What is differentiation?

In its truest sense teaching is not finished until learning occurs – for each learner. Teaching without learning is an oxymoron. (Tomlinson, 2006)

Differentiation refers to the responses that teachers make to learners’ needs. Effective differentiation functions on the premise that every student can do remarkable things with appropriate guidance and support.

Effective differentiation never provides excuses or easy ways out.

What does differentiation mean for teachers?

Teachers are ‘differentiating’ when they:

  • provide several learning options or different paths to learning, to help students take in information and make sense of concepts and skills

  • provide appropriate levels of challenge for all students including those who are behind, those in the middle and those who are advanced.

Teachers are not ‘differentiating’ when they ‘water down’ the curriculum for students.

Teachers can differentiate classroom elements (content, process, product and learning environment) according to student characteristics (readiness, interest and learning profile) through a range of instructional and management strategies.

Diagram: Teachers can differentiate content, process, product and learning environment according to readiness, interests and learning profile, through a range of instructional and management strategies

(Tomlinson 1999; Tomlinson 2001)

Guiding principles for differentiation

There are a number of key principles that reflect effective practice in a differentiated classroom.

A differentiated classroom is flexible

Teachers and students understand that the following classroom elements are tools that can be used in a variety of ways to promote individual and whole-class success:

  • time

  • materials

  • modes of teaching

  • ways of grouping students

  • ways of expressing learning

  • ways of assessing learning.

Assessment and instruction are inseparable

The teacher sees everything a student says or does as useful information both in understanding that particular learner and in crafting instruction to be effective for that learner.

Differentiation of instruction stems from effective and ongoing assessment of learner needs.

All students participate in ‘respectful’ work

Each student needs to be involved in challenging tasks that are equally interesting and equally engaging, and which provide them with equal access to essential understanding and skills.

Students and teachers are collaborators in learning

The teacher studies their students to ascertain what works and what doesn’t work for them and continually involves students in decision-making about the classroom. As a result students become more independent learners.

The teacher uses flexible grouping options

The teacher plans student working arrangements that vary widely and purposefully often over relatively short periods of time. Whole-class, small group and one-on-one arrangements are used.

The flexible grouping of students helps ensure access to a wide variety of learning opportunities and working arrangements.

The teacher focuses on the essentials

The teacher provides clarity about what is essential for students to know, understand and do.

The teacher modifies content, process and products

The teacher finds key opportunities to meet learners where they are ‘at’ in order to propel them forward in knowledge, understanding and skill. It is not necessary to differentiate everything all of the time.

(Tomlinson & Allan, 2000)

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Establishing a differentiated classroom

There is much to consider in the process of establishing a differentiated classroom.

Teachers can reflect on, and be explicit about, the ways in which they differentiate by asking themselves the following questions.

  • Am I conscious of the efforts I need to make to meet the needs of all students?

  • Do I keep track of the ways I address individual learning styles and preferences?

  • Do I arrange my classroom and structure lessons to increase student motivation?

  • Do I provide students with options and choices regarding how they are going to learn and how they are going to show their learning whenever possible?

  • Do I vary the ways in which they assess student learning?

  • Do I use cooperative learning and grouping strategies to increase student participation?

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Deciding what to differentiate

Teachers can differentiate according to classroom elements.

Classroom elements - content, process, product and learning environment

Differentiating access to content

Content includes:

  • what the teacher plans for students to learn

  • how the students gain access to the desired knowledge, understanding and skills.

All students need to be given access to the same core content and taught the same big ideas and concepts. Differentiating access to content involves adjusting the degree of complexity.

For example, if the learning intention/goal is for all students to write persuasive paragraphs, some of the students may be learning to use a topic sentence and supporting details, while others may be learning to use outside sources to justify their viewpoint.

Differentiating process

Process can be thought of as the learning experiences that are designed to help students make sense of, understand and use the content. An effective learning experience involves students in using an essential skill to come to an understanding about a critical idea and is clearly focused on a learning intention/goal.

For example, one student may independently explore a topic while another may collaboratively work on a task with others.

Differentiating product

Product refers to the artifact/item a student can use to demonstrate their knowledge understanding and skills. A good product allows students to:

  • apply what they can do

  • extend their understanding and skill

  • become involved in critical and creative thinking

  • reflect on what they have learned.

