theory and practice of differentiated instruction.

History of Differentiated Instruction [From One-Room Schoolhouses to the 21st Century Classroom]

The one-room schoolhouses of centuries gone by are often mentioned when your research topic is “the history of differentiated instruction.” Though not called by that name, it was understood that teachers in the traditional one-room schoolhouse setting, out of necessity, had to develop strategies for teaching students of different ages, abilities, literacy levels and backgrounds.

“Today’s teachers still contend with the essential challenge of the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse: how to reach out effectively to students who span the spectrum of learning readiness, personal interests, and culturally shaped ways of seeing and speaking about and experiencing the world,” Tomlinson writes in another of her notable texts on the topic, “ The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.”

The magazine Educational Leadership, established in 1943 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), devoted an entire issue to the theme “The Challenge of Individual Difference” in 1953.

It invites readers to revisit the lead article by Carleton W. Washburne, “Adjusting the Program to the Child.” The report also cites the influence of Frederic Burk in the 1910s and other educators in recognizing the value of developing strategies for helping students “progress according to their own abilities.”

Some educational historians also draw connections between the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, with its emphasis on helping disadvantaged students and improving individual outcomes in education, and some of the core principles of differentiated instruction.

Differentiated Instruction: Content, Process and Product

Today, differentiated instruction is widely practiced as a progressive approach to education that endeavors to leverage the unique learning characteristics each student brings to the classroom to deliver a more effective education than a so-called “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Reading Rockets, the Library of Congress Literacy Award-winning advocacy organization, also cites Tomlinson’s influence in mapping out the basic tenets of differentiated instruction , which guide classroom teachers in differentiating three specific aspects of the educational experience, plus a fourth that encompasses and expands upon these three:

Learning environment is the fourth variable in the differentiated instruction equation. It refers to the climate, or the look and feel of a classroom — the physical space as well as the tone set by the teacher to establish an atmosphere of mutually supportive learning.

A classroom with a learning environment optimized for differentiated instruction is one that:

To help gauge the most effective strategies for reaching each student and helping them learn and perform to the best of their unique abilities, teachers are also encouraged to consider students’ individual:

Differentiated Instruction: Classroom Strategies and Examples

A simplified example of connecting a student’s interest to the content of a particular learning goal or assignment is illustrated in an Education Week video narrated by teacher and author Larry Ferlazzo, who explains that differentiating instruction is really about getting to know your students and making decisions, often in the moment, based on what they need.

During a classroom assignment that involved an “argument essay” about what would be the worst natural disaster to experience, he noticed that one student had his head down on the desk and was not participating. Knowing that this student was interested in football, Ferlazzo engaged him to write his argument essay on the topic of “why his favorite team was the best.” In this case, the learning goal was developing the skills needed to make an effective argument (not learning about natural disasters) and the product was an essay that followed all the attributes of a good argument essay.

When it comes to process , the road to the best outcomes might involve teachers asking themselves: What are the learning objectives? And what are the best roads to get there for different students? A few of the possibilities include:

Regarding product , Tomlinson has written, “students can propose the way they’d like to show us something, or we might offer them two choices — with the notion that they can make a deal with us to do the third one.”

Ferlazzo says that when he gave tests, he sometimes included an extra blank page for students to write (or write and draw!) “anything else they remember about the topic being tested that they think is important.” He found that sometimes those responses were more inspired than the responses to his test questions. Ferlazzo said his version of differentiated instruction did not require a significant amount of extra work, but “did require that I had relationships with my students to know their strengths, challenges and interests.”

Another example of a classroom that employs an interesting variation of differentiated instruction is seen in an Edutopia video titled “Station Rotation: Differentiating Instruction to Reach All Students.” At Highlander Charter School in Rhode Island, classes start with a group lesson then break into smaller groups, each of which rotates through three stations designed to connect students with the material using different learning modalities.

Pro & Cons of Differentiated Instruction

The biggest criticism around differentiated instruction often centers on the idea that it requires teachers to take on an even heavier workload. Here is a brief summary of some of the chief pros and cons.

Differentiated Instruction FAQ

Q: What is differentiated instruction? A: Carol Ann Tomlinson, an author and teacher regarded as a pioneer in differentiated instruction, describes it as “a way of thinking about teaching which suggests that … we teach with an eye on the student.” She emphasizes four key pillars of differentiated instruction: Content, Process, Product and Learning Environment.

Q: Does differentiated instruction require more work for teachers? A: The amount of additional preparation required is open to debate, but most educators agree that successfully employing differentiated instruction does require building relationships with students to know their strengths, challenges and interests.

Q: What are the biggest benefits of differentiated learning? A: Advocates contend that by connecting subject matter and learning goals to individual student strengths, interests and learning styles, differentiated instruction can inspire students to be more engaged and motivated, thereby creating improved learning outcomes by inspiring them to take on more responsibility for their own learning.

[RELATED] 10 Traits of Effective School Leaders >> 

Innovative Techniques for Transforming Your Classroom

Many teachers reach a point in their career where they want to further develop their skills to make an even greater impact in their classroom, often following a particular passion or specific area of interest such as differentiated instruction. Whatever one’s desired area of focus, there are a range of master’s degree programs — including online options — designed to help working teachers achieve their career development goals.

For example, the University of San Diego offers an online Master of Education degree program with different specializations ranging from Inclusive Learning to Curriculum and Instruction . The curriculum in both specializations includes coursework focused on “strategies that provide differentiated support for the success of all students.”

Differentiated instruction is a comprehensive approach to teaching whose essence, according to the educational advocate Ferlazzo, is this: “Recognizing that all of our students bring different gifts and challenges, and that as educators we need to recognize those differences and use our professional judgment to flexibly respond to them in our teaching.”

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How Differentiated Instruction Can Help You Reach Every Student in Class

It may seem like common sense that students perform better in class when they receive support that meets their needs. Research around differentiated instruction confirms this is true. If you can adapt your instruction to reflect your students’ needs and learning preferences, you can make class time more effective and help students become more engaged.

In this article, we’ll go over what differentiated instruction is and how using this learning strategy can provide your students with the resources they need to succeed. Then, we’ll provide a few ideas for differentiating your classroom instruction and show you how Waterford curriculum can help you provide personalized reading instruction.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

theory of differentiated instruction

The idea behind differentiated learning theory is to make sure your curriculum reflects the diverse needs of your students.[9] Each student enters the classroom with unique experiences, preferences, and conditions that affect how they learn. Differentiated instruction provides students with different resources or options for understanding and mastering a concept, depending on their unique needs.[4] This can help move your classroom from heterogenous instruction toward individualized learning. [4,6]

Differentiated instruction doesn’t necessarily involve giving every student separate assignments—though you may adapt or modify assignments as specific needs arise. It’s more about providing students, individually or in a group, with different learning options or providing accommodations to help them learn more effectively.[11]

Sounds familiar? Differentiated instruction is often compared to the learning styles theory , which posits that all students respond best to one of four learning methods. While research into learning styles is mixed, there are clear and measurable benefits to adapting your teaching methods to your students’ needs.

Benefits of Differentiated Learning for Students

In a survey from the International Journal of Education, 97% of teachers reported never or seldom using a flexible curriculum for their students.[2] So why should you consider bringing differentiated learning into your classroom? The research is clear: students, especially those with diverse learning needs, learn more effectively when teachers respond to their needs.

A study published by Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences found that students’ learning outcomes significantly improve when teachers use differentiated content that responds to a student’s learning preferences.[5] Students are also more likely to focus and be engaged in the learning process when teachers differentiate their instructional strategies.[1,6] As you provide opportunities for students to explore content based on their strengths, they’re more likely to flourish in your class.

Differentiated instruction strategies are especially important for students with physical or learning disabilities.[4] These students often have strengths and weaknesses that are different from other students who don’t have the same disability. By differentiating your instruction, you can adapt lessons or assignments for these students to better accommodate their needs.[4]

How to Differentiate Instruction in Your Classroom

Now that we’ve gone over why differentiated learning matters in the classroom, let’s go over instructional strategies. Some teachers may feel discouraged because differentiated instruction can sound like an increased workload.[2] But differentiated instruction can make your teaching strategies more effective over time, which can help you make the most of both your students’ time and your own.

According to educational researcher and differentiated instruction expert Carol Ann Tomlinson, there are four key ways to differentiate classroom instruction:[8]

If a student might work more efficiently in a quieter learning environment, for example, you could allow them to complete a project in the school library. Or if you think a student would respond to a more visual approach with vocabulary words, you could adjust the content to include images with each word or adjust the product by assigning them to draw a picture that represents the words.

Additionally, don’t get overwhelmed by feeling that you have to make all of your assignments unique for each student. Some students may have specific needs that require you to adjust your assignments or teaching strategy. But in many cases, you can practice differentiated learning by either breaking students with similar needs into groups or offering all students several options for completing an assignment.[10]

Overall, the best way to practice differentiated instruction is by getting to know your students. As you work with them over the school year, you’ll be able to better understand their needs and what types of assignments they respond to.[9] And just as important, you’ll be able to help them recognize their own strengths and learning preferences—which can help them seek out the right learning strategies through their academic career.

Waterford’s Adaptive Curriculum Offers Differentiated Instruction

theory of differentiated instruction

Waterford ensures that students learn to read through thousands of games, songs, and activities. Our programs assign these lessons based on a student’s placement assessment and their demonstrated mastery. That way, the focus is always on the skills where they need the most practice.

And for older students, you can adjust our book-based study guides to offer personalized lessons on books you’re reading as a class. Students can also select independent reading books from our online library. When students choose what to read based on their personal interests, it encourages focus and engagement.

To learn more , get in touch! We’d love to discuss how our PreK–6 reading programs can revolutionize the way you support your students as they move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

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What is Differentiated Instruction? Examples of How to Differentiate Instruction in the Classroom

Just as everyone has a unique fingerprint, every student has an individual learning style. Chances are, not all of your students grasp a subject in the same way or share the same level of ability. So how can you better deliver your lessons to reach everyone in class? Consider differentiated instruction—a method you may have heard about but haven’t explored, which is why you’re here. In this article, learn exactly what it means, how it works, and the pros and cons.

Infographic: What is differentiated instruction? Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leader in the area of differentiated learning and professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia. Tomlinson describes differentiated instruction as factoring students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan. Four ways to differentiate instruction: Content, product, process, and learning environment. Pros and cons of differentiated instruction.

Definition of differentiated instruction

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leader in the area of differentiated learning and professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia. Tomlinson describes differentiated instruction as factoring students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan. Research on the effectiveness of differentiation shows this method benefits a wide range of students, from those with learning disabilities to those who are considered high ability.

Differentiating instruction may mean teaching the same material to all students using a variety of instructional strategies, or it may require the teacher to deliver lessons at varying levels of difficulty based on the ability of each student.

Teachers who practice differentiation in the classroom may:

History of differentiated instruction

The roots of differentiated instruction go all the way back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse, where one teacher had students of all ages in one classroom. As the educational system transitioned to grading schools, it was assumed that children of the same age learned similarly. However in 1912, achievement tests were introduced, and the scores revealed the gaps in student’s abilities within grade levels.

In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), ensuring that children with disabilities had equal access to public education. To reach this student population, many educators used differentiated instruction strategies. Then came the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2000, which further encouraged differentiated and skill-based instruction—and that’s because it works. Research by educator Leslie Owen Wilson supports differentiating instruction within the classroom, finding that lecture is the least effective instructional strategy, with only 5 to 10 percent retention after 24 hours. Engaging in a discussion, practicing after exposure to content, and teaching others are much more effective ways to ensure learning retention.

