Differentiated instruction is a hot topic in the educational world these days. Schools and districts are starting to prioritize differentiation as a way to help more students succeed, and teachers are joining the movement to reach every student at their own level.
So, what does differentiated instruction mean, and how can it be achieved in the classroom?
Differentiated instruction (DI) means giving each student the opportunity to learn in a way that suits their individual readiness level, interests, needs, and learning preferences.
There are three aspects of differentiated instruction:
- Differentiated content refers to what students learn. This can mean different topics that appeal to students’ individual interests, or it can mean different levels that suit students’ academic readiness.
- Differentiated process refers to how students learn. Differentiated classrooms offer a variety of formats in which students can choose to access information, not just one channel such as a textbook.
- Differentiated product refers to how students demonstrate knowledge. Teachers who practice differentiation give students multiple ways to show they understand the material, rather than simply giving everyone the same multiple-choice test at the end of a unit.
While teachers have been delivering individualized instruction for as long as classrooms have existed, the pedagogical concept of differentiation was popularized by Carol Ann Tomlinson with her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms in 1995 (now in its third edition as How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms).
In this article, we’ll explore the different ways in which educators can differentiate instruction, what a differentiated classroom looks like, and how differentiation benefits students’ growth.
Why does differentiation matter?
Today’s classrooms are more diverse than ever before. According to a survey of 20,000 public school teachers by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:
- 73% of teachers report that their classrooms have students with reading levels that span four or more grade levels
- 72% have SpEd students in the general classroom
- 69% have students working 2 or more levels below grade level
- 60% have students working significantly above grade level
Students bring different backgrounds, talents, and interests to the classroom. They speak different languages at home, and their families have different outlooks on education. Some come to school ready to learn, whereas others come to school hungry, tired, or worried about their family members.
The driving belief behind differentiation is that everyone deserves a chance to access knowledge, regardless of their background, learning preferences, or individual needs. If all students have opportunities to grow and learn, then our society will benefit.
The goal of differentiated instruction is to reach every student at their own level and allow students to learn in the way that works best for them. This is the opposite of the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach in which every student reads the same textbook. Every teacher knows that in that environment, students who are behind can fall further behind, and students who are ahead can become bored and frustrated.
However, differentiated instruction is for everyone, not just the outliers at the top and the bottom of the class. Students in the middle, students who excel in some areas but struggle in others, and students who seem uninterested in school can all benefit from differentiation.
How does differentiated instruction work?
In a differentiated classroom, every student has the opportunity to explore material at their own level—and in a way that helps them learn.
Here are some examples of differentiated learning experiences across the three aspects of differentiation:
- Differentiated content: Students in a class all read the same article at their individual reading levels. Students completing different science projects based on their own interests.
- Differentiated process: Students choose how to explore a concept, either by watching a video series, reading articles, participating in a group discussion, or working on a research project.
- Differentiated product: A teacher gives students an opportunity to show what they’ve learned in a unit by writing a report, giving a presentation to the class, or building a demonstration of the concepts in action.
The challenge is to avoid labeling students as a certain “learning style” and always prescribing one type of assignment for each student. The previously popular concept of learning styles has waned in favor over the years. While each learner’s brain is undeniably different, it’s unlikely that each person has a fixed style by which they will always learn best. In fact, students can learn differently under different conditions.
Consider how your own brain might process content differently when you’re:
- Alert vs. tired. Perhaps you have no trouble reading dense material with your morning coffee, but the same article might put you to sleep at 3:00pm.
- Previously familiar vs. brand new with the concept. A video demonstrating different mathematical techniques might completely confuse you until you’ve mastered the basics by practicing them yourself.
- Fascinated vs. uninterested in the material. If you love U.S. history, you may be able to read about it for hours, but you might need to learn about economics in shorter bursts to keep your mind from wandering.
There are so many variables in how humans learn! Differentiation encourages teachers to instruct in a variety of ways and offer a variety of projects so that students have the opportunity to engage with the material in different formats and explore different ways of learning.
Challenges of differentiated instruction
With so many things to consider with differentiation, how can one teacher do it all? Many schools and districts struggle to implement differentiation because teachers, who already work an average of 53 hours per week, simply don’t have enough hours in the day to develop individualized lesson plans for each of their students.
