Differentiated Instruction Allows Students to Succeed | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Differentiated Instruction Allows Students to Succeed

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

One of the hardest things for a teacher to do is to treat students differently. It goes against our very nature. We are programmed to treat each child the same as we would treat any other child. No child deserves special privilege, nor does any child deserve less attention -- regardless of race, gender or academic ability.

It grates on our nerves when that know-it-all student who always sits in the front row always demands time to show off. It frustrates us to no end when the student in the back of the class makes rude noises and refuses to stay on task.

Making Decisions

Which students miss out most? It is the student in the middle who doesn't cause problems, who obeys, conforms, and never demands attention. We rarely give her the time of day in our race to take care of the extremes.

I had one of those students in my classroom. He was in my intermediate Spanish class and always sat in the middle. He never said a lot, and he did his work quietly. He wasn't the best in the classroom, and he wasn't the worst. I remember that he did struggle with rolling his rs. One day, he didn't come to class, and we got word that he had committed suicide. Not that I could have done anything to prevent this, but you always have the nagging doubt that perhaps you could have made a difference. In that moment, I vowed to never assume the quiet ones were OK.

Yet even with that, we are pressured to give the students with more needs more attention than those students who have less needs. The largest conflict about differentiated instruction boils up inside of us when we try to assign a grade to that differentiated instruction.

How can we justifiably give the students the same grade when the quality, quantity, or content of the performance is different? I have yet to read a truly compelling argument to answer that question. Most people mumble something about grades being a relative measure of student performance and designed for communication of progress only.

So, this is my attempt to make sense of this dilemma and perhaps calm a few nervous hearts in the process. In my prior post, I discussed the idea of intrinsic differentiation and the role of active learning and active teaching. Now, I want to discuss designed differentiation a bit.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Designed differentiation is the deliberate act of modifying instruction or an assignment in order to customize the effect to match the particular developmental level and skills of a student or group of students. The ideal is to provide equivalent learning activities that cater to the students' strengths but bring all of the students to the same learning objective. On one end of the spectrum is the one-size-fits-all learning activity, while on the other end is the completely individualized learning plan for each student. Although I believe it is time for the latter, realism demands that teachers deal with something that hovers around the middle of the continuum.

The best teachers throughout time have always found ways to reach individual students. Teachers today are no different. We have all sorts of designed differentiation strategies that help teachers offer variety and choice to students of different skills and needs. We can

  • vary the length or quantity of the assignment.
  • extend or curtail the duration of the assignment.
  • change the language of the assignment.
  • scaffold the learning activity from hard to medium to easy.
  • compact the activity and teach only what they don't know.
  • give them learning activities that let them perform the same learning objective with multiple mediums like summarizing a story they have read through narrative, drama, song, poetry, art, or design.

Allow for Do-Overs

There is also a strong movement of simply allowing students to work at their own pace through computer-aided instruction, or SRA-type curriculum. There is one more type of designed differentiation method I believe is underutilized -- the rough draft.

When a student is given a learning assignment to turn in, is it really a learning assignment if they have only one chance at meeting the mastery-level standard? Clearly identified standards of performance are necessary to make this work, but when a student submits a substandard piece of work, rather than assign a grade immediately, we can provide personalized, individual feedback to that student, which includes providing suggestions for improvement and giving it back to the student for revision.

Is there a limit to the number of times this can be done to help a student overcome a particular learning obstacle? Some students might be able to do it right the first time, while others need several revisions. This strategy is the ultimate in designed differentiation.

Typically, we see this kind of opportunity only in English and social studies classes. Why not math and science? After all, if the student eventually gets the concept, isn't that what counts? The thing I like about this approach is that no student is left out -- not even the quiet, no-problem kids.

What are your successes with designed differentiation? What are your challenges? Please share your thoughts.


Comments (146)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

We are on the same team. Differentiation should be something that no teacher has to think about, it should come naturally.

I am glad that you feel that you are one of those natural teachers that do not need to learn from other ideas or ways of thinking. I admire your passion about good teaching and encourage you to not lash out at your students as you lashed out at me.

As you continue reading, you will see that "Political Correctness" is not one of my strong suites and I believe that teachers feel all sorts of emotions about their students and their behaviors. Some deal with those emotions effectively, while other teachers struggle...

I welcome you to keep reading my posts and the comments of other fellow teachers and responding to them in encouraging ways.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Unfortunately, those quiet kids and the sometimes unknown gifted kids, are the ones that suffer the most because of the prevalent attitude that they can "handle it on their own." There are some kids that if you give them a book and throw them in a closet, they will learn. Just imagine what they could do if you inspired them and helped them! The problem with differentiation is the increasing gap between high achievers and low achievers. That is where the teachers have to get creative--together.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you so much for your energetic responses. It is laudable that you, after having such a negative experience in school have decided to become a teacher, assuredly to provide a better experience for your students than what you received.

