About Differentiated Instruction

In differentiated instruction students are placed at the center of teaching and learning. Kathy Bigo defines differentiation as "the right of each pupil to be taught in a way specifically tailored to their individual learning needs." Because each learner comes to school with a different set of learning needs, examples of which include differing educational, personal, and communal contexts and varying degrees of academic skill development, differentiated instruction advocates that the educator proactively plans a variety of instruction methods so as to best facilitate effective learning experiences which are suited to the various learning needs within the student. In its pursuit of this foundational goal, differentiated instructional methods attempt to qualitatively, as opposed to quantitatively, match learners' abilities with appropriate material; include a blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction; use numerous approaches to facilitating input, processing, and output; and constantly adapt to learners' needs based upon the teacher's constant assessment of all students.

Often referred to as an educational philosophy, differentiated instruction is viewed as a proactive approach to instruction and an idea that has as many faces as practitioners. The model of differentiated instruction requires teachers to tailor their instruction and adjust the curriculum to students’ needs rather than expecting students to modify themselves to fit the curriculum. Teachers who are committed to this approach believe that who they teach shapes how they teach because who the students are shapes how they learn. Differentiated instruction requires the teacher to have "sufficient appropriate knowledge of the pupils, PLUS the ability to plan and deliver suitable lessons effectively, so as to help all pupils individually to maximise their learning, whatever their individual situation". Differentiation is not teaching at a slow pace so that everyone can keep up, allowing pupils and groups work through tasks at their own pace, or expecting some students to do better than others and calling it 'differentiation by outcome'. Bigio also cautions that differentiation is not 'Humiliating the slow learners by drawing attention to their limitations".

The perfect model of differentiated instruction rests upon an active, student centered, meaning-making approach to teaching and learning. The theoretical and philosophical influences embedded in differentiated instruction support the three key elements of differentiated instruction itself: readiness, interest, and learning profile (Allan & Tomlinson, 2000).

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, provided evidence that individuals learn best in accordance with their readiness to do so (Allan & Tomlinson, 2008). This theoretical influence provides a concrete foundation for differentiated instruction. The readiness of the individual should match what a student learns, how they learn it and how the student demonstrates what they learned when using differentiated instruction.

The philosophical idea that interest based options seize on intrinsic motivation, supports the second key element of differentiated instruction, student interest. According to Jerome Bruner (as cited by Allan & Tomlinson, 2000), when interest is tapped, learning is more likely to be rewarding and the student becomes a more autonomous learner.

An American psychologist, Howard Gardner, developed the theory of multiple intelligences. His theory states that people have different intelligences and learn in many different ways. Gardner’s theory suggests that schools should offer individual-centered education, having curriculum tailored to a child’s intelligence preference (Allan & Tomlinson, 2000). Essentially, Gardner supports the third key element of differentiated instruction, which accounts for different student learning profiles.

Differentiated instruction integrates constructivist learning theories, learning styles, and brain development with research on influencing factors of learner readiness, interest and intelligence preferences toward students’ motivation, engagement, and academic growth within schools (Anderson, 2007). According to educational psychologist Kathie Nunley, differentiated instruction became an essential part of US educator's repertoire as the make-up of the general classroom moved from homogeneous groupings of students prior to the 1970s to the ever increasing variety of learners seen in the heterogeneous classroom make-up in the last 40 years (Nunley, 2006).

By using differentiated instruction, educators can meet all individual student needs and help every student meet and exceed established standards (Levy, 2008). According to Tomlinson (as cited by Rebora, 2008), the perceived need for differentiated instruction lies in the fact that students vary in so many ways and student populations are becoming more academically diverse. Chances are pretty good that the trend of diverse student populations will continue throughout our lifetimes.

In short, differentiated instruction is using various instructional methods to meet the needs of all students in the classroom. This ensures an equal education opportunity for all students in the classroom. Below you will find what differentiated instruction is and what it is not.

Differentiated instruction is:

Proactive, meaning that the teacher plans and uses a variety of ways to teach learning.

A combination of whole group, small group, and individual instruction.

Qualitative, meaning quality work over quantity work.

Created through assessment.

Uses multiple approaches to accommodate multiple intelligences.

Student centered, meaning that lessons are engaging, relevant, interesting, and active.


Organized and planned

Differentiated instruction is not (misconceptions):

Only individualized instruction - It would be impossible to individualize instruction for every student. While at times this is a possibility, differentiated instruction is a combination of whole group, small group, and individual instruction.

Chaotic - Differentiated instruction is orderly. Students complete purposeful discussion and movement. Students are engaged and on task during differentiated instruction.

Homogeneous grouping - Differentiated instruction is not having three groups, a high group, average, and low group. It is not placing all students of the same academic level in the same group. It is varying instruction to meet the needs of all students.

More work for students - Students need to be given work to complete for the benefit of their learning, not to keep them busy. Students should be given quality work. As stated in what differentiated instruction is, quality over quantity.