Four ways to differentiate instruction

According to Tomlinson, teachers can differentiate instruction through four ways: 1) content, 2) process, 3) product, and 4) learning environment.

As you already know, fundamental lesson content should cover the standards of learning set by the school district or state educational standards. But some students in your class may be completely unfamiliar with the concepts in a lesson, some students may have partial mastery, and some students may already be familiar with the content before the lesson begins.

What you could do is differentiate the content by designing activities for groups of students that cover various levels of  Bloom’s Taxonomy (a classification of levels of intellectual behavior going from lower-order thinking skills to higher-order thinking skills). The six levels are: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Students who are unfamiliar with a lesson could be required to complete tasks on the lower levels: remembering and understanding. Students with some mastery could be asked to apply and analyze the content, and students who have high levels of mastery could be asked to complete tasks in the areas of evaluating and creating.

Examples of differentiating activities:

Each student has a preferred learning style, and successful differentiation includes delivering the material to each style: visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and through words. This process-related method also addresses the fact that not all students require the same amount of support from the teacher, and students could choose to work in pairs, small groups, or individually. And while some students may benefit from one-on-one interaction with you or the classroom aide, others may be able to progress by themselves. Teachers can enhance student learning by offering support based on individual needs.

Examples of differentiating the process:

The product is what the student creates at the end of the lesson to demonstrate the mastery of the content. This can be in the form of tests, projects, reports, or other activities. You could assign students to complete activities that show mastery of an educational concept in a way the student prefers, based on learning style.

Examples of differentiating the end product:

4. Learning environment

The conditions for optimal learning include both physical and psychological elements. A flexible classroom layout is key, incorporating various types of furniture and arrangements to support both individual and group work. Psychologically speaking, teachers should use classroom management techniques that support a safe and supportive learning environment.

Examples of differentiating the environment:

Pros and cons of differentiated instruction

The benefits of differentiation in the classroom are often accompanied by the drawback of an ever-increasing workload. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:

Differentiated instruction strategies

What differentiated instructional strategies can you use in your classroom? There are a set of methods that can be tailored and used across the different subjects. According to Kathy Perez (2019) and the Access Center those strategies are tiered assignments, choice boards, compacting, interest centers/groups, flexible grouping, and learning contracts. Tiered assignments are designed to teach the same skill but have the students create a different product to display their knowledge based on their comprehension skills. Choice boards allow students to choose what activity they would like to work on for a skill that the teacher chooses. On the board are usually options for the different learning styles; kinesthetic, visual, auditory, and tactile. Compacting allows the teacher to help students reach the next level in their learning when they have already mastered what is being taught to the class. To compact the teacher assesses the student’s level of knowledge, creates a plan for what they need to learn, excuses them from studying what they already know, and creates free time for them to practice an accelerated skill.

Interest centers or groups are a way to provide autonomy in student learning. Flexible grouping allows the groups to be more fluid based on the activity or topic.  Finally, learning contracts are made between a student and teacher, laying out the teacher’s expectations for the necessary skills to be demonstrated and the assignments required components with the student putting down the methods they would like to use to complete the assignment. These contracts can allow students to use their preferred learning style, work at an ideal pace and encourages independence and planning skills. The following are strategies for some of the core subject based on these methods.

Differentiated instruction strategies for math

Differentiated instruction strategies for science

Differentiated instruction strategies for ELL

Differentiated instruction strategies for reading

Differentiated instruction strategies for writing

Differentiated instruction strategies for special education

References and resources

Books & Videos about differentiated instruction by Carol Ann Tomlinson and others

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What Research Says About . . . / Differentiated Learning

What we know, what you can do, educators take note.

Researchers at the National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum define differentiated instruction asa process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent is to maximize each student's growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is . . . rather than expecting students to modify themselves for the curriculum. (Hall, 2002)

Allan, S. D., & Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Leadership for differentiating schools and classrooms . Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Anderson, K. M., (2007). Differentiating instruction to include all students. Preventing School Failure, 51 (3), 49–54.

Baumgartner, T., Lipowski, M. B., & Rush, C. (2003). Increasing reading achievement of primary and middle school students through differentiated instruction (Master's research). Available from Education Resources Information Center (ERIC No. ED479203).

Ellis, E. S., & Worthington, L. A. (1994). Research synthesis on effective teaching principles and the design of quality tools for educators (Technical Report No. 5). Eugene: University of Oregon, National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators.

Hall, T. (2002). Differentiated instruction [Online]. Wakefield, MA: CAST. Available:

Lawrence-Brown, D. (2004). Differentiated instruction: Inclusive strategies for standards-based learning that benefit the whole class. American Secondary Education 32 (3), 34.

McQuarrie, L., McRae, P., & Stack-Cutler, H. (2008). Differentiated instruction provincial research review . Edmonton: Alberta Initiative for School Improvement.

Rock, M., Gregg, M., Ellis, E., & Gable, R. A. (2008). REACH: A framework for differentiating classroom instruction. Preventing School Failure, 52 (2), 31–47.

Tieso, C. (2005). The effects of grouping practices and curricular adjustments on achievement. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 29 (1), 60–89.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). Leadership for differentiated classrooms. The School Administrator, 56 (9), 6–11.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades. ERIC Digest . Available:

Tomlinson, C., & Kalbfleisch, M. L. (1998). Teach me, teach my brain: A call for differentiated classrooms. Educational Leadership, 56 (3), 52–55.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Strickland, C. A. (2005). Differentiation in practice: A resource guide for differentiating curriculum, grades 9–12 . Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Vaughn, S., Bos, C., & Schumm, J. (2000). Teaching exceptional, diverse, and at-risk students in the general education classroom (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Vygotsky, L. S., (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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theory of differentiated instruction

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Redefining fair summary.

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Direct instruction is known as the use of straightforward, explicit teaching techniques, usually to teach a specific skill. It is a teacher-directed method, meaning that the teacher stands in front of a classroom and presents the information. It emphasizes the use of small-group, face-to-face instruction by teachers and aides using carefully articulated lessons in which cognitive skills are broken down into small units, sequenced deliberately, and taught explicitly. Direct instruction is a theory of education which posits that the most effective way to teach is by explicit, guided instructions. This method of teaching directly contrasts other styles of teaching, which might be more passive or encourage exploration. It is a very common teaching strategy, relying on strict lesson plans and lectures with little or no room for variation. Direct instruction does not include activities like discussion, recitation, seminars, workshops, case studies, or internships. DI is probably the most popular teaching strategy that is used by teachers to facilitate learning. It is teacher directed and follows a definite structure with specific steps to guide pupils toward achieving clearly defined learning outcomes. The teacher maintains the locus of control over the instructional process and monitors pupils ' learning throughout the process. Benefits of direct instruction include delivering large amounts of information in a timely manner. Also, because this model is

Piaget Theory Of Cognitive Development Essay

Cognition is a process where different aspects of the mind are working together that lead to knowledge. Piaget’s cognitive development theory is based on stages that children go through as they grow that lead them to actively learn new information. Cognitive change occurs with schemes that children and adults go through to make sense of what is happening around them. The change that occurs is activity based when the child is young and later in life correlates to mental thinking. Piaget’s stages of cognitive development start from birth to adulthood and it begins with the sensorimotor stage, a child from birth to the age of 2 years old learns and thinks by doing and figuring out how something works. The second stage is the preoperational stage and in this stage children from ages 2 through 7 years are developing their language and they do pretend play (Berk, 2005, p.20). Concrete operational is the third stage and children ages 7 to 11 years old lack abstract but have more logic than they did when they were younger. The last stage is formal

Jean Piaget's Theory Of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development revolutionized the study of children’s cognitive development and it has undergone some revisions over the years. It also provides a set of basic principles to guide our understanding of cognitive development that are found in most recent theories.

The Importance Of Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is a support or concept for effective teaching that involves showing students with different ways to learning. According to Bearne (1996). “ differentiated instruction corresponds to an innovative approach through which educators whatever their subject area, are able to bring modification to curricula, teaching methods, usage of educational sources and resources, learning events or activities as well as assessment and evaluation methods.” Differentiation in simple words means tailoring instruction to meet individuals needs that is student needs in the school context. Differentiated instruction is the way a teacher anticipates and responds to a variey of students need in class. According to Mary Ann corley, differentiated

Reflection On Diversity And Diversity

All students deserve to be treated fairly as individuals. When considering the diversity of the class members, we will celebrate the uniqueness that the differences contribute. Because I have high expectations that all my children can be successful, adjustments may be necessary because everyone is not the same (Burden, 2017, p. 115). It is vital that a spirit of understanding and edification is active amongst the students and from the teacher (Romans 14:19, King James Version) to produce fruits of mutual respect: reduced bias, positive academic outcomes, enhanced problem solving, and healthy group dynamics (Cousik, 2015, p. 54). For differences that stem from culture, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, the adjustments will involve bridging the cultural gap between the students’ diversity and the curriculum. For differences that result from cognitive abilities, learning styles, or developmental stages, the differentiation in delivery style and product styles support students’ academic, emotional, and social growth. Strategies that support diversity:

Variation Theory Literature Review

Lessons are designed according to students learning difficulties. Students’ prior knowledge is assessed through the pre-tests and interviews as assessment tools to inform the content of the lessons. According to Hodge (2010), the key component of an effective lesson is when the teacher understands and knows about the topic. As Variation Theory using learning study is collaborative in its nature, teachers gain more knowledge on the topic as they discuss and meet to share their past experiences about teaching the topic before proceeding to the

More about Differentiation Theory In Learning

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What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiation is a teacher’s response to students needs, guided by general principles of differentiation such as respectful tasks, flexible grouping and on-going assessment and adjustment. “Differentiated Instruction is responsive teaching rather than one size fits all teaching. To increase student achievement, educators proactively plan varied approaches aligned to what students need to learn, how they will learn, and how they will show what they have learned.

How can teachers differentiate?

The knowledge, understanding and skills we want students to learn (the DoDEA standards).

How students come to understand or make sense of the content.

How students demonstrate what they have come to know, understand and are able to do after an extended period of learning.

What is the Role of Data in Differentiating Instruction?

Teachers gather and use data at many points of the instructional process. Initially the data collected may be the result of a pre-test in order to determine where students are in the learning process. Based on this data, the teacher may differentiate content, process or product. During instruction, teachers use formative assessments to gather data to assist them in the planning process and to determine if further differentiation is needed. The data gleaned from summative assessments tells the teacher if students have reached the learning goals.

Establishing Differentiated Instruction in our Schools.

Establishing Differentiated Instruction in our Schools

Start with quality curriculum and instruction

Develop differentiation as an instructional process

Build an equitable classroom learning environment

Build a culture of high performing schools

Examples of Instructional and Management Strategies Teachers Use to Differentiate:

Examples of Instructional and Management Strategies Teachers Use to Differentiate.

Examples include:

Multiple intelligences

Taped material

Anchor activities

Varying organizers

Varied texts

Varied supplementary materials

Independent study

Tiered lessons

Tiered centers

Tiered products

Learning contracts

Small group instruction

Group investigation

Literature circles

Guided reading

Varied questioning strategies

Interest centers

Interest groups

Varied homework

Varied journal prompts

Complex instruction

The Five Tenets of Differentiated Instruction:

The Five Tenets of Differentiated Instruction are:

Quality Curriculum

Positive Classroom Environments

Challenging Tasks

Flexible Grouping

Ongoing Assessment & Data

Where are WE now?

