[Education Week]. (2018, Sept. 11). Differentiating Instruction: It’s Not As Hard as You Think. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/h7-D3gi2lL8
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 style (the ways in which students tend to learn the 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.
The following comparison chart will help illustrate the differentiation concept and its major component strategies:
Myths and Misconceptions about Differentiated Instruction and Universal Design for Learning
Differentiated instruction is just one component of UDL. Tomlinson (2001), declares that differentiated instruction is the intentional application of specific lesson planning and multiple learning approaches to support all learners.
The key difference between differentiated instruction and UDL is that differentiation is a strategy that supports instructors in addressing each student’s individual level of readiness, interest, and learning profiles (Nelson, 2014).
UDL in comparison is an overarching educational framework that addresses the learning environment as a whole. This includes, both the physical learning environment as well as the lessons, units, and/or curriculum. When the whole environment is addressed first, it removes physical, mental and psychological barriers so all students have full access in the classroom, regardless of their needs and abilities.
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.
(Myths and Misconceptions, n.d)
Additional Resources on Differentiated Instruction
The IRIS Center. (2010). Differentiated instruction: Maximizing the learning of all students. Retrieved from https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/di/
Differentiation, (2013, Nov. 7). The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from http://edglossary.org/differentiation/ (CC BY NC SA)
[Education Week]. (2018, Sept. 11). Differentiating Instruction: It’s Not As Hard as You Think. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/h7-D3gi2lL8 Standard YouTube licence
Myths and Misconceptions. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.alludl.ca/myths-misconceptions (CC BY NC SA)