Jun 162011

Differentiated Instruction

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Differentiated instruction (sometimes referred to as differentiated learning) involves providing students with different avenues to acquiring content; to processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and to developing teaching materials so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.[1]

Differentiated instruction, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson (as cited by Ellis, Gable, Greg, & Rock, 2008, p. 32), is the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he/she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he/she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning”. Differentiation stems from beliefs about differences among learners, how they learn, learning preferences and individual interests (Anderson, 2007). “Research indicates that many of the emotional or social difficulties gifted students experience disappear when their educational climates are adapted to their level and pace of learning.”[2] Differentiation in education can also include how a student shows that they have mastery of a concept. This could be through a research paper, role play, podcast, diagram, poster, etc. The key is finding how your students learn and displays their learning that meets their specific needs.


In differentiated instruction students are placed at the center of teaching and learning[1]. Kathy Bigo defines differentiation as “the right of each pupil to be taught in a way specifically tailored to their individual learning needs.”[3] Because each learner comes to school with a different set of learning needs, examples of which include differing educational, personal, and communal contexts[4] and varying degrees of academic skill development,[5] differentiated instruction advocates that the educator proactively plans a variety of instruction methods so as to best facilitate effective learning experiences which are suited to the various learning needs within the classroom.[1] In its pursuit of this foundational goal, differentiated instructional methods attempt to qualitatively, as opposed to quantitatively, match learners’ abilities with appropriate material; include a blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction; use numerous approaches to facilitating input, processing, and output; and constantly adapt to learners’ needs based upon the teacher’s constant assessment of all students.[1]

Often referred to as an educational philosophy, differentiated instruction is viewed as a proactive approach to instruction and an idea that has as many faces as practitioners. The model of differentiated instruction requires teachers to tailor their instruction and adjust the curriculum to students’ needs rather than expecting students to modify themselves to fit the curriculum. Teachers who are committed to this approach believe that who they teach shapes how they teach because who the students are shapes how they learn. Differentiated instruction requires the teacher to have “sufficient appropriate knowledge of the pupils, PLUS the ability to plan and deliver suitable lessons effectively, so as to help all pupils individually to maximise their learning, whatever their individual situation”.[6] Differentiation is not teaching at a slow pace so that everyone can keep up, allowing pupils and groups work through tasks at their own pace, or expecting some students to do better than others and calling it ‘differentiation by outcome’.[7] Bigio also cautions that differentiation is not ‘Humiliating the slow learners by drawing attention to their limitations”.[8]

The perfect model of differentiated instruction rests upon an active, student centered, meaning-making approach to teaching and learning. The theoretical and philosophical influences embedded in differentiated instruction support the three key elements of differentiated instruction itself: readiness, interest, and learning profile (Allan & Tomlinson, 2000).

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, proved that individuals learn best in accordance with their readiness to do so (Allan & Tomlinson, 2008). This theoretical influence provides a concrete foundation for differentiated instruction. The readiness of the individual should match what a student learns, how they learn it and how the student demonstrates what they learned when using differentiated instruction.

The philosophical idea that interest based options seize on intrinsic motivation, supports the second key element of differentiated instruction, student interest. According to Jerome Bruner (as cited by Allan & Tomlinson, 2000), when interest is tapped, learning is more likely to be rewarding and the student becomes a more autonomous learner.

An American psychologist, Howard Gardner, developed the theory of multiple intelligences. His theory states that people have different intelligences and learn in many different ways. Gardner’s theory suggests that schools should offer individual-centered education, having curriculum tailored to a child’s intelligence preference (Allan & Tomlinson, 2000). Essentially, Gardner supports the third key element of differentiated instruction, which accounts for different student learning profiles.

Differentiated instruction integrates constructivist learning theories, learning styles, and brain development with research on influencing factors of learner readiness, interest and intelligence preferences toward students’ motivation, engagement, and academic growth within schools (Anderson, 2007). According to educational psychologist Kathie Nunley, differentiated instruction became an essential part of US educator’s repertoire as the make-up of the general classroom moved from homogeneous groupings of students prior to the 1970s to the ever increasing variety of learners seen in the heterogeneous classroom make-up in the last 40 years[9] (Nunley, 2006).