How do you currently differentiate instruction in your classroom?

What seems to be working?

What successes can you share?

What will I change in my classroom?

What will “look and sound different?”

What will be my first step?

What will I do tomorrow?

Who can assist me with this?

DoDEA: Teaching the children of America's military families worldwide.

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Differentiated Instruction: A Primer

theory of differentiated instruction

How can a teacher keep a reading class of 25 on the same page when four students have dyslexia, three students are learning English as a second language, two others read three grade levels ahead, and the rest have widely disparate interests and degrees of enthusiasm about reading?

What is Differentiated Instruction?

“Differentiated instruction”—the process of identifying students’ individual learning strengths, needs, and interests and adapting lessons to match them—has become a popular approach to helping diverse students learn together. But the field of education is filled with varied and often conflicting definitions of what the practice looks like, and critics argue it requires too much training and additional work for teachers to be implemented consistently and effectively.

Differentiated Instruction Definition

The process of identifying students’ individual learning strengths, needs, and interests and adapting lessons to match them

Differentiation has much in common with many other instructional models: It has been compared to response-to-intervention models, as teachers vary their approach to the same material with different students in the same classroom; data-driven instruction, as individual students are frequently assessed or otherwise monitored, with instruction tweaked in response; and scaffolding, as assignments are intended to be structured to help students of different ability and interest levels meet the same goals.

Federal education laws and regulations do not generally set out requirements for how schools and teachers should “differentiate” instruction. However, in its 2010 National Education Technology Plan , the U.S. Department of Education lays out a framework that places differentiated teaching under the larger umbrella of “personalized learning,” instruction tailored to students’ individual learning needs, preferences, and interests. This framework assumes that all students in a heterogeneous classroom will have the same learning goals, but:

That distinction is accepted by some, though far from all, in the field.

The ambiguity has led to widespread confusion and debate over what differentiated instruction looks like in practice, and how its effectiveness can be evaluated.

For example, a 2005 study for the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented, which tracked implementation of “differentiation” over three years , found that the “vast majority” of teachers never moved beyond traditional direct lectures and seat work for students.

“Results suggest that differentiation of instruction and assessment are complex endeavors requiring extended time and concentrated effort to master,” the authors conclude. “Add to this complexity current realities of school such as large class sizes, limited resource materials, lack of planning time, lack of structures in place to allow collaboration with colleagues, and ever-increasing numbers of teacher responsibilities, and the tasks become even more daunting.”

Evolution of the Concept

Differentiated instruction as a concept evolved in part from instructional methods advocated for gifted students and in part as an alternative to academic “tracking,” or separating students of different ability levels into groups or classes. In the 1983 book, Individual Differences and the Common Curriculum , Thomas S. Popkewitz discusses differentiation in the context of “Individually Guided Education, … a management plan for pacing children through a standardized, objective-based curriculum” that would include small-group work, team teaching, objective-based testing, and monitoring of student progress.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a co-director of the Institutes on Academic Diversity at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and the author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners , 2nd Edition (ASCD, 2014) and Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2013) argues that 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 student’s interests and needs.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

In theory—though critics allege not in practice—differentiation does not involve creating separate lesson plans for individual students for a given unit.

Ms. Tomlinson argues that differentiation requires more than creating options for assignments or presenting content both graphically and with hands-on projects, for example. Rather, to differentiate a unit on Rome, a teacher might consider both specific terms and overarching themes and concepts she wants students to learn, and offer a series of individual and group assignments of various levels of complexity to build those concepts and allow students to demonstrate their understanding in multiple ways, such as journal entries, oral presentations, creating costumes, and so on. In different parts of a unit students may be working with students who share their interests or have different ones, and with students who are at the same or different ability levels.

Illustration of school children at their desks

During the 1990s, teachers were also encouraged to present material differently according to a student’s “learning style”—for example, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. But while there have been studies that show students remember more when the same material is presented and reinforced in multiple ways, recent research reviews have found no evidence that individual students can be categorized as learning best through a single type of presentation.

Rick Wormeli, an education consultant and the author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom , instead suggests in a 2011 essay in the journal Middle Ground that teachers differentiate based on “learner profiles” : “A learner profile is a set of observations about a student that includes any factor that affects his or her learning, including family dynamics, transiency rate, physical health, emotional health, comfort with technology, leadership qualities, personal interests, and so much more.”

Impacts of Technology

Differentiated and personalized instructional models have also evolved with technological advances, which make it easier to develop and monitor education plans for dozens of students at the same time. The influence of differentiation on school-level programs can be seen in “early warning systems” and student “dashboards” that aim to track individual student performance in real time, as well as initiatives in some schools to develop and monitor individualized learning plans with the student, his or her teachers, and parents.


Advocates of hybrid education models, such as the “flipped classroom” —in which students watch lectures and read material at home and perform practice that would normally be homework during class time—have suggested this could help teachers differentiate by recording and archiving different lectures that students could watch and rewatch as needed, and providing more one-on-one time during class.

Professional Development

By any account, differentiation is considered a complex approach to implement, requiring extensive and ongoing professional development for teachers and administrators.

It required teachers to confront and dismantle their existing, persistent beliefs about teaching and learning ...

In the 2005 longitudinal study that found no consistent implementation of differentiation, researchers noted that “many aspects of differentiation of instruction and assessment (e.g., assigning different work to different students, promoting greater student independence in the classroom) challenged teachers’ beliefs about fairness, about equity, and about how classrooms should be organized to allow students to learn most effectively. As a result, for most teachers, learning to differentiate entailed more than simply learning new practices. It required teachers to confront and dismantle their existing, persistent beliefs about teaching and learning, beliefs that were in large part shared and reinforced by other teachers, principals, parents, the community, and even students.”

In the 2009 book, Professional Development for Differentiating Instruction , Cindy A. Strickland notes that most schools do not provide sufficient training for new and experienced teachers in differentiating instruction.

Ms. Tomlinson said that teachers can begin to differentiate instruction simply by learning more about their students and trying to tailor their teaching as much as they find feasible. “Every significant endeavor seems too hard if we look only at the expert’s product. ... The success of all these ‘seasoned’ people stemmed largely from three factors: They started down a path. They wanted to do better. They kept working toward their goal.”

Including students of disparate abilities and interests also requires the teacher to rethink expectations for all students: “If a teacher uses flexible grouping lesson by lesson and does not assume a student has prior knowledge because he is a ‘higher’ student but really assesses and groups, based on need sometimes and other times by interest, the students will get what they need,” Melinda L. Fattig, a nationally recognized educator and a co-author of the 2008 book Co-Teaching in the Differentiated Classroom , told Teacher magazine that year.

In practice, differentiation is such a broad and multifaceted approach that it has proven difficult to implement properly or study empirically, critics say.

In a 2010 report by the research group McREL, author Bryan Goodwin notes that “to date, no empirical evidence exists to confirm that the total package (e.g., conducting ongoing assessments of student abilities, identifying appropriate content based on those abilities, using flexible grouping arrangements for students, and varying how students can demonstrate proficiency in their learning) has a positive impact on student achievement.” He adds: “One reason for this lack of evidence may simply be that no large-scale, scientific study of differentiated instruction has been conducted.” However, Mr. Goodwin pointed to the 2009 book Visible Learning , which synthesized studies of more than 600 models of personalizing learning based on student interests and prior performance, and found them not much better than general classroom instruction for improving students’ academic performance.

Both in planning time and instructional time, differentiation takes longer than using a single lesson plan for a given topic, and many teachers attempting to differentiate have reported feeling overwhelmed and unable to reach each student equally.

In a 2010 Education Week Commentary essay , Michael J. Schmoker, the author of the 2006 book, Results NOW: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning , says attempts to differentiate instruction frustrated teachers and “seemed to complicate teachers’ work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials” leading to “dumbed-down” teaching.

Likewise, some advocates of gifted education, such as James R. Delisle, have argued that advanced students still are not challenged enough in a differentiated environment, which may vary in the presentation of material but not necessarily in the pace of instruction. He argues that “differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”

“There is no one book, video, presenter, or website that will show everyone how to differentiate instruction. Let’s stop looking for it. One size rarely fits all. Our classrooms are too diverse and our communities too important for such simplistic notions,” Mr. Wormeli said in an interview with Education Week blogger Larry Ferlazzo .

“Instead, let’s realize what differentiation really is: highly effective teaching, which is complex and interwoven; no one element defining it.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2015 edition of Education Week

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From our blog

20 Differentiated Instruction Strategies and Examples [+ Downloadable List]

theory of differentiated instruction

Reviewed by Allison Sinclair, M.T.

Engage and motivate your students with our adaptive, game-based learning platform!

1. Create Learning Stations

2. use task cards, 3. interview students, 4. target different senses within lessons, 5. share your own strengths and weaknesses, 6. use the think-pair-share strategy, 7. make time for journaling, 8. implement reflection and goal-setting exercises, 9. run literature circles, 10. offer different types of free study time, 11. group students with similar learning styles, 12. give different sets of reading comprehension activities, 13. assign open-ended projects, 14. encourage students to propose ideas for their projects, 15. analyze your differentiated instruction strategy on a regular basis, 16. “teach up”, 17. use math edtech that adjusts itself to each student, 18. relate math to personal interests and everyday examples, 19. play a math-focused version of tic-tac-toe, 20. create learning stations, without mandatory rotations.

As students with diverse learning styles fill the classroom, many teachers don’t always have the time, or spend additional hours to plan lessons that use differentiated instruction (DI) to suit students’ unique aptitudes.

Educator Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it beautifully in her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms :

Kids of the same age aren't all alike when it comes to learning, any more than they are alike in terms of size, hobbies, personality, or likes and dislikes. Kids do have many things in common because they are human beings and because they are all children, but they also have important differences. What we share in common makes us human. How we differ makes us individuals. In a classroom with little or no differentiated instruction, only student similarities seem to take center stage. In a differentiated classroom, commonalities are acknowledged and built upon, and student differences become important elements in teaching and learning as well.

This can involve adjusting:

To help create lessons that engage and resonate with a diverse classroom, below are 20 differentiated instruction strategies and examples. Available in a condensed and printable list for your desk, you can use 16 in most classes and the last four for math lessons.

Try the ones that best apply to you, depending on factors such as student age.

Provide different types of content by setting up learning stations — divided sections of your classroom through which groups of students rotate. You can facilitate this with a flexible seating plan .

Each station should use a unique method of teaching a skill or concept related to your lesson.

To compliment your math lessons, for example, many teachers use Prodigy to simplify differentiation .  You’ll deliver specific in-game problems to each student — or distinct student groups — in three quick steps!

Students can rotate between stations that involve:

To help students process the content after they've been through the stations, you can hold a class discussion or assign questions to answer.

Like learning stations, task cards allow you to give students a range of content. Answering task cards can also be a small-group activity , adding variety to classes that normally focus on solo or large-group learning.

First, make or identify tasks and questions that you’d typically find on worksheets or in textbooks.

Second, print and laminate cards that each contain a single task or question. Or, use Teachers Pay Teachers to buy pre-made cards . (Check out Prodigy Education's Teachers Pay Teachers page for free resources!)

Finally, set up stations around your classroom and pair students together to rotate through them.

You can individualize instruction by monitoring the pairs, addressing knowledge gaps when needed.

Asking questions about learning and studying styles can help you pinpoint the kinds of content that will meet your class’s needs.

