Differentiated Instruction Overview

What is differentiated instruction?

Why is differentiated instruction important in schools today?

Why do teachers need to differentiate instruction?

What is differentiated curriculum?

What are differentiation strategies?

How do you differentiate instruction?

What does differentiated instruction look like in the classroom?

How can I differentiate instruction in my classroom?

How can I differentiate assessment?

How can I differentiate a lesson?


What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction (or differentiation) is a teaching method that involves tailoring lessons to individual student need. Typically, differentiated instruction is provided at the classroom level. Differentiation can be established by dividing a classroom’s students into appropriate groups or can even entail unique assignments and assessments for each student. Differentiation can also be self-selected by students (by aligning assignment topics with student interests), rather than imposed by the teacher. The factors typically considered when creating groupings for differentiation include students’ prior knowledge, interests, cultural backgrounds, and fluency in the classroom’s standard teaching language.

In an effort to define and describe the idea of differentiation, a set of terms often associated with differentiation or differentiated instruction illuminates the concept and process. Among the terms are personalized, individualized, customized, tailored, tweaked, adjusted, modified, adapted, accommodated, stylized, manipulated, and finetuned. Each of these terms captures, to some extent, the essence of differentiation.

—From Supporting Differentiated Instruction (p. 32) by Robin J. Fogarty and Brian M. Pete

Why is differentiated instruction important in schools today?

The student population in schools is more diverse than ever. Students are entering school with varying proficiency levels, behaviors, preferences, and interests. Differentiation helps meet individual student needs and fosters high levels of engagement, which has been shown to significantly improve learning outcomes.

Virtually all people can learn most things in more than one way. However, while one approach may make the process of learning seem more natural or accessible to a particular learner at a particular time, another approach may confound the process for that same learner. Although individual preferences for learning are fluid, depending on the circumstances or context, a mismatch between how a student learns best in a particular context and how the teacher expects the student to learn can impede the learning process.

—From Differentiation and the Brain (p. 110) by David A. Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson

Why do teachers need to differentiate instruction?

In order to achieve learning for all students, teachers must adapt their instruction to meet individual student need.

Brain research supports the use of differentiation—it helps educators understand why varying learning experiences benefits learners. When students are engaged in their zone of proximal development where they are neither bored nor threatened—when they are in an atmosphere of relaxed alertness—they are ready for optimal learning. Teachers can then target their students’ sweet spot and help them transfer their learning into long-term memory.

—From What Principals Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction (p. 23) by Gayle Gregory

What is differentiated curriculum?

A differentiated curriculum consists of units and lesson plans that have student choice and/or varying levels of rigor built in.

An effectively differentiated curriculum then adds one more feature: teachers develop it with student variances in mind. That is, its plans account for different levels of reading and writing proficiency, different experiential entrypoint levels, different interests, and different preferences for learning. Ideally, the teacher begins not by developing a quality curriculum and later differentiating it, but rather by anticipating student differences and incorporating ways to respond to those differences even as he or she develops the curriculum.

—From Differentiation and the Brain (p. 64) by David A. Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson

What are differentiation strategies?

Nine specific strategies for differentiation have been proven to increase student percentile gains in all subject disciplines, from kindergarten through grade 12 (Marzano et al., 2001)...

  1. Identifying similarities and differences, comparing, contrasting, classifying, and using analogies and metaphors...
  2. Taking notes and summarizing...
  3. Reinforcing effort and providing recognition...
  4. Assigning homework and practice...
  5. Generating nonlinguistic representations...
  6. Using cooperative group learning...
  7. Setting objectives and providing feedback...
  8. Generating and testing hypotheses...
  9. Providing questions, cues, and advance organizers...

These strategies support how the brain makes sense of new concepts and skills, engages, rehearses, and stores new learning.

—From What Principals Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction (p. 52–53) by Gayle Gregory

How do you differentiate instruction?

You can differentiate instruction in two major ways:

  1. Student-selected differentiation: Providing options and letting students choose
  2. Teacher-selected differentiation: Assigning different homework and projects to students

Student-selected differentiation is usually best when differentiating by learning preference and student interest. This method is also generally best for increasing engagement.

However, in many situations teacher-selected differentiation is preferable, such as when there are concrete differences in a classroom’s population in terms of prior knowledge and skills and/or when the essential standards are different among students.

For instance, you would not want to allow student-selected differentiation between a paper, diorama, or speech if you know that one or more reluctant students need to improve their public speaking skills. In another example, if a teacher has an Algebra II class and half of the students took Algebra I the year before and the other half took Geometry I, it would make sense for the teacher to predetermine that there should be at least two differentiated groups and teach accordingly. In situations such as these, it is generally best for the teacher to decide.

What does differentiated instruction look like in the classroom?

There are many pieces that make up a differentiated classroom—it is not the implementation of one strategy or idea. … Gregory and Chapman (2007) describe the following six elements of a differentiated classroom.

  1. The climate is growth oriented...
  2. The teacher knows the learner...
  3. Assessment is part of the process...
  4. Assignments are adjustable...
  5. Instructional strategies are varied...
  6. A variety of curricular models are used...

—From What Principals Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction (p. 11) by Gayle Gregory

How can I differentiate instruction in my classroom?

Three classroom elements are commonly differentiated to meet individual student needs: content, process, and product (Tomlinson, 1999a).

  1. Content: The core standards remain constant targets for students; however, students can develop competencies and big ideas (concepts) and knowledge and skills through varied content, resources, and materials that spark their interests and meet their needs, as long as it takes them to the same learning outcome stated in the curriculum.
  2. Process: Process is how teachers teach and how students come to understand new information. The core standards are constant; the process—how students learn—is what is differentiated... In differentiated instruction, teachers provide students with a variety of learning activities to help them make sense or develop understanding...
  3. Product: Product is how students demonstrate their knowledge of a topic or area of interest. In differentiation, there are many ways for students to process information and demonstrate their understanding or competence. These products are usually in the form of authentic culminating assessments that engage students and provide them with choices.

—From What Principals Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction (p. 11) by Gayle Gregory

How can I differentiate assessment?

Assessment is the companion of changing the product. [“Product” is defined in the previous question.] To assess products is to hold students accountable for their choice of how they show their evidence of learning. The assessment judges not only the quantity of that learning, but also the quality.

It’s important to note that when teachers differentiate learning by changing the accountability factor, that does not mean students are not responsible for the learning. It means that teachers in the PLC teams provide different ways for students to be accountable for the learning.

To vary the accountability measures whenever possible and to look for a robust picture of student learning, teachers use summative and formative assessments as well as a balanced assessment plan that includes traditional, verbal/linguistic assessments; portfolios of artifacts and reflections; and performance data with predetermined criteria and quality indicators.

—From Supporting Differentiated Instruction (p. 109) by Robin J. Fogarty and Brian M. Pete

How can I differentiate a lesson?

To add the differentiation element, teachers go back to that basic lesson and look at the content changes they can make, the varied processes of learning they can use, and the multiple products they can offer as options to ensure student success. Sometimes teachers include another element to the differentiation planning tools ...they can color code their lesson plans to designate the parts of the lesson they are differentiating. For example, they might use a red dot to show that they have changes for content, blue for process options, and green for choices in products.

—From Supporting Differentiated Instruction (p. 134) by Robin J. Fogarty and Brian M. Pete