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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Differentiated Instruction Allows Students to Succeed

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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.


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Jim Pastore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the Director of a small international school which has only one group in each grade level. Therefore titles such as "honors" don't exist at our school, nor would I want them. DIfferentiation means allowing teachers the opportunity to seek ways to permit all students to achieve at a higher level. Differentiation does not mean dumbing down, or forcing the "best and brightest" to "teach" the lower level students. Anyone who sees it that way simply chooses not to understand the basic tenets of Differentiation, which are inseparable from good teaching.
Having said that, I should inform you that I also teach the 11th grade Literature class at our school. I use a "college" textbook" and I post my class on a blog, and insist that students do their best at all times. I have clear expectations, and the "consequences" are that students who work hard and do their work to the best of their ability invariably do well on their report cards (I also feel there is a poor correlation between how we issue grades and the goals of differentiation, and perhaps that is something to discuss in this forum also?). My students are all 2nd language English learners, and they run the gamut from one ready for Oxford two years ago, to several who struggle to get work in on time and complete. But I treat them the same in that they know that they have to meet deadlines and do what is required of them by the quarterly syllabus. And they understand and don't make excuses for themselves.
I do like the note made that English and Social Studies seem to "permit" more leeway by way of rough copies and project based assignments. I see the math and science staff applying many of the same methods that we use in English and Social Studies, as they seek to differentiate and permit students who learn in different ways many paths towards higher level learning.
To end, Differentiation is "hard work" but good teaching is hard work. I quite frankly don't see the difference if we give of ourselves honestly and truthfully, work hard and expect students to follow our lead- and we show them that if they follow our lead, we will do our very best for them.

Modestine J. Samuel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Director of a small..... Differentiated instruction is not a cure all for what ails education; however, it can make teaching more beneficial for all students. Students come today with the attitude of "Teach me if you can." Teachers have the undaunting task of breaking through this unvisible barrier to reach the more resistent student. What has not changed is that success breeds success. If students experience success at their hightest level, then it brings on an intrinsic motivation to continue to achieve. My motto is you do what you have to do in order to do what you want to do.

Modestine J. Samuel, Curriculum Specialist
Wilson High School
Florence, SC 29506

MIchele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the idea is flawed if we assume that the only important learners that can share are the ones who are above level in reading and math. I have many students who are above level in one but not the other. I also have emotionally immature students who are gifted in both and really need to learn from the more mature "lower leveled" students. I have artists who wow everyone in class with their illustrations and this year I have a nature boy who brings us something new each day to study, and has been the leader of our science projects. As I have gotten to know my students over a four year span I have found that each one is gifted and has a place in the classroom with many things to share. Lumped in as a "lower" or "higher" for all of a student's academic life does not prepare that child for the reality of life: that being good at school does not guarantee you the same place after school. Otherwise teaching would be the highest paid profession, right? My students help design the ways they meet the standards. I do not let my gifted children settle for less than their best. My less gifted writers write one page. My gifted students are on chapter 7 of their book. Same basic assignment. All follow the same process of editing, illustrating and sharing.

Pam Morris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that differentiation is required to meet kids where they are and push them to reach their maximum potential.

However, I disagree with the assumption that Mr. Johnson had that differentiation is not occurring in the math classroom. As the math specialist at 2 elementary schools, that is our primary focus. How do you reteach? How do you create conceptual understanding with concrete manipulatives that will form the basis of the practice of the skill? We constantly see teachers grouping their children based on the type of mistakes they are making so that they can reteach most effectively. For example, a fourth grade teacher and I just analyzed some long division work. Some children still needed conceptual understanding of what division is. Others just needed a bit more practice. Yet others needed clarification on the algorithm. Come the end of the year, we want all of our children to be well into the developing stage of understanding long division. To get them there, we will start where each child is right now to move them forward.

Of course, I have not addressed another type of differentiation which is moving an advanced child even further. Often times, this is forgotten in our efforts to move struggling students ahead. However, I would argue it is equally important to challenge these students.