While running learning stations or a large-group activity , pull each student aside for a few minutes. Ask about:

Track your results to identify themes and students with uncommon preferences, helping you determine which methods of instruction suit their abilities.

theory of differentiated instruction

A lesson should resonate with more students if it targets visual, tactile, auditory and kinesthetic senses, instead of only one.

When applicable, appeal to a range of learning styles by:

Not only will these tactics help more students grasp the core concepts of lessons, but make class more engaging.

Prodigy Math Game , for example, is an engaging way to gamify math class in a way that worksheets simply cannot. 👇

To familiarize students with the idea of differentiated learning, you may find it beneficial to explain that not everyone builds skills and processes information the same way.

Talking about your own strengths and weaknesses is one way of doing this.

Explain -- on a personal level — how you study and review lessons. Share tactics that do and don’t work for you, encouraging students to try them.

Not only should this help them understand that people naturally learn differently, but give them insight into improving how they process information.

The think-pair-share strategy exposes students to three lesson-processing experiences within one activity. It’s also easy to monitor and support students as they complete each step.

As the strategy’s name implies, start by asking students to individually think about a given topic or answer a specific question.

Next, pair students together to discuss their results and findings.

Finally, have each pair share their ideas with the rest of the class, and open the floor for further discussion.

Because the differentiated instruction strategy allows students to process your lesson content individually, in a small group and in a large group, it caters to your classroom’s range of learning and personality types.

theory of differentiated instruction

A journal can be a tool for students to reflect on the lessons you’ve taught and activities you’ve run, helping them process new information .

When possible at the end of class, give students a chance to make a journal entry by:

As they continue to make entries, they should figure out which ones effectively allow them to process fresh content.

But if you're struggling to see the value of journaling in a subject like math, for example, you can make time specifically for math journaling. While you connect journaling to your own math objectives, students can make cross-curricular connections.

If you want to learn more, check out K-5 Math Teaching Resources for a detailed overview . Angela Watson at The Cornerstone for Teachers also has great math journal resources you can use in your own class!

An extension of journaling, have students reflect on important lessons and set goals for further learning at pre-determined points of the year.

During these points, ask students to write about their favourite topics, as well as the most interesting concepts and information they’ve learned.

They should also identify skills to improve and topics to explore.

Based on the results, you can target lessons to help meet these goals . For example, if the bulk of students discuss a certain aspect of the science curriculum, you can design more activities around it.

Organizing students into literature circles not only encourages students to shape and inform each other’s understanding of readings, but helps auditory and participatory learners retain more information.

This also gives you an opportunity to listen to each circle’s discussion, asking questions and filling in gaps in understanding.

As a bonus, some students may develop leadership skills by running the discussion.

This activity makes written content — which, at times, may only be accessible to individual learners with strong reading retention -- easier to process for more students.

theory of differentiated instruction

Free study time will generally benefit students who prefer to learn individually, but can be slightly altered to also help their classmates process your lessons.

This can be done by dividing your class into clearly-sectioned solo and team activities.

Consider the following free study exercises to also meet the preferences of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners:

By running these sorts of activities, free study time will begin to benefit diverse learners — not just students who easily process information through quiet, individual work.

Heterogenous grouping is a common practice, but grouping students based on similar learning style can encourage collaboration through common work and thinking practices.

This is not to be confused with grouping students based on similar level of ability or understanding.

In some cases, doing so conflicts with the “Teach Up” principle , which is discussed below.

Rather, this tactic allows like-minded students to support each other’s learning while giving you to time to spend with each group. You can then offer the optimal kind of instruction to suit each group’s common needs and preferences.

theory of differentiated instruction

Instead of focusing on written products, consider evaluating reading comprehension through questions and activities that test different aptitudes.

Although written answers may still appeal to many students, others may thrive and best challenge themselves during artistic or kinesthetic tasks.

For example, allow students to choose between some of the following activities before, during and after an important reading :

Offering structured options can help students demonstrate their understanding of content as effectively as possible, giving you more insight into their abilities.

Similar to evaluating reading comprehension, give students a list of projects to find one that lets them effectively demonstrate their knowledge.

Include a clear rubric for each type of project, which clearly defines expectations. In fact, some teachers have their students co-create the rubric with them so they have autonomy in the work they'll be completing and being assessed on. Doing so will keep it challenging and help students meet specific criteria.

By both enticing and challenging students, this approach encourages them to:

As well as benefiting students, this differentiated instruction strategy will clearly showcase distinct work and learning styles.

As well as offering set options, encourage students to take their projects from concept to completion by pitching you ideas.

A student must show how the product will meet academic standards, and be open to your revisions. If the pitch doesn’t meet your standards, tell the student to refine the idea until it does. If it doesn’t by a predetermined date, assign one of your set options.

You may be pleasantly surprised by some pitches.  

After all, students themselves are the focus of differentiated instruction — they likely have somewhat of a grasp on their learning styles and abilities.

theory of differentiated instruction

Even if you’re confident in your overall approach, Carol Ann Tomlinson — one of the most reputable topic thought-leaders — recommends analyzing your differentiated instruction strategies:

Frequently reflect on the match between your classroom and the philosophy of teaching and learning you want to practice. Look for matches and mismatches, and use both to guide you.

Analyze your strategy by reflecting on:

In doing so, you’ll refine your approach to appropriately accommodate the multiple intelligences of students . It's important to note, however, that recent studies have upended the theory of multiple intelligences. Regardless of where you stand on the multiple intelligences spectrum, the differentiated instruction strategy above remains valuable!

Teaching at a level that’s too easily accessible to each student can harm your differentiated instruction efforts, according to Tomlinson .

Instead, she recommends “teaching up.” This eliminates the pitfall of being stuck on low-level ideas, seldom reaching advanced concepts:

We do much better if we start with what we consider to be high-end curriculum and expectations -- and then differentiate to provide scaffolding, to lift the kids up .

The usual tendency is to start with what we perceive to be grade-level material and then dumb it down for some and raise it up for others. But we don’t usually raise it up very much from that starting point, and dumbing down just sets lower expectations for some kids.

Keeping this concept in mind should focus your differentiated teaching strategy, helping you bring each student up to “high-end curriculum and expectations.”

It has also grown particularly popular in the 2020s as educators have focused more on accelerated learning by "teaching up", as opposed to filling learning gaps.

As Elizabeth S. LeBlanc, Co-Founder of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, writes for EdSurge : "Accelerated learning approaches give a lower priority to repetition or 'skill-and-drill' uses of instructional technology. In other words, it’s not about memorizing everything you should have learned, it’s about moving you forward so you pick things up along the way. "

Differentiated Math Instruction Strategies and Examples

theory of differentiated instruction

Some EdTech tools — such as certain educational math video games — can deliver differentiated content, while providing unique ways to process it.

For example, Prodigy adjusts questions to tackle student trouble spots and offers math problems that use words, charts and pictures, as well as numbers.

To the benefit of teachers, the game is free and curriculum-aligned for grades 1 to 8. You can adjust the focus of questions to supplement lessons and homework, running reports to examine each student’s progress.

Join over 90 million students and teachers using Prodigy's differentiating power today. 👇

Clearly linking math to personal interests and real-world examples can help some learners understand key concepts.

Working with 41 grade 7 students throughout an academic year, a 2015 study published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education used contextual learning strategies to teach integers and increase test scores by more than 44%.

Striving for similar benefits may be ambitious, but you can start by surveying students. Ask about their interests and how they use math outside of school.

Using your findings, you should find that contextualization helps some students grasp new or unfamiliar math concepts.

There are many math-related games and activities to find inspiration to implement this tactic.

theory of differentiated instruction

Help students practice different math skills by playing a game that’s a take on tic-tac-toe.

Prepare by dividing a sheet into squares — three vertical by three horizontal. Don’t leave them blank. Instead, fill the boxes with questions that test different abilities.

For example:

You can hand out sheets to students for solo practice, or divide them into pairs and encourage friendly competition . The first one to link three Xs or Os — by correctly completing questions —  wins. 

So, depending on your preferences, this game will challenge diverse learners through either individual or small-group practice.

theory of differentiated instruction

Provide differentiated math learning opportunities for your students by setting up unique learning stations across your classrooms, but forgoing mandatory rotations.

The idea comes from a grade 9 teacher in Ontario, who recommends creating three stations to solve similar mathematical problems using either:

Only allow students to switch stations if they feel the need. If they do, consult them about their decision. In each case, you and the student will likely learn more about his or her learning style.

Supplemented by your circulation between stations to address gaps in prior knowledge, this activity exposes students to exercises that appeal to diverse abilities.

Downloadable List of Differentiated Instruction Strategies and Examples

Click here to download and print a simplified list of the 20 differentiated instruction strategies and examples to keep at your desk.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies Infographic

theory of differentiated instruction

Here’s an infographic with 16 ideas from this article, provided by  Educational Technology and Mobile Learning  — an online resource for teaching tools and ideas.

Wrapping Up

With help from the downloadable list, use these differentiated instruction strategies and examples to suit the diverse needs and learning styles of your students.

As well as adding variety to your content, these methods will help students process your lessons and demonstrate their understanding of them.

The strategies should prove to be increasingly useful as you identify the distinct learning styles in — and learn to manage — your classroom .

Differentiated instruction strategies overlap in important ways with a number of other pedagogical approaches. Consider reviewing these supplementary strategies to find more ideas, combine different elements of each strategy, and enrich your pedagogical toolkit!

👉 Create or log into your teacher account on Prodigy — a game-based learning platform that delivers differentiated instruction, automatically adjusting questions to accommodate player trouble spots and learning speeds. Aligned with curricula across the English-speaking world, it’s used by more than 90 million students and teachers.

Reading Rockets

Reading Rockets

theory of differentiated instruction

What Is Differentiated Instruction?

theory of differentiated instruction

Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.

What You'll Learn

Related content.

At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.

Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

Examples of differentiating content at the elementary level include the following:

Examples of differentiating process or activities at the elementary level include the following:

Examples of differentiating products at the elementary level include the following:

Learning environment

Examples of differentiating learning environment at the elementary level include:

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.

Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 403 245.

Sternberg, R. J., Torff, B., & Grigorenko, E. L. (1998). Teaching triarchically improves student achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(3), 374-384. EJ 576 492.

Tomlinson, C. (1995). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 386 301.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 429 944.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Winebrenner, S. (1992). Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Winebrenner, S. (1996). Teaching kids with Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit. ED 396 502.

Excerpted from: Tomlinson, C. A. (August, 2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Related Topics

This article expresses how important it is to develop ways to meet our student's social and academic needs through differentiation.

Though it can be done in larger groups, one thing that I have learned is that differentiation works so much better in small group settings. Small group allows you more time to recognize student needs and learning styles. You can then differentiate instruction to meet individual needs.

Great article. The Breakdown was crystal clear.

Finding ways to support all students seems to be the best way to make sure everyone is being challenged and given an opportunity to be successful.

Very interesting and something I will reference in my classroom.

The article is very useful can be applied even at the secondary level with some tweaking.

Differentiated instruction works for all levels of student.

Differentiated instructions are very necessary to help ALL students learn and succeed. I teach 2nd grade and have students that are on 11 different levels in math and reading. This article does a good job explaining the importance of the learning benefits of differentiation.

This confirms what I know about differentiation and states it very clearly.

I found this article very informational. It's a great reminder of the items that I am doing and what I may need to attend more attention too.

