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

Victor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at high school that greatly values differentiation and has even done away with honors classes to help foster heterogenous groups that require a great deal of differentiation. I must say that differentiation requires a great deal more work --whether by a student's readiness or learning style--than does traditional chalk and talk, but the rewards are, generally, worth it. As others have voiced, the quite middle of the road students do tend to get lost, but I would also say that the under-achieving students tend to get neglected in another way: they tend to get less rigorous educations. From a few years experience, I'd say that differentiation requires great effort on the part of the teacher but, in the end, is worth it--getting those kids in the middle and at the bottom--is after all where we as teachers should probably be directing a good deal of our efforts.

jeff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The clarification of learning goals can be enhanced by incorporating the ideas of Understanding by Design to our efforts in DI. The Enduring Understandings of a UbD-framed curriculum may be addressed through a variety of routes and at various levels of sophistication and still be achieved. This opens up more possibilities for success to a wider range of students. Tomlinson and McTighe have done a nice job connecting the two concepts in their book "Integrating DI and UbD" (ASCD). Implemention requires us to clearly identify those big ideas of our curriculum (that are often implicit to us but invisible to the students) and develop assessments that truly indicate student progress toward those goals. It's not easy, but it's good stuff that's good for kids.

Michelle M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am surprised at the commentary posted "It grates on our nerves when that know-it-all student who always sits in the front row always demands time to show off." Teachers should be proud that their instructional teaching is absorbed by these students. Also, why condemn the back of the classroom of only unruly students? This kind of labeling discourages academic achievement among high-learners; much less, low-achievers with difficulties comprehending tasks. Would you rather zero participation of students?

If sitting in the front and back row is a crime, lock them all up, or simply rearrange your seating chart.

Theresa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not sold on the idea of differentiation. The idea that throwing everyone together in the same class so that the higher learners will help bring up the lower learners and all will learn from one another is, in my opinion, inherently flawed. I think that what actually happens is that everyone is brought to the mean. Lower learners may improve somewhat, but higher learners often dumb themselves down to fit in. I have seen this at the middle school level. I think we should go back to a tiered system that puts higher level learners together, middle levels together, and lower levels together. I truly think that teachers can better meet the needs of their students in this way. While lower level learners may see some benefit to differentiation, it is the higher level learners who suffer from less rigor.

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


Thank you so much for reading critically. That is a vanishing skill. I hope you read the rest of the blog, because your valid criticism should have been alleviated a bit. I believe that I made the point clearly that differentiation is for all students, not just the ones that sit in the front or back of the class. (I typically allow students to sit where they feel most comfortable. I intervene and assign seats only as a discipline measure.)

In classic writing style, I tried to engage the reader to read more. Apparently it worked. However, I think I accurately described the emotions that arise in those situations.

Teachers are human too. As a teacher I felt the full range of emotions, many times, in a single class period. My challenge, as I am sure happens with every teacher, is to control those negative emotions as best I can and express the positive ones fully. But that doesn't stop me from being annoyed when things happen I do not like. The emotion arises for a moment, then reason kicks in and I do something proactive about the situation. As a professional, I realize that neither behavior is productive for either student, nor is it conducive for creating a high performance learning team culture for all my students.

If I encourage (or ignore) this behavior in the know-it-all student, he/she will be ostracized by fellow classmates and the rest of the class will be perfectly happy to let that student answer all the questions. If the student in the back, making noise, is encouraged or ignored, the rest of the class will do the same, or get so peeved at this student that he will be also ostracized. Not only this, the rest of the class will get peeved at me for not doing my job and taking care of either situation. The trick is to take care of it before anyone gets peeved.

I have already written about my strategies for diverting and channeling behaviors, like these, that if left unattended can cause a teacher to lose control- ie get angry, or verbally lash out in frustration. See (http://www.edutopia.org/distracting-redirecting-student-misbehavior ) and (http://www.edutopia.org/classroom-management-barbed-wire-model).

Hopefully this assuages some of your concerns about me being a "I hate students" kind of teacher and again, thank you for taking the time to respond.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


That book is an awesome book for teachers who have to come up with their own responsive curriculum. It is also great for teachers desiring to create student needs-based learning plans. It helps a lot however, if you have read both of their prior books- Understanding By Design by Jay McTighe and Differentiated Instruction by Carol Tomlinson. Much of what they propose is common sense, a term they use a lot in their joint book. I would call it just plain good teaching. (I wrote a post about that--check it out). In my blog I tried to add something that they had not included in the book--Rough drafts. But as you said, it is good for teachers and especially good for students. (not easy though)

Thanks for sharing.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


I am glad to hear that you and your school value differentiation. I am not sure that getting rid of honors classes falls under differentiation, though. I have different feelings about grouping students. See my post (http://www.edutopia.org/differentiated-instruction-active-learning).

But no matter what, you are absolutely correct that meeting the needs of individual students in your classroom takes more effort than the chalk and talk methods. You have hit the nail on the head. The shot gun approach to instruction does a disservice to all students. A truly great teacher will find ways to challenge all students to perform to their highest potential.

Keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

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


You need to read my previous post (http://www.edutopia.org/differentiated-instruction-active-learning) where I discussed my own negative experiences with heterogeneous grouping. I am right there with you.

However, I do need to clarify that differentiation is not about grouping homoginously or heterogeneously. Actually grouping should be a very small part of how you differentiate instruction and learning. Grouping is an intrinsic method of differentiation because, it lowers the anxiety level of students and allows them to perform at their max with help from the group members. But it should not be used exclusive of the myriad of other intrinsic differentiation techniques (see my prior post).

When you do group for differentiation, I believe you can be flexible in the way you group. There are very excellent and scientifically proven reasons to group by ability levels (ie homogenous) (see Marzano's book Classroom Instruction that works, page 87). Also mix up the groups randomly--just for variety and fun- blue eyes together, brown sock together, tall together etc...

Bottom line- do what is successful for students-- all students.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

BillK's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you.

Ryan M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Settle down Beavis! I think you might be focusing too much on the way one sentence sounded and not the content of the article. I admit the sentence "rubbed me wrong" (I know you could freak out about that too), but I quickly got over it and benefitted from the article. I suggest you try to do the same.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.