Lucius's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I so strongly disagree with the philosophy and presumptions behind this post I scarcely know where to begin. I cannot speak for others, but in my book, any teacher worth his or her salt simply does not consider treating "students differently" "one of the hardest things for a teacher to do..." Such an assertion is patent nonsense. I treat each of my students as an individual human being. I cannot imagine any other way of conducting myself.

I teach AP Juniors and Honors Seniors. Frankly, I have no clue what it means to assert that "[I]t grates on our nerves when that know-it-all student who always sits in the front row always demands time to show off." Demands? Wow, who's in charge of the classroom that such demands are made upon you? Smart kids grate on your nerves? Bright kids demand attention? "Know-it-alls" putting you on the spot? Wow! It sounds as if you have a problem with brainiacs. Maybe you need to look for work where you don't have to deal with bright kids and can settle for mediocrity and a conformist work environment comprised of 'dittoheads'. See, I want kids to "show off" how smart they are. I encourage it. I want kids to challenge me and the other kids in the class. I encourage them to show off their smarts by asking challenging questions; I insist on thoughtful responses. No one student can dominate because I call on everyone, not simply the volunteers with their hands raised.

Frustrated "when the student in the back of the class makes rude noises and refuses to stay on task"? Then do something about it. Are you helpless and at the mercy of rude smart-alecks who make your job a misery? I don't understand. I spent 15 years in the trenches with all kinds of kids. In all that time I can count on one hand the number of miscreants who were constitutionally incapable of being responsible human beings and occasionally derailed a class. But as I suspect they ended up in jail, their juvenile actions a self fulfilling prophecy. However, no teacher can allow a student to deny to other students the opportunity to learn. That is rule #1.

Differentiated instruction is a cheap, politically correct alternative to tracking which is considered 'elitist'. It denies the very concept of merit. It assumes that every kid belongs in the same class with every other kid, regardless of academic ability. It is the antithesis of tracking. But tracking works.

The problem is that heterogeneous grouping means that the smart kids are bored and the dumb kids are struggling in the same class. How is that an improvement?

How's this sound? Tracking "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 a 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." See, all I had to do was substitute the term "differentiated instruction" and replace it with "tracking" and nothing has changed. Teachers have indeed "throughout time have always found ways to reach individual students." And all the pedagogical strategies outlined work quite will in Honors and AP classes, so what's the point?

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


Differentiation is what good teachers have been doing for centuries, in spite of the best efforts of traditional school systems to eradicate "difference" in teaching or learning. Most teachers who "get it" call differentiation, "caring" about how your students progress. You seem to be one that "gets it!"

The crux of the matter is that it IS hard work and in a system that does not reward hard work, it requires a singularly dedicated teacher to keep doing it. We know that all the rewards are not monetary, and if it weren't for the joy of seeing our "hard work" produce results, we wouldn't keep doing it. Thanks for hanging in there.

I sat and talked with a concerned social studies teacher in charter school today, and she had the enviable task of teaching US History, World Geography and World History in the same class. She was doing the best she could but just needed some help to know what was most important to have the students learn because she knew she could do it all. Yet she was full of hope and undaunted--refusing to be overwhelmed. That is the kind of spirit that inspires true differentiation--caring for the students' progress.

Thanks for your comments and keep pushing your students.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Elysa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Several points:

1. IF classes were tracked, you MAY have some valid educational points.
2. Since classes (most specifically elementary grades) are not tracked, and even within the tracked classes student need varies greatly, it is the responsibility of the teacher to meet all student needs within that environment.
3. Just as teachers are not at the mercy of smart alecks, skilled teachers are not at the mercy of any educational initiative....least of all, differentiated instruction.
4. Differentiated instruction is not going away any time soon. As classrooms face greater and greater diversity in learning styles, learning challenges, language challenges and abilities, how we deliver instruction must change with it.
5. Meeting diverse student needs requires focus on essential learning in the content, how students learn for delivery and dynamic instructional techniques to make the information accessible to all students. Whatever you call it, isn't that our goal?
6. Merit is integral to differentiated instruction. What is different is that it allows for more than one avenue to the goal.
7. Research shows that heterogeneous grouping enhances learning for all levels WHEN instruction recognizes and utilizes those differences in enriching ways. It is not the fault of heterogeneous grouping if some are bored and others are unchallenged. It is the fault of the teacher. This is not a new concept. One-room-schoolhouse teachers figured it out without much help. Throw a dart at any "Teacher of the Year" list and you're likely to hit one that understood and implemented it. Survey elementary teachers and secondary teachers and you will likely find greater appreciation for it at the elementary levels (specialized instructors have far less patience for comingling of ability levels).

