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Differentiated Instruction-Best Practice or Not?

November 4, 2005 by Administrator · 44 Comments · Uncategorized

Here is what I wrote on the Best Practice List Wiki. I am not sure if Nate wanted us to post it on that Wiki or on our blogs so I am doing both. There are many, many resources that exist on differentiated instruction. This gives a good over view of what differentiated instruction is and how it applies to adult education.

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that allows teachers to plan strategically to meet the needs of every student. It is rooted in the belief that there is variability among any group of learners and that teachers should adjust instruction accordingly (Tomlinson, 1999, 2001, 2003). It is the teacher’s response to the diverse learning needs of his or her students. Differentiated instruction has been used in k-12 education for the past two decades but has only recently gained ground in adult education. The cornerstone of differentiation is active planning: the teacher plans instruction strategically to meet learners where they are and to offer multiple avenues through which they can access, understand, and apply learning. In differentiating lessons to be responsive to the needs of each learner, teachers must take into account not only what they are teaching (content), but also whom they are teaching (individual students). They need to know the varying readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles of each of their students and then design learning options to tap into these three factors.

Evidence indicates that students are more successful in school and are more engaged if they are taught in ways that are responsive to their readiness levels (Vygotsky, 1986), their interests (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), and their learning profiles (Sternberg et al., 1998). According to Tomlinson (2001, 2003), in adopting differentiated instruction, teachers try to address these three characteristics for each student.


Readiness refers to a student’s knowledge, understanding, and skill related to a particular sequence of learning. It is influenced by a student’s cognitive proficiency as well as prior learning, life experiences, and attitudes about school. Readiness can vary widely over time, and according to topic and circumstance. As Tomlinson (2003) points out, if readiness levels in a class vary, so must the complexity of work provided. Tiered activities are one way to address readiness effectively; for example, all students study the same concept but complete activities appropriate to their readiness levels. Readiness also can be addressed through small group sessions or the provision of one-to-one teacher and peer support or coaching.


Interest arises from topics that evoke curiosity and passion in students and in which they want to invest time and energy to learn about. When a student’s interests are tapped, that student is more likely to be engaged and to persist in learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Maslow, 1962; Sousa, 2001; Wolfe, 2001).

Learning Profile

Learning profile refers to how a student learns best. Preferences for learning are shaped by learning style, intelligence preference, culture, and gender. Teachers differentiate by learning profile when they provide learning activities that offer students choices for demonstrating mastery of learning: journals, videotape presentations, role plays, oral histories, or project-based learning. When different modes of l earning are offered and supported, more st udents successfully complete learning tasks (Campbell & Campbell, 1999; Sternberg et al., 1998).

Content and Process

In response to the learner characteristics of readiness, interest, and learning profile, teachers can differentiate, or modify, learning experiences in the three areas of content, process, and product (Tomlinson, 1999, 2001, 2003). Content refers to what students need to learn: the major concepts, principles, and skills that are taught. All learners should be given access to the same content. Teachers should adjust the degree of complexity using diverse instructional processes to teach the content. In this way, all students learn the same concepts but in different ways. Process refers to ways in which the content is taught: the activities that help students understand and eventually own the concepts and skills being taught. (For examples of processes, see the box below). The key to differentiating process is flexible grouping, in which learners are sometimes grouped by readiness levels, sometimes by interest, and sometimes by learning profiles. For example, an instructor might group learners with a similar readiness level for reading instruction and then regroup them by interest to discuss current events or a movie they have all viewed. By varying the groups in which learners participate, teachers prevent labeling learners as members of the “fast group” or the “slow group,” thus encouraging a respect for difference among learners. This approach also supports the growth of a strong community of learners among everyone in the class. It would be difficult to differentiate instruction without using flexible grouping.


Products allow students to demonstrate whether they have learned the key concepts and skills of a unit and to apply the learning to solve problems and take action. Different students can create different products based on their own readiness levels, interests, and learning preferences (Tomlinson, 2001). Examples of products include a written report, an oral presentation, a group discussion on key concepts, a short book in which the key concepts are explained and described, a game centered around the characters and theme of a book, or an event planned within a specified budget. Products should be related to real problems, concerns, and audiences, and they should synthesize rather than summarize information.

Challenges and Conclusion

The greatest challenge to implementing differentiated instruction relates to time: the planning time that teachers need to assess learners’ needs, interests, and readiness levels; to determine key concepts and organizing questions; and to design appropriate activities for each learner. The next issue relates to classroom management and the changing role of the teacher from dispenser of knowledge to facilitator of learning. The third issue concerns the need for teachers to acquire and use strategies that may be new to them. The only way to address all these concerns is through effective professional development that strongly encourages teachers to apply the skills and then provides coaching throughout the process of moving toward differentiation as a teaching approach.


Campbell, L., & Campbell, B. (1999). Multiple Intelligences and Student Achievement: Success Stories from Six Schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Csikszentmihaly, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihaly, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993). Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure. New York: Cam bridge University Press.

Erickson, L. (1998). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction: Teaching Beyond the Facts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Gardner, H. (1994). “Reflections on multi ple intelligences: Myths and messages.” Phi Delta Kappan, 78(5), 200-207.

Howard, P. (1994). An Owner’s Manual for the Brain. Austin, TX: Leornian Press.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kesner, R., Bolland, B., & Dakis, M. (1993). “Memory for spatial locations, motor responses, and objects: Triple dissociation among hippocampus, caudate nucleus, and extrastriate visual cortex.” Experimental Brain Research, 93, 462-470.

Keverns, E., Nevison, C., & Martel, F. (1997). “Early learning and the social bond.” In C.S. Carter, I.I. Lederhendler, & B. Kirkpatrick (eds.). The integrative neurobiology of affiliation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 807, 329-330.

Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

National Research Council (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Pally, R. (1997). “How brain development is shaped by genetic and environmental factors.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 78, 587-593.

Pettig, K. (2000). “On the road to differentiated practice.” Educational Leadership, 58, 14-18.

Sousa, D. (2001). How the Brain Learns (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sternberg, R., Torff, B., & Grigorenko, E. (1998). “Teaching triarchically improves student achievement.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 374-384.

Tomlinson, C. (1995). “Deciding to differentiate instruction in middle school: One school’s journey.” Gifted Child Quarterly, 3 9, 77-87.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. (2000). “Reconcilable differences? Standards-based teaching and differentiation.” Educational Leadership, 58(4), 6-11.

Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C., (2003). Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. (A. Kozulin, trans. & ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934.)

Watson, K. (1985). “Mixed ability classrooms produce superior results.” Highway One, 8, 57-63.

Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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