Differentiated Instruction

Accommodating Individual Differences

Differentiated instruction is not a new concept; in relatively recent history, we can see roots of differentiated instruction in one-room schoolhouses, where a single teacher was responsible for the instruction of all different ages of students in a single room. However, when Congress passed the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (addressed earlier in this book), educators emphasized differentiated instructional strategies to meet the needs of students with disabilities within the least restrcitive environment. So what does it mean to differentiate instruction? Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching and learning that involves adapting the contents, methods, and methods of assessment to give room for diverse needs, interests, and different learning preferences of individual students. This method of learning prioritizes the different abilities, backgrounds, and experiences of the learners. Furthermore, it recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching is ineffective in meeting the needs of all learners. In this method of learning, teachers use a variety of instructional strategies and materials to engage students in meaningful learning experiences that build on their strength while making room for improvement in their weakness and challenges. For instance, teachers may employ adaptable grouping techniques like peer tutoring or small group instruction to give students who need extra support or push those who need it.

Providing students with a variety of opportunities to demonstrate their understanding and learning, such as through written assignments, projects, presentations, or dialogues, is another aspect of differentiated education. Using this method of assessment, students can demonstrate their learning in ways that fit with their talents and passions. This approach to teaching places value of the diversity of learners and aims to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment that allows for all the learners to thrive. Differentiated instruction can allow students with different abilities – from the extraordinarily intelligent students to those with mild or severe disabilities, to receive appropriate education in an all-inclusive classroom (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). 

What is a Differentiated Classroom?

In a differentiated classroom, teachers begin the learning process where the learners are and not at the beginning of a curriculum guide (Tomlinson, 1999). They acknowledge and build upon the idea that there are significant differences among learners. As a result, they also agree with and put into practice the idea that teachers must be prepared to engage students in learning through a variety of learning modalities, by appealing to a variety of interests, and by varying the pace and level of instruction. In order to ensure that both the learning environment and content are tailored to the learner, teachers in differentiated classrooms make flexible use of the time allotted to each student, employ a variety of teaching tactics, and collaborate with the students. They don't try to fit students into one certain mold (Tomlinson, 1999). Teachers in differentiated classrooms essentially recognize, embrace, and plan for the fact that students come to school with many things in common but also with the crucial differences that make them unique. In order to construct classrooms that are suitable for each student, teachers can accommodate this reality in a variety of ways (Tomlinson, 1999).

 Figure 1

Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" YouTube music video

Accommodaing Individual Differences

When teachers look to accommodate the individual differneces of learners in their classroom, there are four primary variables that can be altered: rate, content, method, and goals. By using these range of strategies and approaches, teachers can create a supportive learning environment that promotes academic growth and success for all students.

Rate of Learning

One component of instruction that teachers can differentiate involves the rate, or pace, of instruction. With this type of individualization, a teacher may choose to chunk the content into smaller segments, in which the students proceed through at their own pace until they demonstrate mastery. This strategy also allows some students to skip topics or concepts that they already understand (which teachers can gather through diagnostic or preassessments--either on paper or through adaptive learning technologies), while allowing others in the class to get more help (i.e., practice, remediation, or tips). This concept dates back to the 1970s with Robert Glaser's Individually Prescribed instruction, which was an approach that paired diagnostic tests with objectives for master. A benefit of technology-assisted adjustments is the element of discrete differentiation; when a task is completed online, it is much more difficult for a student's peers to know what they are working on. This allows the teacher to provide tiered assignments--with different levels of challenge or complexity or degrees of support necessary to meet the learner's needs at various levels--without their peers becoming aware of the scaffolds or extensions being provided. 

Figure 2

Google's "practice sets" as a form of adaptive learning.


Another approach teachers may use to differentiate instruction is by altering the content. When content is adjusted, educators employ enduring understandings and essential questions (mentioned in a previous chapter) to have students address the same learning objectives, while actually studying different topics. This can be an effective strategy because students are more intrinsically motivated when they see the relevance of the topics they're studying--and if they are the individuals choosing what they study, then they are more invested in their learning. A learner's autonomy--or their ability to take charge over their own learning--helps students become more engaged and connected. Because of this, in part, teachers will also find the quality of work produced by students to be much higher due to empowering students to take charge of their learning. 


Changing the method is another tactic teachers might employ for differentiating instruction. If a teacher adjusts the method of learning, they are devising ways for students to process information in a variety of formats all the while keeping the learning intentions and content the same. This can involve the teacher varying their instructional approaches (hands-on activities, learning stations/rotations, technology, visual aids, etc.) to deliver the material, but it can also include the teacher providing a range of options for students to accomplish a task (such as recording a video, writing a podcast script, or drawing a diagram).