I was trained many years ago as a special education teacher. At the time, I wondered why there were 2 courses of study for teachers...what made special educatio special? Sadly, it turned out that special education was special because it espoused that instruction would be student-need based and that no matter how diverse the students...the teacher would find ways to deliver instruction that met those needs. Sound familiar? Differentiated instruction recognizes that students are different and that we need to do a better job of meeting all of their learning needs. How unfortunate that it has taken this long and that it is misunderstood and obstructed by so many.

A final observation. As an English teacher and one that pays close attention to the language we use, it may be valuable to examine why you chose the words "smart and dumb" rather than "of different abilities" in your response. Differentiated instruction not only recognizes that students come to us with different abilities and challenges, it honors every student wherever they are. I do not think that describing your students as "of different abilities" is politically correct so much as it is reflective of respect for all of the students you described.

teacher333's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The higher learners are left to "teach" themselves. Why? Well, because they can! And all attention is paid to the lowest learners. why? Well, because they can't! And the middle learners are like the middle children in the family. As a special education inclusion teacher I have witnessed all 3 scenarios and it is pretty scary. We have seen our highest learners go from an A+ average to a C- all in the course of 2 marking periods, and our special ed inclusion kids go from C- to A+ because of all of the so-called differentiation and modification, and the middle has remained stagnant.

Lucius's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I knew I would get some grief over my use of 'smart' and 'dumb'. I used the term dumb because when I was a kid I was dumb. I simply couldn't grasp the multiplication tables. I did dumb things. I still do dumb things. If I call myself dumb or stupid, is this a problem? On what grounds could you or anyone possibly object? Why should I 'honor' my own stupidity, inability or ineptness?

Admittedly, I would never call a kid 'dumb' and it would never do to refer to any specific kid as 'dumb'. Unfortunately, dumb is what we are. Over the past 20 years, texts, public education, newspapers, tv have all been 'dumbed down' for easy digestion. Or hadn't you heard.

If smart is an acceptable description, then why is dumb not? Is dumb not the antonym of smart? Or should we, perhaps, use some other politically incorrect and insensitive term such as stupid? dim witted? slow? dull? My question is, why must we use euphamistic and obsfucatory terms?

What does it mean to be 'differently abled'? What if someone is simply NOT able? Despite two miserable years of high school algebra I was simply too stupid to get it. It strikes me as ridiculous to say that I was somehow differently abled when I lacked the brain power to perform a given task. I was manifestly NOT able, I simply didn't get it. And I don't mind in the least calling myself a dope when it comes to algebra.

The problem with many teachers is that they think every child ought to be like them. They were good students (well, given the average SAT scores of those who have entered undergraduate Education programs, that is a rather dubious assertion), and they conformed to the academic expectations placed upon them. They became teachers and then expected their students to conform to variations of those same academic expectations. A self perpetuating system that expects conformity (within a set of loose parameters) and is all too easily satisfied with mediocrity. When self esteem becomes one of the aims of education you can be sure that achievement is based on some feel-good notion of success and that objective measures of skill and merit play second fiddle.

American students simply do not compete with their peers across the globe. Why is that? I suspect, however, that they don't mind in the least because they've been taught, if nothing else, to feel good about themselves.

sandyhu26's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Please do not perpetuate this myth about high ability learners. They need direction and guidance just as much as ALL the other students. However, in the regular classroom they are getting by with not challenging themselves and being used as tutors. This is a crime. This is why differentiation needs to take place 24/7. "Grades" are a measure of how well students do what the teachers ask, NOT what the students actually learn. Please challenge all students by considering the many excellent ideas in these other posts.

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