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Use Differentiated Instruction to Maximize Your Teaching

James Paterson

A lot of very good ideas in education in a perfect world would improve the classroom, but are easily overlooked when over 30 active students are clamoring for attention, confused, or not engaged and need to be redirected. Differentiated instruction is often is one of them.

Experts generally say that teachers who undertake differentiated instruction find that not only do their students become more successful, there are fewer behavior problems and each student is more connected to the information. Their job is easier. But many think while it’s a valuable tool, it’s too time-consuming and energy-sapping, when often teachers are satisfied just getting through a lesson and finding that students leave with new bits of knowledge or some good strategies.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, one of the most prominent names in efforts to have schools more closely connect the classroom activity with each student’s level and needs, says research has continually shown the benefits of the approach that she has championed in her early books more than two decades ago, but that dates back years before that.

“The concept is pretty much universally accepted,” she said in an interview. “But sometimes we just don’t put it into practice very well in a school and in the classroom. If I had a quarter for everybody who says they do (differentiated instruction), I’d be very rich. But it just isn’t the case that it’s being done thoroughly and properly that often.”

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Tomlinson says, however, it will become increasingly important. “In order to teach culturally and academically diverse populations effectively, schools will have to move from standardized instruction to personalized instruction. Our best knowledge of effective teaching and learning suggests clearly that teacher responsiveness to race, gender, culture, readiness, experience, interest, and learning preferences results in increased student motivation and achievement,” she has written.

Assimilating Differentiated Instruction into the Classroom

Advocates also say that too often, schools don’t prioritize it and it should be discussed in professional development and then promoted regularly and teachers should be given time and support to implement it.

“It shouldn’t really be something else that we are adding to the load for teachers to do. It should just be part of instruction,” says Anne Baily Lipsett, who has worked in special education for 16 years and now serves as an educational consultant. She says that it is such a fundamental part of education it should be routine for teachers -- and part of the school culture, but too often it is discussed and promoted, but not fully put in place in schools.

Meanwhile, Rachelle Lynette, an experienced teacher who also has worked with other students having specific needs – gifted students – makes the same point. “I am a firm believer that differentiation is not only best practice, but it also will actually make your job easier in the long run,” she writes.

In a new book, Tomlinson notes that differentiation is even more valuable when blended with new understanding about how our brains develop. She suggests it is critical for teachers to apply new understanding of educational neuroscience as they work on the key elements of differentiation -- the learning environment, curriculum, formative assessments, and instruction.

Why Isn’t Differentiated Instruction Used More Often?

So, given that it is proven to work and may be even more critical as we learn how students learn, why isn’t it used widely enough in the American K-12 classroom? The most common complaint of critics generally is that it is just too hard for teachers with unworkably large classrooms to successfully develop their plans and teach this way.

In an opinion column, James R. Delisle, an educational consultant wrote about why "Differentiation Doesn't Work”: "It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: University professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals,” he wrote.

Tomlinson and Lipsett both responded to the much publicized opinion article, Tomlinson in a published response that EdWeek requested when the column resulted in “An avalanche of reader comments,” Lipsett later replied in a blog post.

They both, of course, said that the approach is effective, and noted that it doesn’t create much extra work and will save teachers time in the end because student performance and behavior will improve and they will become less reactive to problems.

“I've always wondered why teachers felt it was so hard to implement. It doesn't have to be overly difficult or taxing,” says Lipsett. “It's often a matter of asking thoughtfully tiered questions during focus lessons that drive home the different skills one wants to teach to each group.”

She says open-ended tasks can allow students to approach the assignment at their level, or three levels of worksheets can be used – one that reteaches the material, one on grade level and one advanced. “Then students are all practicing what they need to practice,” she says. “Teachers who set up their classrooms in the beginning of the year to provide structures that allow for differentiation will find that it comes seamlessly throughout the year.”

Lynette has provided some tips for teachers, and there are a number of resources to help teachers develop differentiation strategies efficiently, and a differentiation planning guide can help teachers work through it (see more resources at end of this article). And the first chapter of a book that Tomlinson authored in the 1990s still stands the test time.

She notes that students are different in at least three areas: Their readiness to work in a particular idea or skill, their interests, and their learning profile, shaped by “Gender, culture, learning style, or intelligence preference.”

And, Lynnette says, differentiation requires these elements:

  • Flexibility. She notes that “Time, materials, modes of teaching, ways of grouping students, ways of expressing learning, ways of assessing learning, and other classroom elements” all can be used in different ways to address the needs of students
  • Assessment of Learner Needs. Teachers expect there will be differences, study them, and prepare for them so they are “Aware of our students' learning needs and interests.” “In a differentiated classroom, a teacher sees everything a student says or creates as useful information both in understanding that particular learner and in crafting instruction to be effective for that learner.”
  • Flexible Grouping. In whole-class, small group, and individual work, students learn with others at the same level, or similar learning patterns or in groups that are random or that they determine themselves. “Flexible grouping used consistently and purposefully has a variety of benefits,” Tomlinson writes. It provides teachers an, “Opportunity for carefully targeted teaching and learning, access to all materials and individuals in the classroom, and rich assessment data for the teacher who ‘auditions’ each learner in a wide range of contexts.” Students can see themselves in a variety of contexts and learn about themselves and others and learn from classmates.
  • Respectful collaboration. Differentiation requires collaboration and that everyone in the classroom be respectful.

She says that teachers can differentiate the content of their lesson, the process that they and the student use and the products or tools that are available.

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Other Resources About Differentiation:

Video presentations about differentiation: