What Is Differentiation Really?

This post provides an overview of the differentiated instruction (DI) model. For more insight on DI, see my posts Is Differentiation a Dirty Word? or The 4 Ways to Differentiate Instruction.

An Overview

old-schoolhouse-1.jpgThere seems to be a lot of confusion about what differentiation actually entails. There are problems with conflicting definitions. In one sense it is classic instruction where teachers would give different work to the many disparate students in the tiny prairie schoolhouse. It seems obvious now that students with different life experiences, strengths, and goals couldn’t be taught exactly the same, but it wasn’t that long ago that direct factory model instruction (I know ed history is more complex than that) was the norm for a post-industrial nation. But differentiation begins with really knowing your students, a noble enterprise in and of itself.

“Every child is entitled to the promise of a teacher’s optimism, enthusiasm, time, & energy.”

– Carol Tomlinson

Differentiation is identifying students strengths, needs, and interests and matching lessons suited to them. That means the third of your class who have already mastered a concept can move towards higher order thinking (see Bloom’s Taxonomy) or to areas where they struggle. Meanwhile, the struggling third of your class can receive additional support via alternative methods of presentation on behalf of the teacher or student. It should be data and profile driven and scaffolded to meet student needs.


Image result for differenceDifferentiation is one of the pinnacles that falls under the larger category of personalized learning. This may include personalizing instruction by varying time spent on particular skills, creating learner profiles, allowing student agency, or providing flexible learning environments. Those flexible environments are what could be described as differentiation. Environments aren’t a reference solely to the physical space either.

The term differentiated instruction (DI) began as a tool meant for use with gifted students as discussed in Thomas Popkewitz 1983 book, Individual Differences and the Common Curriculum. Since then it has been adapted for use with high-achieving students and students who would generally receive remedial instruction. Between the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 and No Child Left Behind in 2000, the government made it clear that we had a vested interest in ensuring that all children regardless of ability should have access to a quality rigorous education. Those efforts would necessitate differentiation.

It was part of an effort to make learning inclusive so we weren’t ostracizing and removing those struggling students from the general classroom. We now had a means to work with them effectively in a normal class. It also encouraged teachers to move away from lectures are generally far less effective than hands-on learning. I agree very much with Carol Ann Tomlinson, the author of The Differentiated Classroom and academic director, who claims that differentiation is a basic tenet of good instruction. Students are born to be learners. It is an innate part of the human experience.

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 DOE suggested designing lessons based on students’ learning styles. This means that teachers were encouraged to group students by shared interest, topic, or ability for assignments. They were instructed to use formative assessment to guide their practices and to continually assess and adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs. This was all part of managing the classroom as a safe and supportive environment. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) created the following infographic that gives an overview of the truth and misconceptions about differentiation as codified by Dr. Tomlinson.Differentiation.png

Differentiation Is

  • Lessons designed around patterns of student need – Student learning styles determine the structure of lessons.
  • A student-focused method of teaching – It is trusting in students to pursue their path of learning and, while there is initially more work required on the teacher’s behalf, it ultimately allows greater freedom for the teacher due to increased student autonomy. Lisa Nielsen speaks of it as shifting responsibility which frees the teacher to focus on greater needs. It’s open.
  • Image result for differenceIncorporates a variety of learning styles – Information should be presented in multiple ways like text, visuals, and hands-on learning. It can use whole-group, small-group, or individual tasks based on student content and needs.
  • Increases student and teacher flexibility – The goal is to allow more options for student learning which offers more options for teachers as well.
  • Still allows for rigor – Differentiation isn’t about making work easier. It’s about making it accessible for various student needs and learning styles. Yes, there may be built-in scaffolding, but there should still be room for students to beneficially struggle.
  • Allows for 21st-century learning – The type of instruction that best incorporates differentiation allows for the collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity required to succeed. It is open teaching and open questioning (think 3-Act Math) that allows for the beneficial struggle inherent in success.

Differentiation Is Not

  • A different lesson plan for every student – Your students need to be engaged in work appropriate for their level and pace, but that doesn’t mean different content for every student. It simply means allowing for modifications of the content you already have. Most Common Core and Next Generation Standards are based on skills rather than content which is essential for 21st-century learning. That means that content can be modified because you’re measuring mastery of skills.
  • Grouping students by ability – Modifying texts or content for a student grade level is an important component, but every student needs to be challenged in how they interact with the content. that is where the differentiation lay.
  • Grouping students by personal factors – Ridiculously some schools and cultures have thought differentiation meant segregating students based on age, gender, or race. Others mistakenly thought it meant sending kids to other rooms. It doesn’t mean any of those things.
  • Test data determines differentiation – While exams may accurately determine skills in a particular context, they don’t qualitatively measure the whole child in terms of interests and needs. Observation and interest surveys should also inform your differentiation methods.
  • About more work or less work – Again, differentiation is meant to challenge all students. Simply giving more of menial tasks to a gifted student doesn’t increase the challenge. That requires forcing them outside of their comfort zone to try different approaches to challenging hands-on projects. Similarly, struggling students should still be challenged but in a way that is accessible to them.
  • Changing the role of gifted students – It isn’t about making your advanced students into teacher helpers or giving them free time. Yes, time for exploration and leadership roles can be beneficial, but they should remain challenged students rather than unpaid teacher assistants.
  • Automatic – It takes effort, strategy, and training to make it work and is not for a lazy teacher looking to do the least possible, but neither is reading this far into a blog post about differentiation-so positive marks for you.

More recently the buzzword of mastery instruction is seen to replace differentiation, but, to me,  it really seems like DI without the baggage of the misinterpreted meanings above. Pursuing mastery for ALL students is essential, but some mastery advocates (of which I would be one) argue that differentiation leads to depressed expectations. I think I’ve explained that is a misconception.

As I’ve said differentiation is challenging every student to achieve the goal of proficiency, but allowing them multiple paths to that summit

You may feel comfortable and moderately effective maintaining only direct instruction through the factory model. Attempting to change may feel awkward and difficult at first, but seeing your struggling learners grow in knowledge, confidence, and independence while maintaining rigor and autonomy for advanced students will be empowering. It will require flexibility and determination, but there are several ways you can immediately begin to differentiate instruction for your students.


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