What is Differentiation?

“In a differentiated approach, the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs.” –Carol Ann Tomlinson

Carol Ann Tomlinson, Ed.D, is pioneer of differentiated instruction, who has written many books on the subject including The Differentiated Classroom, Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom, and Differentiation and Brain: How Neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom.  She sums up her practice by saying that it is an “approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in the classroom”. This means there is a constant stream of formative assessment in the form of feedback from student to teacher and back again, which helps inform the teacher to modify his or her instruction for individual students or student groups, in order for every student to learn optimally.

The idea of differentiating instruction to accommodate the different ways that students learn involves a hefty dose of common sense, as well as sturdy support in the theory and research of education (Tomlinson & Allan, 2000). It is an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms.

Rick Wormeli, who advocates for differentiation in teaching and learning as an educator, speaker and writer, is very clear when he states that “differentiation is a moral imperative” and that not differentiating according to the diversity of students’ minds is nothing short of “educational malpractice”. He states,

To knowingly omit differentiated instruction from our classroom instruction is a willful act of educational malpractice.”

If this is the case, where must we begin? The following are some outlines for the basic concept of differentiation:Picture1

Above, you can see that differentiated instruction can be separated into three categories. The things that should be modified for each student or for student groups are the Content, Process, and the Product/Assessment (style of gathering evidence of learning).

Below is a similar wheel for the student perspective, or the three areas for which students can be grouped or identified by the teacher for appropriate differentiation. These are the student’s Readiness (which pertains to complexity and appropriateness of content), Interests, and Learning needs and Differences (which would include accommodations for learning disabilities AND modifications for learning preferences. Please see post on Howard Gardner’s Mulitple Intelligence Theory for more on learning differences in contrast to learning disabilities).


For more on Differentiated instruction, please check out the following books from your local library, bookstore or find them online for your eReader at amazon.com:


Differentiated Instruction Planning Document

Hyde Park Central School District (Sample Lessons)

Thematic Differentiation/High School English

Differentiated Lesson Plans for High School Courses (Greenville High School)

General Strategies for Differentiated Instruction


Additional Resources on Differentiated Instruction


http://www.akomblog.orgAnchor Activities


Graphic Organizers


Learning Contracts




http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/raft  (Course specific examples)

http://learningclassrooms.pbworks.com/f/RAFTs+for+DI+Template.pdf  (Template)
Rubrics for Assessment



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