Differentiation. Authored by: S. Abbott (Ed.). Provided by: Great Schools Partnership. Located at: http://edglossary.org/differentiation/. Project: The Glossary of Education Reform. License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Differentiation refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Differentiation is commonly used in “heterogeneous grouping”—an educational strategy in which students of different abilities, learning needs, and levels of academic achievement are grouped together. In heterogeneously grouped classrooms, for example, teachers vary instructional strategies and use more flexibly designed lessons to engage student interests and address distinct learning needs—all of which may vary from student to student. The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations.

Teachers who employ differentiated instructional strategies will usually adjust the elements of a lesson from one group of students to another, so that those who may need more time or a different teaching approach to grasp a concept get the specialized assistance they need, while those students who have already mastered a concept can be assigned a different learning activity or move on to a new concept or lesson. In more diverse classrooms, teachers will tailor lessons to address the unique needs of special-education students, high-achieving students, and English-language learners, for example. Teachers also use strategies such as formative assessment—periodic, in-process evaluations of what students are learning or not learning—to determine the best instructional approaches or modifications needed for each student.Also called “differentiated instruction,” differentiation typically entails modifications to practice (how teachers deliver instruction to students), process (how the lesson is designed for students), products (the kinds of work products students will be asked to complete), content (the specific readings, research, or materials students will study), assessment (how teachers measure what students have learned), and grouping (how students are arranged in the classroom or paired up with other students). Differentiation techniques may also be based on specific student attributes, including interest (what subjects inspire students to learn), readiness (what students have learned and still need to learn), or learning preference (the ways in which students like to learn material best).

Differentiation vs. Scaffolding

As a general instructional strategy, differentiation shares may similarities with scaffolding, which refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. Because differentiation and scaffolding techniques are used to achieve similar instructional goals—i.e., moving student learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be—the two approaches may be blended together in some classrooms to the point of being indistinguishable. That said, the two approaches are distinct in several ways. When teachers differentiate instruction, they might give some students an entirely different reading (to better match their reading level and ability), give the entire class the option to choose from among several texts (so each student can pick the one that interests them most), or give the class several options for completing a related assignment (for example, the students might be allowed to write a traditional essay, draw an illustrated essay in comic-style form, create a slideshow “essay” with text and images, or deliver an oral presentation). Alternatively, when teachers scaffold instruction, they typically break up a learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then give students the assistance they need to learn each part. For example, teachers may give students an excerpt of a longer text to read, engage them in a discussion of the excerpt to improve their understanding of its purpose, and teach them the vocabulary they need to comprehend the text before assigning them the full reading.

HLP 15 Provide scaffolded supports.

Scaffolded supports provide temporary assistance to students so they can successfully complete tasks that they cannot yet do independently and with a high rate of success. Teachers select powerful visual, verbal, and written supports; carefully calibrate them to students’ performance and understanding in relation to learning tasks; use them flexibly; evaluate their effectiveness; and gradually remove them once they are no longer needed. Some supports are planned prior to lessons and some are provided responsively during instruction.

The following comparison chart will help illustrate the differentiation concept and its major component strategies:

Element Traditional Example Differentiated Example
Practice A math teacher explains how to calculate slope to the entire class and gives students fifteen problems to practice. A math teacher pre-tests students to determine their understanding of critical mathematical skills and then arranges students into groups based on their learning progress and understanding. Some students work online to practice the skills, some work in groups with the teacher, and some work individually with occasional teacher support.
Process In an art class, students complete the following activities in order: write an artist statement, critique a peer’s work, and then compile artifacts for a portfolio of their art. Students determine the order in which they will write an artist statement, critique a peer’s work, and compile artifacts for a portfolio of work. Some tasks can be done at home and some in class, and some can be done collaboratively and some individually.
Products In a social studies class, students write a four-page essay arguing a position related to free speech that uses supporting evidence drawn from historical and contemporary sources. Students may elect to write an essay, op-ed, or persuasive speech, or they may create a short documentary arguing a position related to free speech that uses supporting evidence drawn from historical and contemporary sources.
Content In English class, students read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and discuss the messages it conveys about race and racism in the United States. Students choose between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Invisible Man to discuss different messages about race and racism in the United States. The three groups share their knowledge with each other.
Assessment  In a math class, students take an exam and are given a percentage grade based on how many answers were correct. Students take an exam and receive feedback on which mathematics standards they have mastered, which standards they are making progress on, and which standards need more attention. The feedback suggests remedies for students with learning gaps and new projects for students who have mastered all the required skills and knowledge.
Grouping  Students are either grouped as a full class or they work independently most of the time. Teachers use grouping strategies to address distinct learning needs. Students may be working independently, in small groups, in pairs, or using technology. Some groupings are by choice and some are assigned based on common learning needs. Some groupings or individual students work closely with the teacher and others have more independence.
Interest In a social studies class, the teacher assigns a single topic, such as the Civil War, for a unit or project, and all students research the same historical event. The teacher poses a question, such as “Why do nations go to war?” Students may select a military conflict that interests them most and address the question in different ways—for example, one student may choose to read historical literature about World War II, while another student may research films about the Vietnam War.
Readiness In an English course, the teacher plans out the course topics and reading assignments in advance, and all students work through the same series of readings, lessons, and projects at the same pace. The teacher evaluates students to determine what they already know, and then designs lessons and projects that allow students to learn at different levels of difficulty, complexity, or independence. For example, teachers may determine reading levels and then assign a variety of texts, reflecting different degrees of difficulty, to ensure an appropriate level of reading challenge for each student.
Learning Preference In a math course, every student receives the same problems and assignments, which are all structured in the same way. The teacher assigns a topic: solving quadratic equations. Some students choose to work with a software program that uses visual representations and simulations, other students work in teams and solve a series of problems from a book that increase in difficulty, and still others watch an online tutorial that can be viewed multiple times until the concept becomes clear.


Differentiation plays into ongoing debates about equity and “academic tracking” in public schools. One major criticism of the approach is related to the relative complexities and difficulties entailed in teaching diverse types of students in a single classroom or educational setting. Since effective differentiation requires more sophisticated and highly specialized instructional methods, teachers typically need adequate training, mentoring, and professional development to ensure they are using differentiated instructional techniques appropriately and effectively. Some teachers also argue that the practical realities of using differentiation—especially in larger classes comprising students with a wide range of skill levels, academic preparation, and learning needs—can be prohibitively difficult or even infeasible.

Yet other educators argue that this criticism stems, at least in part, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategy. In her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, the educator and writer Carol Ann Tomlinson, who is considered an authority on differentiation, points out a potential source of confusion: “Differentiated instruction is not the “Individualized Instruction” of the 1970s.” In other words, differentiation is the practice of varying instructional techniques in a classroom to effectively teach as many students as possible, but it does not entail the creation of distinct courses of study for every student (i.e., individualized instruction). The conflation of “differentiated instruction” and “individualized instruction” has likely contributed to ongoing confusion and debates about differentiation, particularly given that the terms are widely and frequently used interchangeably.

To read more about Differentiated Instruction go to:. The IRIS Center. (2010). Differentiated instruction: Maximizing the learning of all students. Retrieved from https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/di/
To read more about Scaffolding, go to:   Lombardi, P. (2019). Instructional Methods, Strategies, and Technologies to Meet The Needs of All Learners. Retrieved from https://granite.pressbooks.pub/teachingdiverselearners/, Chapter on Scaffolding

Hall, T., Vue, G., Strangman, N., & Meyer, A. (2003). Differentiated instruction and implications for UDL implementation. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. (Links updated 2014). Retrieved [6.20.2020] from http://aem.cast.org/about/publications/2003/ncac-differentiated-instruction-udl.html This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

While Tomlinson and most recognize there is no magic or recipe for making a classroom differentiated, they have identified guiding principles, considered the “Pillars that Support Effective Differentiation”: Philosophy, Principles, and Practices. The premise of each is as follows:

The Philosophy of differentiation is based on the following tenets:

  • (1) Recognizing diversity is normal and valuable,
  • (2) Understanding every student has the capacity to learn,
  • (3) Taking responsibility to guide and structure student success,
  • (4) Championing every student entering the learning environment and assuring equity of access

The Principles identified that shape differentiation include—

  • (1) Creating an environment conducive to learning
  • (2) Identifying a quality foundational curriculum
  • (3) Informing teaching and learning with assessments
  • (4) Designing instruction based on assessments collected
  • (5) Creating and maintaining a flexible classroom

Teacher Practices are also essential to differentiation, highlighted as—

  • (1) Proactive planning to address student profiles
  • (2) Modifying instructional approaches to meet student needs
  • (3) Teaching up (students should be working just above their individual comfort levels)
  • (4) Assigning respectful tasks responsive to student needs—challenging, engaging, purposeful
  • (5) Applying flexible grouping strategies (e.g., stations, interest groups, orbital studies)

According to the authors of differentiated instruction, several key elements guide differentiation in the education environment through which teachers may differentiate instruction: content, process, product and affect/environment (see Table 1) (Tomlinson, 2014). These are described in the four sections below, and they help to serve as guidelines for forming an understanding of and developing ideas around differentiation of instruction.


