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The 1953 edition of Educational Leadership was devoted to the theme “The Challenge of Individual Difference.” One article, “Adjusting the Program to the Child” by Carleton W. Washburne, the then-Director of the Division of Graduate Studies and the Teacher Education Program at Brooklyn College, asks the question, “How can the teacher best meet — and most wisely use — the wide range of differences in abilities, interests and development represented by the children under his guidance?”

The article also begins to address academic diversity in the classroom and how teachers can respond to the needs of each student. This is one of the first instances of academic analysis of what we now know as differentiation.

What Is Differentiation?

Classrooms at every level in the United States are microcosms of the country. Students represent different cultures, religions and languages as well as ability levels, motivations and home lives. And every member of the class expects to receive a quality education and achieve academic success.

In 1995, experienced educator and Assistant Professor in the University of Virginia Department of Educational Psychology, Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote How to Differentiate Instruction in the Mixed Ability Classroom. Well-known for her extensive work on the topic of differentiation, Tomlinson defines the concept as “a teacher’s reacting responsively to a learner’s needs.” It is “simply attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small group of students rather than the more typical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike.”

How Do Teachers Differentiate Instruction?

Teachers who successfully differentiate in the classroom assign students respectful tasks, create flexible groups for instruction, and continuously make assessments and adjustments as students progress.

Differentiation can be accomplished for students in four ways:

  1. Content – The content of a lesson consists of its facts, concepts and principles, and the skills and materials that represent those elements. In a differentiated classroom, the essential facts, understanding and skills remain the same for every student. Differentiated content – A few ways in which teachers can differentiate content: provide text at a different reading level, reteach materials in a different modality, pre-teach vocabulary, and review prerequisite materials already presented.
  2. Process – Process is the way in which a student comes to make sense of the content. This is sometimes referred to as activity. Differentiated process – Process can be differentiated by providing more or less teacher support, working with a partner, or working with different examples of the same concept, based on interest or ability.
  3. Product – The product is what the students use to demonstrate understanding or ability. Differentiated product – Students can demonstrate their mastery in more than one way, such as an oral report rather than written report (or vice versa), a video or PowerPoint presentation, or an assessment with fewer questions or answer choices.
  4. Learning environment – Environment consists of how classrooms and learning centers work, feel and function. Differentiated environment – In a differentiated learning environment, students may take advantage of areas of the room that may be quieter, less cluttered or dimmer. Books at many reading levels and areas to work with partners are available and open. Centers for listening and getting additional support or instruction are also set up.

Educational Experts Disagree About the Value and Effectiveness of Differentiation

As is true with most educational philosophies, the value and effectiveness of differentiation is frequently debated at every professional level.

According to educational consultant James R. Delisle, differentiation in the classroom does not work. He compares it to “juggl[ing] with one arm tied behind your back” and provides several examples and explanations for this claim:

Teachers who attempted to differentiate instruction found it hard to implement and ended up simply dumbing-down their instruction, depriving gifted students of quality and complete educational services.

In one study, despite extensive professional development, training and coaching, researchers could not find evidence that differentiation impacted learning. They reported that “no one was actually differentiating.”

Classrooms are too diverse to expect an individual teacher to provide instruction that will meet every learning style, interest and disability.

Tomlinson, on the other hand, advocates for differentiation as the key to meeting the needs of all learners and providing a meaningful education to every student. She argues that differentiation does work and offers her evidence:

Teachers whose classrooms enjoy successful differentiation plan by “teaching up.” They plan for advanced learners first and then provide scaffolding and support for less advanced students. Students at every ability level are reported to have thrived.

Tomlinson has personal experience as a middle-school classroom teacher who worked with colleagues to regularly differentiate instruction based on their classroom demographic. They understand that “the pursuit of teaching is a career-long endeavor,” however, and teachers either new to the profession or less experienced at differentiating work at the pace and level they are able. They do not give up because it is too hard.

While some promote grouping, either by learning style or ability, Tomlinson argues that, based on neuroscience and psychology, “When we teach as though students are smart, they become smarter.” Grouping does not give students the opportunity to reach their full potential because they are not seen as and do not consider themselves “smarter.”

The Role of Instructional and Curriculum Coordinators and Differentiation

An oft-repeated concern about planning for differentiation is that it is complicated and exhausting, leaving most teachers to either give up or simply lower standards. When you earn a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from Mississippi College, however, you will be in a unique position to promote the use of differentiation in the classroom, making it possible for both teachers and students to succeed.

As an instructional or curriculum coordinator, you will work with administrators and educators to “adapt curricula and instructional strategies to meet the diverse and changing needs and learning preferences of students” and “apply research-based principles to establish positive, safe, and secure student-centered learning environments.”

As a leader in your field, you’ll provide your students with access to grade-level or higher materials, enabling them to find greater academic success than they could if their teachers were working in isolation. As you develop curriculum and instructional practices, you will be making a real difference in the lives of students all across your district.

Learn more about the Mississippi College online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction program.


ASCD: A Brief History of Differentiated Instruction

Carol Tomlinson: Biography

ASCD: Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms

Reading Rocks: What Is Differentiated Instruction?

ClassWise: Differentiation Does, in Fact, WorkClassWise: Differentiation Doesn’t Work

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