For example, to demonstrate understanding of the plot of a story one student may create a skit while another student writes a book report.

Differentiating the learning environment

Learning environment refers to the way the classroom works and feels. When differentiating the learning environment the teacher considers the students’ ‘environmental’ preferences.

For example, some students need lots of work space, some need a quiet area, some like to engage in discussions, some like to work alone.

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Differentiating according to student needs

Differentiating according to student needs

Students differ in their:

  • readiness to work with a particular idea or skill at a given time

  • interest in pursuits or topics

  • learning profiles which may be shaped by gender, culture, learning style or intelligence preference.

(Tomlinson & Allan, 2000)

Teachers can differentiate according to student characteristics.

Student characteristics - readiness, interests, learning profile

When a teacher differentiates, these three factors can be taken into account individually or in combination.

Readiness

Readiness refers to the skill level and background knowledge of the student. Teachers use diagnostic assessments to determine a students’ readiness.

Interest

Interest refers to topics that students may want to explore or that will motivate them. Teachers can ask students about their outside interests and even include these in their planning processes.

Learning profile

Students’ learning profile includes learning style (for example, is the student a visual, auditory, tactile or kinaesthetic learner?), grouping preferences (for example, does the student work best individually, with a partner or in a large group?) and environmental preferences (for example, does the student need lots of space or a quiet area to work?).

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Bringing it all together

Critical considerations

Before introducing strategies for differentiation, it is important to note three interrelated considerations for teachers who wish to differentiate instruction.

Trivial and fluffy curriculum remains trivial and fluffy, even after differentiation. Varied versions of an ill-focussed product are no more helpful. A pernicious classroom environment cannot invite learners to be comfortable with themselves and one another. A teacher who does not see assessment as a continual window into the needs of his/her students has little sound footing from which to differentiate instruction. A teacher who cannot learn to trust and share responsibility with his/her students, would, at best have students seated in rows and completing varied worksheets silently and alone.

(Tomlinson & Allan, 2000)

…..teacher growth in differentiation is not so much about introducing tiered lessons, independent study alternative forms of assessment – or even moving to multi-text adoption. Practising quality differentiation is much more about knowing what matters to teach, realising that learning happens in us rather than to us, continually reflecting on the ‘particularness’ of each of our students, and pondering how to develop both the commonalities students share as humans and the singularities students bring to us as individuals. If we as teachers understood the nature of our art more fully and deeply, more differentiation would likely evolve from that understanding. Learning some new ‘tricks’ with little sense of why they matter is less helpful.

(Tomlinson & Allan, 2000)

Regarding differentiation, teachers can say, “I already do that”. Most teachers at some times and in some ways obviously adapt or adjust for students’ learning needs. The truly expert teacher understands, however, that even after a dozen careers in the classroom he/she could still learn more about his/her subject and his/her learners and how to link each learner and subject with power and joy. … expert teachers teach students the most important things in the most effective ways.

(Tomlinson & Allan 2000)

What and how to differentiate

Effective differentiation takes place when teachers adjust aspects of content, process and product in direct response to a student’s readiness, interests and learning profile. Teachers may also modify the learning environment in direct response to a student’s learning profile.

The following diagram illustrates the connections between classroom elements and student characteristics and the multiple opportunities teachers have for differentiation.

‘What’ and ‘how’ teachers differentiate depends on the needs of the students in the class at any one time.

Differentiating learning (Diagram and interactive text version)

Click on the diagram below to see an interactive version of the connections between classroom elements and student characteristics.

Diagram: Teachers can adjust classroom elements - content, process and product in direct response to a student’s readiness, interests and learning profile. Teachers may also modify the learning environment in direct response to a student’s learning profile.

For more detailed information about strategies for differentiation read:

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Tiered instruction (.pdf 157kB)

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Compacting (.pdf 65kB)

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Layered curriculum (.pdf 134kB)

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Menus (.pdf 384kB)

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Cubing (.pdf 402kB)

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Tic-Tac-Toe (.pdf 390kB)

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Sternberg’s intelligence preference (.pdf 507kB)

References for the above resources.

You can further explore differentiation through the online registered course Implementing new curriculum, Differentiated learning, (NSW Department of Education and Communities).