  • Several elements and materials are used to support instructional content. These include acts, concepts, generalizations or principles, attitudes, and skills. The variation seen in a differentiated classroom is most frequently in the manner in which students gain access to important learning. Access to content is seen as key.
  • Align tasks and objectives to learning goals. Designers of differentiated instruction view the alignment of tasks with instructional goals and objectives as essential. Goals are most frequently assessed by many state-level, high-stakes tests and frequently administered standardized measures. Objectives are frequently written in incremental steps resulting in a continuum of skills-building tasks. An objectives-driven menu makes it easier to find the next instructional step for learners entering at varying levels.
  • Instruction is concept-focused and principle-driven. Instructional concepts should be broad-based, not focused on minute details or unlimited facts. Teachers must focus on the concepts, principles, and skills that students should learn. The content of instruction should address the same concepts with all students, but the degree of complexity should be adjusted to suit diverse learners.
  • Clarify key concepts and generalizations. Ensure that all learners gain powerful understandings that can serve as the foundation for future learning. Teachers are encouraged to identify essential concepts and instructional foci to ensure that all learners comprehend.


  • Flexible grouping is consistently used. Strategies for flexible grouping are essential. Learners are expected to interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content. Teachers may conduct whole-class introductory discussions of content big ideas followed by small group or paired work. Student groups may be coached from within or by the teacher to support completion of assigned tasks. Grouping of students is not fixed. As one of the foundations of differentiated instruction, grouping and regrouping must be a dynamic process, changing with the content, project, and on-going evaluations.
  • Classroom management benefits students and teachers. To effectively operate a classroom using differentiated instruction, teachers must carefully select organization and instructional delivery strategies. In her text, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2001), Carol Tomlinson identifies 17 key strategies for teachers to successfully meet the challenge of designing and managing differentiated instruction.
  • Emphasize critical and creative thinking as a goal in lesson design. The tasks, activities, and procedures for students should require that they understand and apply meaning. Instruction may require supports, additional motivation; and varied tasks, materials, or equipment for different students in the classroom.


  • Initial and on-going assessment of student readiness and growth are essential. Meaningful pre-assessment naturally leads to functional and successful differentiation. Incorporating pre- and on-going assessment informs teachers so that they can better provide a menu of approaches, choices, and scaffolds for the varying needs, interests, and abilities that exist in classrooms of diverse students. Assessments may be formal or informal, including interviews, surveys, performance assessments, and more formal evaluation procedures.
  • Use assessment as a teaching tool to extend rather than merely measure instruction. Assessment should occur before, during, and following the instructional episode; and it should be used to help pose questions regarding student needs and optimal learning.
  • Students are active and responsible explorers. Teachers respect that each task put before the learner will be interesting, engaging, and accessible to essential understanding and skills. Each child should feel challenged most of the time.
  • Vary expectations and requirements for student responses. Items to which students respond may be differentiated so that different students are able to demonstrate or express their knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways. A well-designed student product allows varied means of expression and alternative procedures and offers varying degrees of difficulty, types of evaluation, and scoring.


  • Developing a learning environment. Establish classroom conditions that set the tone and expectations for learning. Provide tasks that are challenging, interesting, and worthwhile to students.
  • Engaging all learners is essential. Teachers are encouraged to strive for the development of lessons that are engaging and motivating for a diverse class of students. Vary tasks within instruction as well as across students. In other words, an entire session for students should not consist of all lecture, discussion, practice, or any single structure or activity.
  • Provide a balance between teacher-assigned and student-selected tasks. A balanced working structure is optimal in a differentiated classroom. Based on pre-assessment information, the balance will vary from class-to-class as well as lesson-to-lesson. Teachers should ensure that students have choices in their learning.

Lesson Planning and Teaching

DI and scaffolding