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Differentiated Instruction

The main point of this area of performance is to enable you to survey the activities you offer to students so that you can describe them in a new way. This new way may give you a fuller picture than you have had before of what students are experiencing in your class, or it may give you a pic- ture of what they are not experiencing, that is, the characteristics your learning experiences do not have. This information could lead you to make one of the following statements:

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p “That’s fine. It’s okay not to have these features. What I’m doing is really on target for this curriculum, and those wouldn’t be.”

p “Well, there are some things I’m not doing that would be good to do. I’d like to do them, but there’s just so much time. I think I’ll put them on the back burner for now and look into adding them when things slow up a bit.”

p “Well, there are a few things I hadn’t thought about much before. They’d be really good, and I’d like to try them now.”

The point is that you should be able to look at your teaching, or that of someone else, and see more than you have before and then make some decisions based on your new understanding. You may come away from this chapter newly aware, or perhaps reminded, of some important things that you can design into students’ experiences that match the students. In The Differentiated Classroom (2014), Carol Ann Tomlinson explains “that it’s about choosing the strategy that will work best for a given learner at a given time” (p. 102). This is what we mean throughout this book by “matching.”

This area of performance is constructed from the students’ point of view. We ask first, “What are students experiencing in their environment? What are the at- tributes of the activity? What is it like from the students’ angle to be doing this?” Then we ask, “So what? What difference does it make? Of what importance is what students are experiencing on this particular attribute? What does it mean about their overall school learning?” This enables us to make choices, because the shape of the learning experience is, after all, something we control as teachers.

Being effective with differentiated instruction is a developmental level for teachers who are already proficient with other foundational skills.





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“Differentiation” has many meanings. It can mean students are studying differ- ent material at the same time. This may be because of student choice (see “ex- perts” in Chapter 16, “Classroom Climate”). While their topics may be different (e.g., one student is becoming an expert on elephants, another is becoming an expert on race cars), the criteria for success for their reports will be the same.

Reteaching or extension groups is another form of differentiation (see the “Scholar’s Loop” in Chapter 14, “Expectations”). Students are working in groups on different concepts or skills with the teacher taking charge of one group. Stu- dents who need support with a concept or skill are in one group and students who need extension work with new challenges are in another group. Ongoing formative assessment during instruction produces the information about which students have which needs. The management of grouping, choice of materials, and determination of tasks requires a level of planning beyond total group in- struction that follows a pacing guide. It is, however, the most important focus for differentiation to bring all students to high standards.

The movement of the last decade for Response to Intervention (RTI) is based on this value. RTI groups children across classrooms within a grade level to focus on a particular skill. It takes constant communication between the teachers to regroup based on data. Married to this communication and assessment pattern must be the commitment to getting all students to proficiency. This will mean accelerating some students who are behind. Without this value, RTI could de- generate into permanent tracking in an elementary school.

Reteaching and extension groups are forms of differentiation that must be pow- ered by a desire to accelerate the learning of students who are behind, not a strategy to reduce curriculum demands for “low” performing students. Thus the belief system that “Smart is something you can get” transforms how teachers implement differentiated instruction. Differentiation becomes a tool for imple- menting the growth mindset, not an adjustment for “low” performing students.

Research on the effects of differentiation is weak (Hattie, 2012). Our hypothesis is this: being effective with differentiated instruction is a developmental level for teachers who are already proficient with other foundational skills. If the objec- tives are not appropriate for the students and they don’t understand them to begin with, differentiated instruction can’t possibly have an effect. Differentia- tion also fails in the absence of ongoing formative assessment to give a teacher accurate information about students and their level of mastery. Differentiated instruction cannot be expected to boost achievement if students do not believe they can achieve or that it is worth their while to do so.



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So professional development on differentiated instruction should be postponed until teachers have demonstrated proficiency on the “Big Rocks” of objectives, assessment, and student motivation. This chapter is of particular use to teach- ers who want to make instruction more interesting and varied for students. The variables to follow could be matched to students’ learning style, as many (Dunn & Dunn, 1978; Gregorc & Ward, 1977; McCarthy, 1987a; Tomlinson, 2014) have recommended over the years, but even without a focus on matching these variables can be deliberately manipulated to make learning more active, more varied, and more interesting.


We analyze a student’s learning experience almost as if it were a real, tangible thing, like a rock. It isn’t tangible, but it is real and has describable attributes as a rock does. Supervision, for example, is an attribute with three possible values (or options): independent, facilitated, or directly supervised. Which are students experiencing right now? They may be closely and directly supervised right now and independent later in the day. Their learning experience may change based on this attribute, and when it does it’s a different learning experience.

A learning experience takes place over a time span with a beginning, middle, and end. It can be quite short—a matter of minutes—or extend to hours. When it changes on significant attributes, it’s a different learning experience.

This kind of analysis yields a full and accurate picture of what the student is ex- periencing in a planned activity. We can look at activities over a period of time and see what patterns and ranges are built into these experiences. Then we can decide if the range is appropriate. Are we ever giving students a chance to work cooperatively, for example, or is it always competitive or individualistic? Which sensory input channels are stimulated? Do we ever use the kinesthetic channel? What is the balance between concrete and abstract in our teaching? This area of performance provides a set of questions with which to survey our teaching periodically and see if we are offering what we want to offer. Finally, this area of performance gives some sharp-focus lenses to look at matching and adjusting learning experiences for individual students or groups.


In the following sections, we describe the attributes of Differentiated Instruc- tion one by one and lay out the possible forms each may take. You may choose to profile yourself as you go, noticing which of the options characterize learn-



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ing experiences you offer and then deciding if those choices are broad enough and appropriately matched to your students.

1. Sources of Information


You can examine learning experiences to determine whether the information the students are working with is conventional—from conventional sources such as a text, a reference book, you, or some other source that gives the information to them—or constructed—meaning that the students constructed the knowledge through some process of their own, such as observation, experiment, interview, deduction, induction, application of logic, discussion, debate, or questioning.

Looking something up is always a conventional source of information. The stu- dent’s own initiative, objective, and choice of learning experience may be behind the act of looking up, for instance, design features of an airplane, but the source of the information is still conventional.


It is significant to know whether students are ever challenged or put in positions where they are able to use their own resources as active agents for the generation of knowledge new to them, as opposed to receiving information that has been assembled, organized, or digested for them. Neither source of information is better than the other, but they are clearly different in their effects on the learner. If teaching uses either source to the exclusion of the other, we are led to ask whether learners have sufficient balance in their educational program.

2. Resources


Students may use any one or more of the following resources in the course of their work:

p A text

p The teacher

p Peers

p Families



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p Interviews with outside people (other than family, teachers, or peers)

p Observation

p Audiovisual material

p Online services or electronic sources

p Reference books

p Their own imaginations or experiences

This attribute is an index to the breadth of resources brought to bear on the stu- dent’s learning experience and can tally a simple count of how many are used.


Over the course of a student’s education, we would expect all of the resources listed to be used. In any one course, grade, or class, you would ask which re- sources and how broad a range were appropriate and desirable, and compare that with the reality. In examining an individual student’s educational experi- ence, you could usefully ask how many of these resources were brought to bear across different courses and evaluate the fit of the operating range of resources to the intentions of the program.

3. Personal Relevance

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