By using differentiated instruction, educators can meet all individual student needs and help every student meet and exceed established standards (Levy, 2008). According to Tomlinson (as cited by Rebora, 2008), the perceived need for differentiated instruction lies in the fact that students vary in so many ways and student populations are becoming more academically diverse. Chances are pretty good that the trend of diverse student populations will continue throughout our lifetimes.


For some teachers, the first and most important step in differentiated instruction is determining what students already know so as not to cover material students have mastered, or use methods that would be ineffective for students. A preassessment can be a quiz, game, discussion, or other activity that asks students to answer some of the questions that would be used to evaluate their performance at the end of an upcoming unit or lesson. It may also be in the form of a learning inventory, such as a Multiple Intelligences inventory (still regarded with skepticism by many researchers),[10] so the teacher will be able to determine how students within the class prefer to learn.

Some models of differentiation do not require a pre-assessment, but rather have students self-assess daily through oral defense, such as in Layered Curriculum. ([11] Nunley, 2004, 2006)

The goals of differentiated instruction are to develop challenging and engaging tasks for each learner (from low-end learner to high-end learner). Instructional activities are flexible and based and evaluated on content, process and product. This instructional approach and choice of content are driven by the data from students’ assessment results and from the outcomes of other screening tools. Meaningful pre- and post-assessment leads to successful differentiation by producing the results that communicate the students’ needs.


The content of lessons may be differentiated based on what students already know. The most basic content of a lesson should cover the standards of learning set by the district or state. Some students in a class may be completely unfamiliar with the concepts in a lesson, some students may have partial mastery of the content – or display mistaken ideas about the content, and some students may show mastery of the content before the lesson begins. The teacher may differentiate the content by designing activities for groups of students that cover different areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example, students who are unfamiliar with the concepts may be required to complete tasks on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, and application. Students with partial mastery may be asked to complete tasks in the application, analysis and evaluation areas, and students who have high levels of mastery may be asked to complete tasks in evaluation and synthesis.

When a teacher differentiates content they may adapt what they want the students to learn or how the students will gain access to the knowledge, understanding and skills (Anderson, 2007). Educators are not varying student objectives or lowering performance standards for students. They use different texts, novels or short stories at a reading level appropriate for each individual student. Teachers can use flexible groups and have students assigned to alike groups listening to books on tape or specific internet sources. Students could have a choice to work in pairs, groups or individually, but all students are working towards the same standards and objectives.


The process of how the material in a lesson is learned may be differentiated for students based on their learning styles, taking into account what standards of performance are required for the age level. This stage of differentiation allows students to learn based either on what method is easiest for them to acquire knowledge, or what may challenge them most: some students may prefer to read about a topic (or may require practice in reading), and others may prefer to listen (or require practice in listening), or acquire knowledge by manipulating objects associated with the content. Information may be presented in multiple ways by the teacher, and may be based on any available methods or materials. Many teachers use areas of Multiple Intelligences to provide learning opportunities.

Commonalities in the assessment results lead to grouping practices that are planned designed to meet the students’ needs. “How” a teacher plans to deliver the instruction is based on assessment results that show the needs, learning styles, interests, and levels of prior knowledge. The grouping practices must be flexible, as groups will change with regard to the need that will be addressed. Regardless of whether the differentiation of instruction is based upon student readiness, interests, or needs, the dynamic flow of grouping and regrouping is one of the foundations of differentiated instruction. It is important for a differentiated classroom to allow some students to work alone, if this is their best modality for a particular task. (Nunley, 2004)

Differentiating by process refers to how a student comes to understand and assimilate facts, concepts and skills (Anderson, 2007). After teaching a lesson, a teacher might break students into small “ability” groups based on their readiness. The teacher would then give each group a series of questions, based on each group’s appropriate level of readiness-skills, related to the objectives of the lesson. Another way to group the students could be based on the students’ learning styles. The main idea behind this is that students are at different levels and learn in different ways, so a teacher can’t teach them all the same way.

Another model of differentiation, Layered Curriculum, simply offers student a choice of assignments but requires demonstration of learning in order to pass of the assignment. This eliminates the need for pre-assessment and is useful for teachers with large class loads, such as in high school. (Nunley, 2004).