As you alluded, in your earlier post, because of your many years of teaching time, you teach upper level students who have been socialized by the system and who are in and of themselves a homogeneous group of "smart" students, while far less experienced teachers are left to deal with the "stupid" kids who do not take AP classes. You might want to change grade levels and apply some of the wonderful teaching practices you have been espousing in your posts, in order to save students from being "differently abled."

Best regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Rollie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For an educational concept like Differentiated Instruction to have gained such devotion, I find it ironic as to how difficult it has been for its prophets to give a definitive explanation as to what it is. This new progressive panacea is an enigma and thats part of the problem. Like some other innovations,(individualized instruction, outcome based learning, project based learning), D. I. threatens to undermine what research and experience suggests about good teaching and learning. I critique D. I. not because it doesn't make a positive contribution to instruction, but instead of being one of many classroom strategies that research says can promote good instruction, D. I. adherents have inadvertently or consciously made it an end in itself and the consequences are disturbing. To understand my concern about D. I. one has to review what the research says about what makes for good instruction. 1. teacher-led whole class, subject centered instructional lessons with a beginning , middle and an end ( I didn't say teacher centered). 2. the objective, essential question, goal of the lesson is clearly stated and displayed. 3. modeling and step by step demonstration of new skills is essential. 4. short practice opportunities combined with "checks for understanding. 5. Giving students an understanding of rubrics using exemplars to encourage self-assessment. 6.The focus of the classroom must be on reading- writing- and dialectical/ seminar student-centered discussion. (This is a central point made by Mike Schmoker in his book Results Now). The problem with D. I. is that it is becoming an end in itself and the result is that D. I. is interfering with sound research based instruction by diluting it with what Schmoker calls "stuff" or the "crayola curriculum". As we differentiate/individualize our classrooms they start to look more like arts and crafts fairs. Rather than cohesive lessons being taught, we see students doing dioramas, an illustrated map, a book jacket, a movie poster, a 3-D mobile and a lot of group learning. By the way, research (Ford and Opitz), conclude that students receive less benefit from small group work than in the traditional whole-class model. ( By the way, I emailed Mike Schmoker about my concerns about D. I. I told him that I felt that D. I. was becoming the new "crayola curriculum". His response was total agreement with my assessment of D.I ) While it may be unfair to blame D. I. for some of what Schmoker says are meaningless activities, there is little doubt in my mind that an obssession with D. I. is diluting what research says is good classroom instruction. On a similar note, as we discuss the merits of individualized/differentiated instruction and acknowledge that students are individuals who do learn in different ways, I cannot help but be reminded of Mortimer Adler's, (Founder of Great Books), statement from his Paideia Proposal (1982) "Despite their manifold individual differences, the children are all the same in their human nature".

Randy Wilhelm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As the father of five school-age children, and as the CEO of an Internet education company, I am reminded daily that each child is special and each one learns differently. Recently, we commissioned a study - our 3rd annual "Schools & Generation Net" survey http://marketing.nettrekker.com/2008/survey_results.pdf. The headline from the findings was that educators want web solutions to avoid traditional cookie cutter instruction. I expected the result that showed 80% of educators expressing a need for resources that enabled differentiated instruction. However, what made me sit up (and put down my iPhone) was the overwhelming majority (85%) that looked to the Web as a solution - and even more telling, the 60% of educators that agreed that their districts should invest more in digital resources, shifting dollars away from print materials.

Randy Wilhelm
Dad and CEO
Thinkronize, Inc.

Dayami Repetti's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I definitely agree that each student should be treated as an individual, just because a student is not the "Know-it-all" of the classroom or the noisy kid in the back who is always off task means he or she needs less attention. It might be hard for a teacher to deal with all these different types of behaviors at the same time, but teachers can always make a difference in a student's life. I truly believe in differentiated instruction, I think most students are likely to succeed when having a teacher with the ability to reach each of their individual needs.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Your thoughtful comments are a breath of fresh air.

You have pinpointed the problem of education for the last 40 years. We have been constantly seeking some whiz-bang solution to education. Differentiation is not the solution for education. It is simply one of many tools to help teachers keep all the balls in the air as they juggle their duties and desires in instruction.