When the goals of learning are differentiated, a teacher is varying what is taught by involving students in what they want to learn and accommodating their individual characteristics. This approach can be more common in elective courses and as students age. In this form of personalized learning, teachers work with students one-on-one to create personalized learning plans specific to their learning needs and goals. It could involve goal setting, progress tracking, feedback, and support to enable students to reach their full potential. Teachers can then assign students to small groups (comprised of similar interests, approaches, or skill levels), which can enable peer support during the learning cycle. 

Principles Guiding Differentiated Classrooms

True differentiated instruction is a collection of best practices that are thoughtfully combined to enhance students' learning at every opportunity, including equipping them with the skills needed to manage any undifferentiated material. When the standard classroom approach fails to satisfy the needs of the students, educators must employ various tactics for different students in order for them to learn. 

Voice & Choice

Some learning approaches simply work better for us than others. If we learn through a variety of ways, then so do the students in our classrooms. Therefore, lesson planning should reflect a variety of ways to offer entry to learning by all students. A simple way to accomplish this is by providing students options in how they receive content (intake) and in they ways they demonstrate understanding. Giving students choice allows them an opportunity to find a way that makes sense to them and draws upon their personal skills and interests. When we give students a voice, we are giving them the chance to shape or even co-create their own route to learning. Providing students choice in their learning dramatically increases their intrinsic motivation, their depth of engagement in learning, the amount they learned in a fixed time period, and their perceived competence and levels of aspiration. Learning that incorporates student choice provides a pathway for students to fully, genuinely invest themselves in quality work that matters. Participating in learning design allows students to make meaning of content on their own terms.

Choice Boards.

Choice boards (also called learning menus) are forms of differentiated learning that give students a choice in how they learn. Each choice on the board or menu encourages students to engage in an activity centering around important content. Learning menus come in various forms and can include tic-tac-toe boards, restaurant-like menus, matrices, and multiple-choice grids. Learning menus provide teachers multiple options by which to assess student learning. “Appetizers” and “Desserts” can be shared by a group, while “Entrees” could be completed independently. Additionally, “Sides” can serve as formative assessments that teachers and students sample. 

There is considerable flexibility when it comes to how teachers use choice boards with their students. They can require students to work individually, in pairs or small groups, or in a combination of solo and group tasks. They can include stipulations about which components students complete to ensure they get specific content or rigor based on the teacher's design of the board. The tasks within can require students to use physical materials (such as poster paper and markers), be totally digital (such as this Slides Mania menu or this interactive Google board), or be hybrid--a mix of paper (to be handed into a tray) and online (submitted to your Learning Management System, like Google Classroom). They can contain tasks that could be completed within a single class period or hold larger projects that would take numerous classes to complete. They can also be student-paced (when puplils finish one task, they move onto the next) or teacher-driven (the teacher provides breaks in the lesson for students to tackle one of the provided options before returning attention back to whole-group learning). Essentially, there is considerable opportunities to customize the boards to fit standards, lesson outcomes, and student interest and needs. 

Figure 3

Digital visual art choice board

Differentiated Instruction in K-8 Classrooms

Differentiated instruction has been found out to be an effective approach to learning in both elementary and middle schools, too. In middle and elementary schools, teachers design lessons, strategies, activities, and assessments focused on implementing fully differentiated classes. Teachers implement these strategies and have a great success in reaching all level of learners--which has a great impact on the students. When they walk into the classroom, students immediately understand the clearer expectations for learning and are engaged in a variety of activities showing mastery of content and skills necessary to be successful in school and life (Spectrino Pictures, 2017). To achieve differentiated instruction success in middle schools, teachers should be well equipped with resources, professional development opportunities, and adequate preparation time. Maintaining a responsive placement is important for student success in middle schools (Avery, 2017). Children of the same age do not all learn in the same way, just as they do not all have the same sizes, hobbies, personalities, or likes and dislikes. Children share many characteristics with one another since they are all humans and because they are all children, but they also differ significantly. Our commonalities are what define us as humans. Our differences are what make us unique. Only student commonalities appear to be in the spotlight in a classroom where differentiated instruction is either minimal or nonexistent. Commonalities are recognized and emphasized in a differentiated classroom, but student differences also play a significant role in both teaching and learning.


Differentiated instrution is the idea of adapting the curriculum and instruction to the needs and interests of the students rather than requiring the students to adapt to the curriculum. It focuses on “big ideas” and “essential understandings”, considers student differences and interests, groups students by interests and topics, and is based on diagnostic and formative assessments.

Differentiating content includes using various delivery formats such as video, readings, direct instruction, audio, etc. Content may be chunked, shared through graphic organizers, addressed through jigsaw groups, or used to provide different techniques. Students may have opportunities to choose their content focus based on interests.

When it comes down to it, design your lessons in ways that fit the special needs of students and seek to avoid forcing students to endure instructional approaches that are ill-suited to their personal learning styles and interests. Account for different learner preferences by encouraging learner autonomy and incorporating voice and choice, drawing from student interests to inform your instruction, and providing a variety of modes for students to consume information and create content that demonstrates their learning.


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