Great practical ideas. Also the comments are so much rich to understand and implement differentiated teaching

Differentiated instructional techniques for each lesson Heightens interest and increases participation when children are grouped according to learning styles. By using the content provided in this article and searching the web division of students into groups of primary learning styles with an activity focused on the overall learning styles and examples printed or recorded for others seems to be more achievable with the block schedules used in upper grades.

It is nice to see how to give instruction effectively in different level

I teach at risk students who have been tested with the state required Dibbles system. If they score in the red they become my students. I then teach a program designed for them to learn the different sounds in the English language. Many students are Hispanic and speak little English. I use an interactive SMART board, magnetic boards, dry-erase boards, and note books with a hands on approach. The program works well and is user friendly. I highly recommend this program and students do well with great results. If you put in the work you get the reward. I have an average of over 60 students daily.

Good information! Homeschooling is differentiated instruction as well.

The articles are very useful in understanding the DI more.

A consideration when setting up varied instructions leading to 'doable' activities is knowing your learners, their learning styles and making the DI 'fit' as best you can. Giving them choices where they can be involved is good for their confidence too. keep it simple relevant and engaging, whatever it is. More focus on STT and way less TTT also helps, alot. Peace. Major Tom

This article is very important because it gives teachers strategies of differentiated teaching, which includes elements to help students learn and be successful. It is excellent how it explains the importance of learning.

Without going into detail, lets at least start with the idea of the uniqueness of each student. The we can realise that we have to tailor our teaching to create the best conditions for that student to learn. Of course it is difficult with more students in the class, but that is how we develop our professionalism. As someone mentioned, good , professional, skilled teachers adapt their teaching all the time.

I found this article very useful for my lower primary students. It will be highly appreciated, if you can share some more documents and applications.

Differentiated instruction is a wonderful strategy but with a class of ESE students it is difficult to use without an assistant to help. Each student requires one on one instruction.

i am a kindergarten teacher and am really struggling with this concept of differenciate teaching in a class of 35 students who are 4 yr old,without an aide.preparing work sheets is a challenge.Daily thinking of how to keep them motivated is taking a toll on my family life.

group them in flexible groups by below average, average, above average then address each IEP, yes, it is tracking but you have to meet every student where they are. You don't won't to over whelm them or talk over there head. Teachers cant afford to waste time teaching what kids already know as well what they are not ready to learn. I feel that is the easiest way to do the young kids

Differentiation helps the teacher better meet the needs of different students in the classroom.

In my years of teaching , I found that differentiated teaching shows so much enter action with the students. Because groups learn at different times, in different ways. I say this because I'm a vocal music teacher. Some hear tones better than those who read the notes.

Nice, this is quite a good job in giving out the minute details. Thanks. Please write more. A sample lesson plan can be of great help too.

Differentiated Learning is simply learning styles and social learning theory utilizing teacher pedagogy as the arbitrator and brain-based learning theory as the fundamental underlying outcome.

I just wanted to share an awesome site that allows you to print nonfiction articles at varying Lexile levels. As students work in groups, they can all read the same article but have it at their instructional level. They have current event articles that my students absolutely love. Hope this helps!

Should a lesson be focusing on differentiating only one element for all students or can ONE lesson have different learning objectives for different differentiated-element tasks for groups of students?

Differentiated instruction can be effective if done correctly

Wow...quite the comments....I think the biggest problem with DI at this point in time is that we obviously are not in agreement on its practical definition. If when we try and implement a program we took the time to talk about the various ways this format has tried to be implemented, we could get a better handle on what we want it to look like. Personally, I think we need to make something sound easy and enticing to those that have to implement and for God's sake...let the teachers fail once in a while they're trying to grow themselves...That's a huge problem for teachers mistakes, only success....ridiculous.

hellow.. differentiated instruction is not practiced in our school. I am planning to conduct a study about it's effectiveness in enhancing my students conceptual understanding and attitude in my subject since it's, well, considered by many as a hard science. Can i differentiate the teaching-learning process only (without changing the content of what they should learn and expect the same output/product for the whole class). Another question is, should i also differentiate the learning environment? By the way i want to differentiate my methods based from my students learning styles it ok if i only consider the learning style??disregarding the other factors for learning. Help pls:) thanx

I love the information, it really demonstrated all the components of differentiated teaching. The ideals were great.

This article makes differentiating instruction very practical and specific.

Differentiated Instruction it alpply for every children? or just children w disabilities?

OK, jg and all of your supporters, yes, elementary teachers work hard too, but I have (as an administrator) seen elementary teachers who seem to think lesson planning consists of turning to the next page in the teacher edition - and I don't mean the night before - I am talking about doing that when it's time to teach the lesson, so HS teachers with yellowed lesson plans in a dusty cabinet don't have a monopoly on lack of planning. There are excellent and poor teachers at all levels, and none of them have an easy job. We do ourselves a disservice when we bicker back and forth about who has the toughest job. However, in this discussion, the number of students per day IS a valid concern. If you have the same 30 kids all day, even if it is for all possible subjects, you can get to know their learning needs and allow activities to flow from one to another, covering more than one topic in the same activity. You can use non-fiction reading materials for reading and science, you can teach a math and science combination lesson together with a writing assignment afterward, etc. The HS teacher has to stick to one topic and stop after X minutes to begin again with a new group - and every group is composed of different students with unique needs. In many states, and especially now with the Common Core, the sheer number of topics to cover during the course can be quite daunting, and teachers feel the pressure to cover the material. (I don't equate coverage with teaching - I am just saying there is a lot of pressure to cover all objectives.) And, I hate to burst your bubble, many HS teachers do have multiple subjects in a single day. However, even the year that I had four sections of geometry and one of another math (so only two preps), the four geometry classes were all different and had to be approached differently. Same topic with different kids does not mean that you can do exactly the same lesson. Differentiation is difficult but worthwhile, and it is not something you can do for every lesson every day, but excellent teachers find a way to do as much as they can to help all students achieve.

this article gave additional and simpler concept of differentiated instruction..very helpful for my exam!

help!! i am struggling with differentiation. i have a class of 36 prealgebra students and with so many (and they are very chatty!)i am finding it difficult. last year i only had 18 and it is almost impossible to do some of the same activities that i did with my smaller group last year. when i group them i have 9 groups! and my class is filled to capacity...! all advice and suggestions will be greatly appreciated!

Sometimes reviewing routinely pre-requisite skills consistently to ensure that students are not lacking or are brought up to the current skill is what is needed.

TK - I am so glad you can do it with 22 students but try over 100 without any teaching assistants. 22 students and an assistant - Only in a high school teacher's dreams.

Both Elementary and High School teachers are correct, both of their jobs create quite different problems. I have taught both Elementary and Middle/High School, in regular ed, as well as in the special education classroom. Each classroom presents its own types of challenges. Some classes just aren't condusive to DI, because of the student population you have, and numbers, and weather or not you have an aide. If you have a class with alot of behavior issues and you are the only one in the room, alot of group activities will fail because you can't turn your back on a certain student or two in that situation. We have been talking about DI since I began teaching in the mid 1980's we just didn't have a name for it, we called it teaching, and everyone knew that it was our job to try to reach every student, and use whatever means necessary to do so, now they have names for everything and DI has been around alot longer than the name for it. Also don't try to tell another teacher what they can and can't do in their classroom until you have sat in their specific classroom and witness and monitor the dynamics yourself, because as wonderful as DI is, it doesn't work for everything and isn't the cure all.

I have to give Diane Kudos too. Teachers have to be creative when differentiating large groups and subjects or level should not stop us.

I am actually differentiating learning activities of my students. It is really challenging especially if you have forty-five to fifty students in a class. Majority of these students have low English proficiency level and only 3% belong to near mastery level.Fortunately, I have already differentiated four skills in vocabulary: synonyms, antonyms, words with multiple meanings, and idioms. We had so much fun, learning, and everybody has a "voice".I would like to differentiate now skills in reading--noting details, getting the main ideas, making inferences, and determining the tone or mood. However, I am still groping what to do especially in noting details and getting the main ideas. Please advise me. I am a high school Filipino teacher who teaches English subject. my email address is [email protected] . God bless

Gayle Moore, if I can manage 22 four-year-olds and still differentiate for individuals, you can too! I assign mine to weekly groups which rotate through five small group activities each week (1 each day). When they first come in, they go to their table and start working quietly and independently. Once everyone arrives we break for circle time, then go back to those small group activities. During that second segment, I pull 2 or 3 kids aside who need help with a particular skill and work with them for 5-10 minutes. This seems to work well and the kids love when its their turn to work with me. The independent activities are overseen by my assistant.

jg....You are sooooo correct. I teach 4th and 5th grade. Meet the need of the student not the challenges of the student. Differentiated instruction is a lifesaver. Thank God for planning.

sounds very good for the type of classrooms that we are teaching in today.

It was a good feeling to read the article and realize that so many of the areas are being done. The area that I find the most challenging is the Learning Environment. Working with 5-6 year olds poses a tremendous challenge preparing the children to work independently for a period of time while the teacher is helping others. Routines are difficult in the beginning of the year.

I am an Art Teacher and find that various ways to approach a unit are necessary to maintain student interest.

Using differentiated reading materials is often difficult due to the lack of access to varying materials.

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Arts Integration and Differentiated Instruction Examine how arts integration offers “multiple and varied avenues to learning” consistent with the principles of differentiated instruction

theory of differentiated instruction

“In arts integrated schools, students constantly move back and forth between different methods of inquiry and observation, symbolic languages, expressive modes, formal curriculum, and their own lives.” 1  –Nick Rabkin and Robin Redmond

Through differentiated instruction “…students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.” 2  – Carol Ann Tomlinson

“We have tried to be very clear about arts integration – that it is differentiated instruction.” 3  -- a participant in the Community/Schools Partnership for Arts, Sarasota, Florida


Classrooms are full of individuals that learn in different ways. For example, some students learn aurally, visually, or kinesthetically. Some learn quickly, others struggle, and still others fall somewhere between. Acknowledging this diversity, many educators are recognizing that it is no longer appropriate to approach teaching as a singular, one-size-fits-all endeavor. Recognizing the wide variance that exists within any group of learners, educators are recommending that teachers offer “multiple and varied avenues to learning.” 4

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson 5 , differentiated instruction is: “a way of thinking about teaching and learning that values the individual…” 6

“Differentiation doesn’t suggest that a teacher can be all things to all individuals all the time. It does, however, mandate that a teacher create a reasonable  range of approaches to learning  much of the time, so that most students find learning a fit much of the time.” 7

Arts integration offers a “range of approaches to learning” aligned with the principles of differentiated instruction. Specifically, arts integration helps students access content, process their learning, create products, and work in a productive and supportive learning environment in ways that take into account individual readiness, interest, and learning profile.

This article provides an overview of the core elements of differentiated instruction 1) beliefs about learning; 2) content, process, and products; 3) learning environment; and examines the alignment with arts integration.

Beliefs about Learning

Differentiated instruction  draws support from research about how people learn and constructivist beliefs about learning. Tomlinson states:

Arts integration  involves students in active learning, decision making, and problem solving through the creative process in which students construct and demonstrate their understandings.

Arts integration is also recognized for providing learning experiences that are engaging, relevant, and interesting, and as a result, meaningful and highly motivating. Creating in an art form is naturally engaging. When students bring their personal voice, vision, and interests to bear on their learning, it results in increased motivation, sense of ownership and pride in their work, and the development of valued habits of mind. 10

In  Critical Evidence , Sandra Ruppert points to the link between the arts, motivation, and other outcomes valued for learning:

Rabkin and Redmond add further support to Ruppert’s statement:

Further, Tomlinson suggests that differentiated instruction is strongest when teachers use “concept-based teaching” in which they focus on essential and meaningful key concepts and principles rather than trying to cover many facts. Working with concepts, the “building blocks of meaning,” helps students to:

“(1) understand rather than memorize, (2) retain ideas and facts longer because they are more meaningful, (3) make connections between subjects and facets of a single subject, (4) relate ideas to their own lives, (5) build networks of meaning for effectively dealing with future knowledge” 13

Arts integration is an example of concept-based teaching. Big ideas are the focus of connections between an art form and another area of study. For example, conflict is examined through theater and history, pattern is examined through music and math, and transformation is examined through dance and science. Students learn and apply facts that support the big ideas. Teachers report that arts integration helps students build understanding, retain those understandings, and make meaningful connections to their own lives:

“I have seen that children who participate in arts integration showed longer retention of concepts and found deeper meaning in the curriculum presented. Children can synthesize basic information and infer deeper meaning as to why things happen, not just spew back rote information.” 14

Content, Process, and Products

According to Tomlinson, the primary intent of  differentiated instruction  is to “maximize student capacity.” 15  To accomplish this, teachers can differentiate their instruction related to three classroom elements: content, process, and products.

Each of the three elements can be further differentiated by a student’s readiness, interests, and learning profile. 19

Arts integration  offers a range of languages and symbol systems that provide alternative ways to encode and access information. For example, teachers and students use the language and symbols of line, shape, color, texture, and form in the visual arts; the language of physical and vocal expression in drama/theater; the language of movement in dance; and the language of rhythm, melody, and pattern in music. The arts with their alternative languages and symbol systems engage all students, particularly struggling learners that are typically not reached through traditional teaching methods. 20

The arts also draw on a range of learning modalities (visual, aural, kinesthetic) and intelligences (e.g., bodily/kinesthetic, spatial, visual, musical). For example, drama communicates visually, aurally, and kinesthetically and draws on interpersonal, intrapersonal, and linguistic intelligences. Dance communicates visually, kinesthetically, and aurally (if music is used) and draws on bodily/kinesthetic, spatial, and musical intelligences.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities points to several reasons for the growing interest in arts integration, including:

“the compatibility of arts integration methods with newer research findings about learning including  personalization , repetition and reinforcement through  multiple modalities , fluency with  symbol systems , and the continuum of stages from concrete to representational to abstract.” 21

Process and Products

Through  arts integration , students use alternative ways (e.g., dancing, acting, writing, speaking, drawing, singing) to make sense of content they are learning and to demonstrate their understandings.

Arts integration offers in-process sense-making activities as well as culminating summative products. For example, during a unit, students may create short movement improvisations to make sense of the concepts of a planet’s axis and rotation in the solar system. If these improvisations are created at the beginning of the unit, they offer a way for the teacher to assess a student’s readiness/prior knowledge. When students create the improvisations within the unit, they demonstrate what they know, understand, and can do. These in-process improvisations are valuable formative assessments that teachers use to guide decisions about the additional level of support students need as well as the next instructional steps. For students, these in-process improvisations help them reflect on and clarify their understandings and to assess and revise their work so that it better demonstrates their understandings (in both science and dance). At the end of an arts integration unit, students create products that demonstrate their understandings of the concepts, knowledge, and skills learned across an entire unit. As such, these products provide summative assessments.

In all cases, students are engaged in the creative process. The creative process, by its very nature, is naturally differentiated. It allows varied degrees of sophistication in how students make sense of information. It is flexible; students can enter the creative process at different places and move within it at different rates. It can be adapted for different levels of readiness, interests, and types of participation. But, wherever a student is on a continuum of learning, and whatever his/her interests and learning style, the student can participate in meaningful ways, be given support, and challenged to move ahead.

A study about the impact of The Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) program, an arts integration program serving 16 schools in the Washington DC metropolitan area, indicated:

“Across all three years of this evaluation, more than 90 percent of the teacher survey respondents used arts integration most frequently to help students  demonstrate understanding in different ways and to address a variety of learning styles .” 22

In arts integration, the quality of students’ work in the art form is as critical as the quality of their work in the other subject area. The teacher invests time to help students develop the knowledge and skills in an art form so that they can use it authentically to demonstrate their understandings. For example, before students write a song about a science concept, they learn the basic skills and vocabulary needed to create a quality song (e.g., musical form, rhythm and rhyme patterns). Before students create a dance to demonstrate their understanding of math concepts, they learn some basic dance skills and vocabulary (e.g., body, space, energy, time, choreographic structures). The investment in teaching a baseline of art form knowledge and skills results in more authentic work—higher quality products and communication that is more nuanced.

In other words, differentiated instruction that aligns with arts integration is not the same as differentiated instruction that aligns with arts-enhanced learning where learning objectives are met in the other subject area, but not in the art form.

For teachers to use arts integration as a strategy for differentiating instruction requires that teachers gain a baseline of knowledge about an art form. The authors of  Third Space: When Learning Matters  describe the results of a study of teachers’ attitudes about learning more about the arts:

“Teachers reported that they are motivated to take on the often challenging task of increasing their competence in an art form as part of their teaching because of the  insights the arts give them into the individual differences of their students  and the increased satisfaction that it provides them as teachers.” 23

Learning Environment

In addition to focusing on beliefs about learning, and content, process and products,  differentiated instruction  also highlights the importance of a supportive classroom environment. Overall, in differentiated instruction, the teacher’s goal is to build a sense of community where each student is welcomed, feels safe and respected, and respects others.

“…the teacher leads his students in developing the sorts of attitudes, beliefs and practices that would characterize a really good neighborhood.” 24

Arts integration classrooms  feel like supportive neighborhoods. They strive to be warm, welcoming, and safe places so that students can risk and try new things. Teachers encourage choice and honor the individual’s voice. In these classrooms, instruction focuses on what students can do.

“Learning in the arts helps students to develop a sense of self-efficacy, a feeling that they can be agents of their own learning and they can make positive change in their own lives and in their surroundings.” 25

Differentiated instruction places a premium on teachers getting to know their students. Arts integration provides a way for teachers to do that:

“Teachers … described learning about students through their art work as an illuminating and important outcome of the arts integrated units in their classrooms. The works that emerged made visible students’ backgrounds, understandings, and skills that often had been hidden, allowing teachers to see how they could build on what students know and to engage them more actively in learning.” 26

Neither differentiated instruction nor arts integration classrooms is chaotic. The classrooms are lively places full of orchestrated and disciplined energy. Teachers give careful attention to classroom management structures and routines that enable students to be active, engaged, and highly focused.

In both differentiated instruction and arts integration, the classroom’s physical environment is flexible. In arts integration, furniture is moved to allow for movement, theatrical or dance improvisations, or for various groupings. Students carry out routines for efficiently and quietly setting and re-setting furniture. Teachers organize materials and establish efficient routines for distribution and clean-up. The classroom reflects a student-centered focus with interesting displays documenting students’ creative process and the products they have created.

In both differentiated instruction and arts integration there is a dynamic interplay of challenge and support. In differentiated instruction, Tomlinson describes a “pervasive expectation of growth” 27  and a persistent, gentle push for students to tackle the next level of knowledge and skill, supported with appropriate scaffolds. 28  In arts integration, teachers expect students to meet evolving objectives in both the art form and the other subject area. This push to reach the next level of knowledge and skills is pervasive. The teacher often moves among the students, listening to their conversations, assessing their understanding, clarifying ideas, and offering support to push them ahead.

Arts integration is one of a range of approaches for differentiating instruction. Similar beliefs about effective learning—active learning, choice, problem-solving, engagement, and relevance—guide both arts integration and differentiated instruction. Both offer sense-making activities and opportunities to create products that help students construct and demonstrate their understandings. Both honor the range of learners that inhabit our classrooms by offering alternative avenues for learning that take into account students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles.

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Lynne B. Silverstein

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Amy Duma Kenny Neal

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January 14, 2020

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theory of differentiated instruction

Differentiating Instruction: A Modified Concerto in Four Movements

It’s much easier to differentiate instruction if we are experts in four areas: our students, the curriculum, cognitive theory, and differentiated instruction practices. All four must be in play if we are to teach effectively.

There’s a great differentiated instruction analogy in a scene from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s movie, The Sound of Music. At one point, Maria Von Trapp (Julie Andrews) takes the seven children on a bike ride. As they ride, some children follow the teacher, some ride alongside the teacher, and some move ahead. One is carried piggyback style on Maria’s back because she can’t ride at all. Despite everyone’s different rate and competency with bike riding, the group is moving as a whole; everyone is on the trip, advanced and struggling bike riders, and no one is left behind. The teacher scaffolded the instruction for some of them, and she allowed the more advanced children to surpass the teacher in execution of the skill. Differentiated Instruction expert Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it succinctly: ‘We might change the layout of the track, but all students are still in the race.’

Large student loads, limited time periods, and curricular mandates make it challenging to adjust instruction for the unique needs of today’s diverse learners. In the secondary levels, we factor in 160 morphing humans going through puberty with all its accompanying confusion, inconsistency, and high energy; we are overwhelmed. To survive, some teachers teach in a way that’s easiest for themselves and hope students get something out of it. That expends more energy in the long run, however, because those teachers are forced to go back and remediate students who never learned. In an era of standards, accountability, and NCLB, this is not acceptable.

Teachers can differentiate instruction successfully if they are experts in multiple facets of their jobs. To only know one’s subject doesn’t cut it with today’s diverse populations, and to know only what the basal textbook says about our topics doesn’t work either. As highly accomplished professional educators, we have to be multi-talented, highly trained thinkers, not just pseudo postal workers delivering someone else’s mail (i.e. state-mandated curriculum) and documenting those students who can’t make use of it.

It’s much easier to differentiate instruction if we are experts in four areas: our students, the curriculum, cognitive theory, and differentiated instruction practices. All four must be in play if we are to teach effectively. If one of these is not a strength for a teacher, then it is suggested as the direction for professional growth in the years ahead.

Student expertise

Without expertise in what is developmentally appropriate for students of the age we teach, we cannot effectively apply any teaching approach, let alone differentiated instruction. Middle school teachers, for example, require an expertise in young adolescents, knowing their students are no longer elementary-age but are not ready for high school approaches either. In order for cognition and learning to take place, young adolescents require physical activity, opportunities for self-definition, structure and clear limits, meaningful relationships with adults, competence, and creative expression. (Turning Points, 2000) Information and skills do not go into to long-term memory unless these needs are satisfied.

Sometimes, then, we don’t adjust content, process, products or anything else; we just have to make sure students’ developmental needs are being met as we work. If they are, they can learn effectively. If we teach blind to the needs of our students, we’re wasting their time and our own, however, because cognition doesn’t happen if these needs are met. And sometimes what we modify as we differentiate instruction is in response to one of these missing elements in a particular group of students’ lives. These three students need more opportunity to define themselves, we think, and that’s what we change for them in order for them to maximize their learning.

Subject expertise

We must be experts in our discipline as well. For example, as a math teacher, do I teach fractions first, or decimals’ And where do percentages fit into the sequence’ Do I ask students to turn to page 74 or page 174 in the textbook’ Some students require one sequence, but others would benefit from something different. As a subject expert, I can determine how one set of information serves as a foundation or subset of another. I can help students identify connections and teach for meaningful learning. Teaching isn’t telling, nor is it presenting. This is where mediocre teachers stop. Accomplished teachers tell and present in such a manner that students find the information and skills meaningful. We don’t say, ‘I taught it, now it’s up to students to learn it,’ and we don’t turn to the next page in basal text because it’s the next page in the basal text. We turn to whatever page makes the most sense based on what we know about our students and our subject.