Aside from not having enough time to make differentiation realistic, many teachers also struggle to find the resources to differentiate effectively. They find it frustrating to try to track down different articles that contain the same information at different reading levels, media in different formats for each lesson, and resources for multiple activities. Not only is it time-consuming to compile all of these teaching materials; it can also quickly become expensive.
To overcome these challenges, technology can make all the difference! Instead of manually testing each student to identify their current level, creating individual worksheets, gathering articles at different levels, and planning separate curricula for 20-30 students, teachers can use software like Freckle that gauges students’ starting levels, adjusts automatically, tracks growth, and offers a wide variety of different types of ready-made lessons for teachers to use.
Benefits of differentiated instruction
There are many benefits of differentiating instruction in the classroom! The most obvious is narrowing the achievement gap in academically diverse classrooms. When every student is engaging with the material at their own level, in a way that makes sense to them, students who are below grade level are less likely to fall further behind, students who are ahead of grade level don’t get bored with material that doesn’t challenge them, and students in the middle of the class don’t feel invisible.
Differentiated instruction promotes a growth mindset, allowing students to focus on making progress no matter where they start from, rather than simply believing, “I’m good at this” or, “I’m bad at this.”
Another benefit is that every student can participate in class discussions and activities. No students are left out from group activities simply because the reading assignment was above their level.
Finally, differentiated instruction promotes a healthier classroom culture. Differentiation teaches students that there isn’t just one right way to learn; everyone is different, and everyone has different strengths! Instead of labeling each other as good or bad in school, students gain respect for their peers’ strengths and interests.
It’s not just about improving student performance
While attending to each student’s individual learning needs is a great way to make students more likely to succeed academically, there’s a level of care involved that goes way beyond test scores. The heart of differentiation is a respect for every student as a unique human being and a desire to help them grow.
To successfully reach every student at their own level, educators have to let go of the idea that each classroom has good and bad students and embrace the idea that every student has the potential to learn in unique ways. In a Freckle webinar, Carol Ann Tomlinson encouraged teachers to “teach with belief in the hidden capacity of each student.” It’s easier to find new ways to engage each student if you truly believe in their potential and want to see them succeed.
In a Q&A article on EdWeek, Ge-Anne Bolhuis, Ed. S. said, “Simply put, differentiation is nearly impossible without developing a relationship with each student.” While technology can make it easy to deliver the right lesson to every student, true differentiation happens when teachers listen to students and understand what makes them tick, what bores them, what confuses them, and what inspires them.
Learn more about differentiated instruction
There are plenty of resources available for educators who want to learn more about differentiation and how to apply it in the classroom! Here are some of our favorites.
- How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson
- Differentiation in the Elementary Grades: Strategies to Engage and Equip All Learners by Kristina J. Doubet and Jessica A. Hockett
- Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners by Kristina J. Doubet and Jessica A. Hockett
- Differentiated Instructional Strategies: One Size Doesn't Fit All by Gayle Gregory and Carolyn Chapman
- The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners by Carol Ann Tomlinson
- A Differentiated Approach to the Common Core by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia Imbeau
- Response: Ways to Use Tech to Differentiate Instruction (Part 1) and Response: 'Embracing Technology' as a Tool for Differentiation (Part 2) by Larry Ferlazzo in EdWeek
- Differentiation: The Latest Great Debate by Krista Taylor in Angels and Superheroes
- Students Matter: 3 Steps for Effective Differentiated Instruction by John McCarthy in Edutopia
- Teaching a Class With Big Ability Differences by Todd Finley in Edutopia
- Inventing Differentiation by Carol Ann Tomlinson in EdWeek
- Differentiation Through Personalization and Individualization by John McCarthy in TeachThought
Videos and Webinars
- Differentiating Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms with Carol Ann Tomlinson
- Differentiation Central’s video library
- Station Rotation: Differentiating Instruction to Reach All Students in Edutopia
How to differentiate instruction with Freckle
At Freckle, we celebrate the fact that every student is a unique individual, and every student’s value goes way beyond what you can see in a test score or a report card. (In fact, that’s why we chose our company name!) We believe we have a responsibility to ensure every student gets a world-class education, and differentiation is the way teachers can meet the needs of every student.
That’s exactly why we created the first and only differentiation platform that helps teachers reach every student at their own level across Math, ELA, Social Studies, and Science. It’s research-backed, proven to help students grow, and loved by over 500,000 teachers in all 50 states.
To learn how Freckle can help you differentiate instruction, view our plans for teachers, schools, and districts here.