Dr. Schmoker, in Results Now, nails the problem to the wall with out actually stating it outright. He lays the responsibility directly at the feet of the forces that maintain the status quo- the bureaucratic system of isolation and the union demand for equality. I find it amazing that teachers have not raised a rebellion against him or the afore-mentioned systems. Dr. Schmoker basically slaps the teachers in the face and says they have not been doing their jobs and the problem would be resolved if they just taught how they know how to teach best, quit whining and had the students discuss, read and write more vigorously.

If you notice in my post, I chose to focus on a strategy that really is just plain good teaching--something that all students could use, and something that every teacher could use. I shy away from arts and crafts options to academic learning because there is no way it can be equivalent. I don't have a problem with tiered instruction, but I believe the grading should be tiered also (ie they can still get an A but for less points if they choose an easier assignment).

You are not the first to notice that DI gung-ho teachers and administrators have gone overboard with the crayola curriculum. The Queen of DI and the King of curriculum's Understanding by Design, Carol Ann Tomlinson, and Jay McTighe have written a book to combat that specific problem: Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design. I think they are headed in the right direction, though their argument breaks down when they discuss grading--ie how do you guarantee that the differentiated learning activities are equivalent when measured on the same academic standards.

For the Learning Cycle that you propose, Madeline Hunter would be proud of you. Yet how many teachers still do not follow this or any other proven teaching system? The easy thing to do, is what they do. Let the textbook do the teaching.

Anyway, thanks for you comments.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Gloria Salazar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I have limited experience teaching, I think differentiated instruction helps a lot to have better students. However, for putting in practice this sort of teaching we need a lot of energy and time. Time is the greatest obstacle to overcome to succeed on this. Since each student is different, we have to employ different strategies and therefore different amount of time to help them in school. Another challenge one must face is the size of the class one has. Classes with fewer students help us a lot to do our jobs better. On the other hand, sometimes is better to work in group rather than individually for the learning activities. Doing mixed groups based on knowledge helps and makes more interesting the topics to study. In this way the less talented students can learn and be help by the most talented, and all can have the opportunity to learn. I have seen talented students that are willing to help to his classmates and it also depends on the teachers to encourage them to do it. In summary, I agree with your point of view in this respect, but I must add that it is impossible to get to all our students in the way we want.

Kelly Brilakis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I disagree about not being able to get to all our students in the way we want. I had a very diverse class once with students who barely passed the 2nd grade starndardized test to enter 3rd grade all the way up to gifted. I you are organized and you use the tools and resources that are already provided to you with the textbooks you can meet the needs of all your students. Does it take time? Yes, it does. Is it worth it? Yest it is, once you see how much the students enjoy getting their folders with their work in it, my students always looked forward to what new activity they had to do. I found with the low students that it helped their self esteem because they were able to accomplish the work and not feel left behind because they could not do the work the other students were given.

Mo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with much of what you said, particularly the piece about different types of students being nuisances in the classroom. For me, it's all expected and we all have to work with it.

You seem to align "differentiation" with "tracking" and the entire string, I believe, deals with very specific ideas of what "working with different students" means. We seem to be dealing with "academic skill level" and "behavior"... there are other necessities which call on differentiation (not tracking... since there is actually a technical difference which will become apparent as I continue)... these include Learning Styles... No, I'm not using this phrase as a guise for something else... it is what it is... we all process the world differently and it is our task as educators to provide students with the optimal mode of work, process, and result that their specific learning style can internalize... all this is in motion in order for the students to build self-awareness around their needs, an ability to advocate for themselves, and to build a skill set around personalizing the world around us in order to better navigate through it. All of these things are aimed at helping the student build for themselves skills that they will use throughout their lives, in the "real world", and not just for the purpose of passing the proficiency test, state standards, or No Child Left Behind requisites... all of which have less to do with individualized, personalized, education for social mobility, and more to do with who has proven their abilities in rote memory and who deserves money based on that.

So, if Tracking is about academic skill levels and grouping students accordingly, differentiation is about finding out the best way for a student to learn, and then allowing them to express their learning in multiple ways that all indicate the same high level of understanding.

You're right about tracking lowering the standards for some... you're wrong about differentiation: it's about increasing the standards and providing multiple, equally accurate ways of expressing understanding in an inclusive, democratic way.

blog Storytelling With Wearable Technology

Last comment 1 week 1 day ago in Mobile Learning

blog Inspiring Progress Toward Learning Goals

Last comment 6 days 13 hours ago in Brain-Based Learning

blog 6 Engaging End-of-Year Projects

Last comment 1 week 2 days ago in Student Engagement

Discussion End the Year with the Best. Final. Ever.

Last comment 49 min 58 sec ago in Student Engagement

blog Fun and Free Summer Learning Resources

Last comment 4 days 19 hours ago in After-School Learning

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.