Here’s an ineffective teacher’s curriculum presentation: cp rabc f bicn nmt v. The student sees it as incoherent. If he’s mature and supported by the adults in his life (neither one a sure thing), he buckles down and memorizes the information using a mnemonic device, but easily forgets the information once he’s played the game of school and jumped through artificial hoops (tests). Here’s a highly effective teacher’s curriculum: cpr abc fbi cnn mtv. It’s the same curriculum the first teacher had, but the teacher changed the pacing of its delivery so students could make sense of it and bring meaning to it. He used his subject expertise and knowledge of his students to re-group it. This is the teaching our communities desire, not a teacher-proof curriculum where everyone is on chapter nine at week twelve. What kind of society will we have if teachers are forced to subject students to such insensitive and ineffective lock-step fashion regardless of new knowledge and needs of students’ Not the kind that protects democracy.

It’s dangerous to say this to educators, but here it goes: What we teach is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what we teach. What matters is what students take with them when they leave us at the end of the year; this is our greatest testimony as educators. Do we teach in a way that is likely to be retained beyond just parroting information back on a test’ If we’re teaching for long-term retention, then we employ best practices and teach a developmentally appropriate curriculum. If the curriculum is the problem, we educate policy-makers to make changes. We do not teach something politically motivated but pedagogically unsound. As highly effective practitioners, we’re the ones with the expertise, and having such expertise gives us an implied mandate to lead our communities in the right direction.

Cognitive theory expertise

Solid expertise in cognitive theory is also vital. We can deftly apply differentiated instruction principles only as far as we understand how our students’ minds work. For example, nothing goes into long-term memory unless it’s attached to something already in storage. So, we create prior knowledge where there is none. If we’re teaching something of major importance on Wednesday, and it’s clear that seven students have no personal background with the intended concepts, we give the larger class an anchor activity on Monday, and we provide these seven students with the necessary background experience so they can fully participate and appreciate Wednesday’s learning to come.

With solid footing in cognitive theory, we can head off many potential hurdles to student success. Our ability to retrieve information and apply it such as students do on tests has almost everything to do with how it enters our minds the first time we experience it, not so much how we studied it down the road. In order to maximize learning, then, we structure information as students first receive it. For instance, we would never tell students to read chapter 15 and summarize it without first explaining the chapter’s structure or helping students to determine its structure:

‘This is a compare and contrast of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Their similarities and differences are examined in each of the following five areas: childhood, education, careers, struggles, and politics. Given this knowledge before we begin reading, how might we set up our summarizations’

Students set up Venn diagrams and other graphic organizers that allow them to compare and contrast the two figures. If a student asks, ‘What information from the chapter will be on the test” we don’t glibly reply, ‘Just read and learn every fact from the whole chapter. I reserve the right to choose anything I want from the chapter to put on the test. I’ll know whether or not you read it carefully.’ This isn’t teaching. This is playing the game of school. This teacher is out to document deficiencies, not teach so that students learn. To be clear, the goal is not for students to read every word of the chapter, which is what the teacher promotes as the goal to students. The goal is for students to learn the similarities and differences between Douglas and Lincoln in the areas listed. It requires repeated visits to what we consider essential and enduring in our lessons in conjunction with solid understanding of cognitive theory.

Differentiated instruction expertise

If we know only one model of instruction or one way to teach something, we’re setting our students and ourselves up for failure. Professor, author, and literacy expert, Kylene Beers freely admits that for years she had only two ways to differentiate instruction for students who struggled: teach louder and slower. Her experiences convinced her to move beyond such ineffective practices, however, and her students are now achieving at dramatically higher levels. She and other successful educators embrace the lexicon and practices of differentiated instruction as the first step to mastering this thing called, ‘teaching.’ Successful differentiated instruction teachers give themselves three or more years to really feel savvy with differentiated instruction practices, realizing it’s a journey, not a destination

Let’s make it compelling for teachers and administrators to explore differentiated instruction principles and practices such as scaffolding, tiered lessons, assessment informing instruction, respectful tasks, compacting curriculum, ‘What is fair is not always equal,’ readiness-interest-learning profile grouping, foundational versus transformational, structured versus open-ending, and flexible grouping. Let’s ask what our communities would be like if differentiated instruction for students every time they needed it, K to 12th grade, and what they would be like if we never differentiated instruction when they needed it, K to 12th grade.

Many teachers are parents, too. They hope their children’s teachers are experts in these areas, and that they successfully integrate that expertise to maximize learning for their students. In my own case, my children have occasionally needed differentiated approaches, for both advanced and early readiness levels. If I’m stuck for ideas on how to help my children at home with what they’re learning in school, I’ve contacted their teachers in search of advice, asking, ‘What are some of the ways you differentiate instruction for students with diverse needs like this” There’s no emotional inflection, no accusation — just a sincere interest in helping my child.

The question is usually met with silence on the other end. A moment later, the teacher asks, ‘Are you a teacher” I respond that I am, and I wait. Each time I have asked this question of my children’s teachers, however, I’ve been initially disappointed with the response. When my child demonstrated 100% proficiency on a pre-test on what’s going to be taught for the next five weeks, the teacher responded that the unit would be a good review. There was no mention of compacting the curriculum or extending my child’s exploration of the subject beyond the basal text. In one situation in which my child was struggling, the teacher said, ‘There’s just nothing else we can try at this point. We’ll have to hope he gets it over the next few years.’ Not one of the teachers has been able to verbalize how to differentiate instruction in general, let alone offer something specific for my child. The most common response was to work with the child after school one day next week.

‘Red flags’ should go off in our minds if a teacher can’t explain how to differentiate instruction, at least in general terms. As a parent, I worry about my child in such classes. Sometimes, though, it isn’t a lack of expertise, but a different lexicon that prevents teachers from responding. This is fine — they are differentiating instruction, but they are using different terms. If the teacher has no background in cognitive theory, differentiated instruction, their subject, or what is developmentally appropriate, however, they need to brush up on them.

What happens to the students in the mean time’ Being a parent who is also a teacher, I can walk the talk and advocate for my child ’ I know what’s going on and how to do it. Who’s going to advocate for all the children who have parents who are not teachers’ The classroom teacher. That advocacy is achieved only as teachers successfully incorporate their expertise with their discipline, their students, cognitive theory, and differentiated instruction practices.

While most concertos have three distinct movements, the differentiated instruction concerto has four. Maria in The Sound of Music bike ride enabled her students to progress together, each in their own way and at their own pace because she successfully blended discipline (knowledge and skills), development appropriateness, cognitive theory, and differentiated instruction practices. She knew what she was doing. With just one of these aspects missing from the concerto, the music would fall flat and one or more students would be left behind. As highly accomplished professional educators we can compose successful concertos with these four distinct movements, concertos worth performing with each new group of diverse students we serve.

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High impact teaching strategies in action: Differentiated teaching

​​Professional learning Communities (PLC) Regional Manager Shane Lockhart explains that differentiated teaching can marry perfectly to the Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (FISO) improvement cycle and support continuous improvement in students​.

Differentiation is a key high impact teaching strategy (HITS) used by teachers to craft lessons that provide the right amount of support and challenge for every student.

PLC Regional Manager Shane Lockhart explains how differentiated teaching can ensure that all students can master their individual objectives and continually grow even if they aren't necessarily at the same starting level.

'The whole purpose of differentiation is to look at the relevant skill level​​s of students and ask: "What are we going to do to increase depth, broaden, extend and improve upon the knowledge and the skill base of every student in the class, regardless of the starting point,"' explains Shane.

'It doesn't matter whether the student is at the top end of the academic spectrum, or whether the student requires additional support, such as a PSD-funding– it's relevant to their starting point.'

Differentiated teaching explained: Adjusting content, process and product

'Teaching isn't differentiated when a teacher sets the same task for every student, provides little variation, assesses all students against a general criterion, applies differentiated teaching techniques only for gifted students, and consistently establishes inflexible teaching groups,' Shane explains.

Differentiated teaching occurs when a teacher plans a lesson that adjusts either the content being discussed, the process used to learn or the product expected from students to ensure that learners at different starting points can receive the instruction they need to grow and succeed.

'A good differentiated teaching program means high quality, evidence-based instruction that meets students' needs within their zone of proximal learning development and has clear SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based) goals.'

Differentiating a lesson by adjusting content

By adjusting content, you deliver different parts of the curriculum to different students depending on their starting level and what you expect them to learn in that lesson.

Practically, this may mean refining foundational areas for students or supporting others to extend themselves deeper into the curriculum.

Differentiating a lesson by adjusting the process

When you adjust the process of a lesson, you are changing the methods you use to teach and how you expect students to learn. This adjustment could look like employing collaborative learning with excelling students and explicit instruction with others, or using modelled approaches or multimedia.

Adjusting the process allows you to construct a lesson that supports individual learners to meet their learning outcomes in a way that suits their specific needs.

Differentiating a lesson by adjusting the product

When you adjust the product of a lesson, you are changing the specific success criteria for students to demonstrate what they have learned.

Teachers can differentiate the product of a lesson by asking some students to teach another student how to complete the object of the lesson, or to use the specific learning outcome to complete an authentic task. This can be comparable evidence of success and achievement.

In each instance, when making use of student grouping, careful consideration should be given to how/when to use mixed ability groups (to foster peer learning, peer teaching, modelling etc.) and same ability groups (to hone in on an identified need).

In action: Examples of how teachers and schools implement differentiation strategies in everyday teaching

As suggested by Shane, there are many different ways in which teacher can differentiate instruction for students. Differentiation starts from the assessment of students' prior knowledge and skills and the setting of individual learning goals. As much as possible, the goals and the respective success criteria should be set with the students. This fosters metacognition and self-regulation, empowering students to monitor their own progress.

Some of the most common strategies are illustrated below:

Response to Intervention (RTI)

Generally implemented as a whole school implementation strategy, RTI is a highly effective differentiation strategy. This multi-tier approach to classroom learning enables teachers to identify the abilities of individual learners and provide additional instruction to learners who may benefit from support in smaller, more targeted settings.

For more information about RTI in action, see: Differentiated teaching at Carlton Gardens Primary School – In Our Classrooms

Explicit Teaching (HITS #3)

Explicit Teaching is one of the 10 HITS and it focuses on providing students with a sound and common understanding of the new knowledge and ideas, opportunities for group and independent practice.

The stages of the process, often simplified to "I do, we do, you do", provide multiple opportunities for differentiation.

During the "we do" phase, as teachers model the application of the new knowledge, they can assess the general level of understanding, provide feedback to the group, provide additional support to the whole class and plan for targeted interventions.

During the "you do" phase teachers can rove the room and provide individual feedback, set up small groups for additional and targeted instruction, or call individual students for conferencing.

theory of differentiated instruction

Multiple activities

As Shane suggests, one of the most common ways of differentiating learning is to differentiate the 'product'. By setting up multiple activities, teachers provide students with the opportunity to work on the same concepts and ideas, but at different levels of proficiency.

Students can therefore work within their zone of proximal development and, with the support and feedback of the teacher, gradually progress to the more challenging tasks.

