What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiation is responsive teaching rather than one size fits all teaching (Tomlinson, 2005). This means that teachers proactively plan varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they will show what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can, as efficiently as possible (Tomlinson, 2003).


The Differentiated Instruction Model

Students come to our classrooms with unique differences as people and therefore as learners. Our students have varied degrees of background knowledge and readiness to learn, different life experiences, cultural orientations, languages, interests, and preferences for how they learn best, and different feelings about themselves as learners and about school. Just as medical doctors don’t prescribe the same medications for every one of their patients, teachers who differentiate instruction are mindful of the varied learning needs of their students and plan instruction accordingly.

Differentiated instruction is both a philosophy and a way of teaching that respects the different learning needs of students and expects all students to experience success as learners. Learning activities may be differentiated on the basis of students’ readiness for learning the specific content or skill, their interests or their preferred ways of learning. In a differentiated classroom, students experience learning in many configurations –working in small groups (with peers having similar or different readiness, interests, or learning preferences), with a partner, individually, and as a whole group.

The Differentiated Instruction Model is based on effective educational practice (research base for DI) and is framed around several key elements:

  • High-Quality Curriculum
  • Continual Assessment
  • Respectful Tasks
  • Building Community
  • Flexible Grouping
  • Teaching Up

High-Quality Curriculum

High-quality curriculum means planning with the end in mind. It begins with clearly defining where we want students to go before thinking about how we want them to get there. What do we want them to Know, Understand, and be able to Do (KUD) as a result of the learning experience?

Designing good curriculum starts with identifying the essential Understandings — the concepts, principles, or big ideas of the unit topic. Understandings that are meaningful, intriguing, and thought provoking allow students to see the relevance of what they are studying to other subjects and to the world around them.

Knowledge includes the key facts (names, dates, places, etc.), vocabulary, and examples that you want students to know. In isolation, this knowledge is easily forgotten. But when linked with the Understandings, the knowledge items help students to uncover and make sense of the Understandings.

What you want students to be able to do might include basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, thinking skills such as reasoning and synthesizing, discipline-based skills such as graphing, planning skills such as goal-setting and project planning, and social skills such as collaboration and leadership.

High-quality curriculum engages students in exploring important ideas and challenges students to develop the skills and attitudes needed to do rigorous, quality work.

Continual Assessment

Assessment is the element that steers instruction in the differentiated classroom. Using ungraded tests or surveys to pre-assess students’ readiness and interests before or at the start of a unit will help you determine where each student is in relation to the unit KUD’s and guide you in identifying initial student groupings and task assignments in the beginning of the unit.

During the unit, continually assessing each students’ progress toward the learning goals (KUD’s) guides the teacher in planning the next instructional steps in the classroom. Formative assessments such as exit cards, questions for the day, journal prompts, observation and one-on-one conversations with students all help in identifying when there is a need to re-teach something to certain students or to raise the challenge higher for some students. Formative assessments can be differentiated as long as they are aligned with the unit KUD’s.

Summative assessments can also be differentiated based on readiness, interest and learning profile. It is critical, however, that all variations of the summative assessment allow students to demonstrate what they have learned in reference to the unit KUD’s.

Respectful Tasks

Students come into our classrooms seeking affirmation, contribution, challenge, power, and purpose. Respectful tasks are responsive to those needs.

In any classroom, it is critically important that the task we ask students to do is respectful – that it is challenging, interesting, and worth doing. In a differentiated classroom, students often work on different tasks simultaneously. The tasks may be adjusted for different readiness levels, interests, or learning preferences, but regardless of which task a student is assigned to (or selects) it should be respectful. If some students look like they are doing a task that is challenging, engaging, and thought-provoking to them while other students work on filling in a simplistic worksheet, the activities are not effectively differentiated and will affect how students perceive their status in the classroom.

Building Community

In an effectively differentiated classroom, the teacher focuses on building a learning community where students feel safe, accepted, and supported. One where students treat one another with respect, help one another to be productive, and share in one another’s successes.

In a differentiated classroom, students understand what differentiation is all about and everyone feels they play an important role in the community. Students have a voice in how the community works and take responsibility for identifying and solving problems in the classroom.

Flexible Grouping

An effectively differentiated classroom is characterized by the practice of flexible grouping. This means that students work in a variety of arrangements – students may work

  • in small groups with students of similar readiness, interest, or learning profile,
  • in small groups with students of different readiness, interest, or learning profile,
  • with a partner of similar readiness, interest, or learning profile
  • with a partner of different readiness, interest, or learning profile
  • individually
  • as a whole class

Grouping assignments may be selected by the teacher, by the student, or randomly. In this way, students have the opportunity to work with a variety of students on a frequent basis.

Teaching Up

Teaching up means raising the ‘ceiling’ for all students. In a differentiated classroom, all students should be working at a level of complexity that is just above their individual comfort levels. By providing each student with reasonable levels of challenge and instructional scaffolding as needed, students learn that hard work results in successful growth.

One tip for achieving this is to plan the most complex learning activity first – one that would challenge the most advanced learner in your class. Then modify that activity for students who are currently at lower readiness levels.