The product is essentially what the student produces at the end of the lesson to demonstrate the mastery of the content: tests, evaluations, projects, reports, or other activities. Based on students’ skill levels and educational standards, teachers may assign students to complete activities that demonstrate mastery of an educational concept (writing a report), or in a method the student prefers (composing an original song about the content, or building a 3-dimensional object that explains mastery of concepts in the lesson or unit). The product is an integral component of the differentiated model, as the preparation of the assessments will primarily determine both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ instruction will be delivered.

When an educator differentiates by product or performance, they are affording students various ways of demonstrating what they have learned from the lesson or unit (Anderson, 2007; Nunley, 2006). It is done by using menu unit sheets, choice boards or open-ended lists of final product options. It is meant to allow students to show what they learned based on their learning preferences, interests and strengths.

Examples of differentiated structures include Layered Curriculum, tiered instruction, tic-tac-toe extension menus, Curry/Samara models, RAFT writing activities, and similar designs. (see external links below)

In differentiated instruction, teachers respond to students’ readiness, instructional needs, interests and learning preferences and provide opportunities for students to work in varied instructional formats. A classroom that utilizes differentiated instruction is a learner-responsive, teacher-facilitated classroom where all students have the opportunity to meet curriculum foundation objectives. Lessons may be on inquiry based, problem based and project based instruction.


  1. ^ a b c d Tomlinson, Carol (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Differentiated Instructions provides access for all students to the general education curriculum. The method of assessment may look different for each child, however the skill / concepts taught will be the same. Classrooms (2 ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ISBN 0871205122.
  2. ^ Neihart, Maureen ed., with Reis, Sally; Robinson, Nancy; and Moon, Sidney, (2002). The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What Do We Know? National Association of Gifted Children (Prufrock Press, Inc.). p. 286
  3. ^ Kathy Bigio ‘Differentiation 3-7’, 2010
  4. ^ Taylor, Lorraine; Catharine Whittaker (2003). Bridging Multiple Worlds: Case Studies of Diverse Educational Communities. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0321086694.
  5. ^ Levine, Mel (2002). A Mind at a Time. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0743202228.
  6. ^ Kathy Bigio ‘Differentiation 3-7’ 2010
  7. ^ Kathy Bigio, ‘Differentiation 3-7’ 2010
  8. ^ Kathy Bigio, ‘Differentiation 3-7’, 2010
  9. ^ Nunley, K. 2006. Differentiating the High School Classroom, Corwin Press. pg 8
  10. ^ Morgan, H. (1996). An analysis of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence. Roeper Review 18, 263-270.
  11. ^ Nunley, K. (2006). Differentiating the High School Classroom. Corwin Press

Further reading

  • Allan, S. D., & Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Leadership for differentiating schools and classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Anderson, K. M. (2007). Tips for teaching: Differentiating instruction to include all students. Preventing School Failure, 51(3), 49-54.
  • Ellis, E., Gable, R. A., Gregg, M., Rock, M. L. (2008). REACH: A framework for differentiating classroom instruction. Preventing School Failure, 52(2), 31-47
  • Levy, H. M. (2008). Meeting the needs of all students through differentiated instruction: Helping every child reach and exceed standards. The Clearing House, 81(4), 161-164.
  • Rebora, A. (2008). Making a difference. Teacher Magazine, 2(1), 26, 28-31.
  • Nunley, K. (2004). Layered Curriculum. 2nd ed. Brains.org: Amherst, NH
  • Nunley, K. (2006). Differentiating the High School Classroom: Solution Strategies for 18 Common Obstacles. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA.

 External links

  • Differentiated Instruction Resources from ASCD
  • Learning Styles Questionnaire – The JAS Group
  • Best Practices: Pieces of the Puzzle
  • Dimensions of Differentiated Learning.
  • Explanation of Dimensions of Differentiated Learning
  • Example of a tiered lesson
  • An example of a tic tac toe extension menu
  • Information on developing RAFT activities
  • Example of a Curry/Samara grid
  • Carol Tomlinson: Differentiation Expert
  • Differentiation – National Association of Gifted Children
  • Differentiated Instruction – Reading Rockets and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
  • Differentiating for High Ability Students – Lesson Planet
  • Trabzon Science and Art Center (TÜRKİYE)



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