Explore multiple activities in the classroom environment, see: Differentiation in Maths at Sunshine College – AITSL

Multiple tasks can also be used to provide opportunities for multiple exposure, group work, targeted feedback and extension. See this in action: Multiple activities to engage students at Humpty Doo Primary School - AITSL

Feedback plays a crucial role in differentiation. Timely and actionable feedback enables students to identify the next steps required to progress in their learning. In conjunction with clear learning intentions and success criteria, group and individualised feedback can promote self-regulation.

The use of peer-feedback can also assist students to deeply reflect on the success criteria and what their peer/themselves can do to improve their outcomes.

Watch an example of this teaching approach in action, see: Learning through feedback at Our Lady of Mercy College – AITSL

Flipped Classroom

In a Flipped Classroom the direct instruction phase of the learning happens online and often at home instead of homework. Students can access the instructional content (usually in the form of videos prepared by their teachers) at any time.

This model provides great opportunities for differentiation as it frees up time in the classroom allowing the teacher to spend more time working with students (e.g. providing feedback, addressing group or individual needs). Students can also learn to self-regulate and forge ahead or use the recorded materials to revise content that needs revision or clarification.

See this tactic in action: The flipped classroom model - AITSL

Extra resources and models

High impact teaching strategies: differentiation.

Effective teachers use evidence of student learning readiness, learning progress, and knowledge of individual student learning profiles, to make adjustments for individuals so that all students experience challenge, success and improved learning.

Explore HITS: Differentiation Targeting student learning in your classroom

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Professional and Lifelong Learning

In-person, blended, and online courses, differentiated instruction made practical.

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What you'll learn

Course description

By using a four-step teacher decision-making framework and implementing structured classroom routines rooted in research on cognition and motivation, you will increase equity, access, rigor, and engagement for all students. This program will prepare you with the agile thinking required to analyze problems of student learning and then make decisions to adjust and differentiate instruction within given time and curriculum constraints.

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Rhonda Bondie

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Differentiated Instruction Theory

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Differentiate Instruction Theory There are so many individuals that have different abilities, experiences, and learning styles. Differentiated Instruction is a theory that will help teachers be successful in having all students be successful at learning at their fullest learning style ability. “Differentiated instruction gives a variety of options to successfully reach targeted standards.” (Gregory G.H. & Chapman C., 2007) This type of instruction will help the students meet where they are and offer challenging, appropriate options for them to achieve success. (Gregory G.H. & Chapmen C., 2007) This instructional method is based on research that was created by Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). “Sociocultural theory, drawing on the work of Vygotsky (1962), and later Wertsch (1991), has significant implications for teaching, schooling, and education (Tharp & Gallimre, 1988).” (Subban, P.) The four elements that teachers can differentiate are the following; the content, the process, and/or product as things that are differentiated in a classroom. With this ongoing assessment and flexible grouping it will ensure that this instructional approach can be successful ( “The content is what is taught. The way a learner interprets, adapts, and finds ownership is the process. The product shows the learner’s personal interpretation and what they know.” (Gregory G. H. & Chapmen C., 2007) Some examples of differentiating in a classroom is using variety of reading materials that fit each students level of reading, and presenting ideas through both auditory and visual means. Another example is having students work together in groups that have the same learning level and style. It does not matter what type of learning style they are or what type of disability they have, everyone benefits from this theory. Students don’t all learn the...

theory of differentiated instruction

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Faculty Conversation: Carol Tomlinson on Differentiation

In education circles, Carol Ann Tomlinson is known as the guru of differentiation. Her research-based work is in such high demand that she has made more than 700 presentations and keynote addresses to school districts and professional associations across the country and abroad since joining the Curry School in 1991. She has authored 17 books on the topics of differentiated instruction and curriculum, some of which have been translated into twelve languages.

In this Curry conversation, Tomlinson offers her take on what makes differentiation so important for students.

What is the essence of differentiation?

Tomlinson:  Differentiation is an instructional approach to help teachers teach with individuals as well as content in mind. Differentiation really means trying to make sure that teaching and learning work for the full range of students, which really should be our goal as teachers. We’ve often taught as though all the kids in the classroom are wired exactly alike to learn, as though they should come in programmed to learn on the teacher’s schedule. Really, to me, differentiation is the common sense of saying, if we take on the responsibility of teaching, we accept the responsibility of making sure that every kid learns as well as he or she possibly can.

What Empirical Evidence Exists of the Effectiveness of Differentiation?

Tomlinson : The model of differentiation that I’ve been working with is sort of a Robin Hood model – it steals from lots of discipline areas and tries to synthesize what we know from many specialties into one specialty. Some of what we talk about in differentiation really comes from the work of special education and has been there for a long time. Some of it comes from gifted education. Some of it comes from the field of reading and how you work with students in developing literacy when they don’t master the skills right on schedule. There’s work that comes from the emerging and new science of the brain. And things that people have done in multicultural education.

What we’ve tried to do with this model is to synthesize a lot of those things so that it fits together as a whole and so the teachers don’t have to go to 14 places to find guidelines and strategies they need.  The research that supports the principles and practices of differentiation comes from many specialties. 

There is also newer research that suggests academic benefits to the model’s key principles and practices. There’s always the caveat that it’s easy to say you use a model and much harder to maintain fidelity to that model. What we find, not surprisingly, is when somebody differentiates effectively, the gains are really strong. The trick is always to help people understand that you can’t pick and choose pieces of a model, implement five percent of it and dismiss the other 95 percent.

What is the Strongest Argument for Differentiation?

Tomlinson : The strongest argument for differentiation to me is looking at the kids sitting in the classroom. It’s rare to go into a classroom where kids are all from the same language group, the same culture, the same socioeconomic status, the same background experience, the same wiring in terms of abilities, areas of weakness, that sort of thing. Realizing how seldom you go into a classroom and find virtually everyone fully engaged and participating in an optimistic way signals a need for instruction that addresses individual variance as well as common content requirements. We have way too many students who bring to school with them needs and differences that we just don’t take into account in our thinking and planning. And we fail many learners when we do that.

What Are Some of the Misconceptions Educators Hold About Differentiation?

Tomlinson : The model of differentiation is very multifaceted, but it can be boiled down to three student needs which call for differentiating instruction: student readiness, student interest, and student learning profile. Learning profile refers to preferred modes of learning and has four facets—gender, culture, learning styles, and intelligence preferences.

We find a good number of classrooms where teachers do some work with students’ learning styles, and they assume that they have therefore differentiated instruction. In essence, they have picked one fourth of one third of the information that we have about significant differences in learners for which they plan a response. In other words, they have neglected readiness differentiation, interest differentiation, how culture influences us, how gender influences us, and how intelligence preferences influence us and assume that if they’ve done something with learning styles they’ve done what needs to be done.

“Not to address readiness and to assume that a focus on learning styles is going to take care of everything, is generally way off base.”

We have such a huge range of readiness in classes that not to address readiness and to assume that a focus on learning styles is going to take care of everything, is generally way off base. In terms of both needs of learners and in terms of what research tells us, readiness is where we need to begin and focus, and then we can open things up by looking at those other categories.

Another misconception is that our current massive emphasis on testing speaks to a need for standardization—everybody needs to pass the same test under the same circumstances on the same day, with the same parameters. I think that whatever your learning outcome needs to be, even if you think it needs to be highly standardized, students will still learn at different rates. They need to be taught in different ways, and they need different materials or approaches to learning. So as paradoxical as it may sound, the need for differentiation is even more critical if you’re supposed to get everybody to the same point at exactly the same time—not less so.  Differentiation doesn’t suggest changing the outcome for students, but rather finding different avenues to success with those outcomes.

Why Are Some School Leaders Reluctant to Integrate Differentiation in the Classroom?

Tomlinson : What I more commonly find is leaders who ask for or demand differentiation but don’t know how to support it fully or wisely enough. They are typically people who believe they are doing the right thing, but function in counterproductive ways.  I hear really often, “We’re going to do differentiation in our school this year.” Differentiation is one of those things that people who are experts in the field of change call second order change. First order change is the kind of thing most teachers can implement with modest effort. Differentiation requires second order change. It really requires many teachers to change their approach to teaching as a whole—how we think about students and their capabilities, how we use assessment, how curriculum is crafted, flexible instruction to ensure that students go where they need to go. Perhaps most challenging, it asks teachers to learn to handle a classroom where two or three or four things are sometimes happening at the same time.

Second order change is demanding. It’s also much more promising.

People whom we find providing teachers with sustained and intelligent support understand that they are there for the long haul, that everyone needs to be immersed in the ideas, that they don’t ever go away, that they’re in the foreground all the time, that you can hear the drum beating constantly. I don’t find a whole lot of leaders saying, “No I don’t want to support this. This doesn’t make any sense.” What I find is people who support the transition to differentiation as though it were a first order change and don’t understand the depth of leadership required to facilitate second order change.

That Sounds Really Hard To Do. How Do You Make It Happen?

Tomlinson : It is hard to do. When you look at the literature on expertise, one of the differences between an expert and a novice is that experts see many different aspects of what’s going on around them, they know what those elements mean, and they know how to respond to them in targeted ways.  They know what to dismiss and what to act on. Differentiation asks for that expert level of discrimination when observing and responding to students in a learning context. So the question becomes, “How do we help teachers develop expertise?”

Where we see differentiation really thrive, we see principals who understand the power of knowing and responding to students and who are willing to lead consistently and persistently in order to help teachers do so.

In any school you’ll find some teachers who realize that differentiation makes the classroom work much better for many more students. Those teachers will develop the skills of responsive or differentiated instruction on their own. To change a whole school takes a principal who has vision, understands where teachers are on a continuum toward achieving that vision, knows what to do to help or get help to support each teacher’s growth, and in effect, differentiates for the faculty.

Where leadership for differentiation is effective, you have leaders say, “Sure, it’s hard, but there’s a way to get there and we’ll work together to learn how to make all of our classrooms responsive to all of our students.”  The leaders literally help teachers enact change in their own classrooms. They bring teachers together in teams to share insight and to support one another. It’s that sense of intelligent, persistent leadership that signals the difference between a school where a few teachers get better at attending to the learning needs of students and one where everyone is invested in that goal.

We see differentiation catching hold either in individuals or in little clusters of individuals where there is a really strong department chair or a really strong grade-level leader. When the school as a whole is focused on addressing the full range of learner needs, it’s inevitably the principal’s leadership that makes the difference.

What is the Secret to Managing Differentiation in the Classroom?

Tomlinson : One of the major obstacles for teachers in learning to differentiate instruction is figuring out how to handle a classroom where the teacher is not in front of the kinds all the time pulling the strings like a master puppeteer. We’re used to frontal control in classrooms. The differentiation philosophy indicates that students become stronger learners when they can accept more responsibility for their own learning and when they become more proficient in understanding their goals, their status relative to those goals, and how to adjust their approach to learning in order to achieve the goals.

The case that we’ve tried to make in our new book [ Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom , co-authored with Marcia B. Imbeau] is that there are two elements that teachers need to think through: leading people and managing details. Leading people involves asking students to consider what it feels like when the classroom doesn’t work for them or for their friends, to envision what a classroom would be like if it functioned in a way that helped each student grow as far and fast as possible—and to participate in developing that kind of classroom.

When you go into classrooms where teachers lead kids in that way, management is not the problem we tend to think it is, because kids feel empowered and interested and invigorated.

Still, however, there is the need to make sure the room doesn’t get too noisy or that the materials aren’t all over the place when students leave. There are plenty of details that need managing, but when teachers do that in the context of leading their students to help create a more effective place to learn, handling the details works much more smoothly and naturally.

by Lynn Bell

This article was originally published in the spring of 2011.

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