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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation


What kind of chef are you? How are you in the kitchen?

If I posed this question to all of my friends, I would receive a wide range of responses. Perhaps I would have one group of people who could barely follow the instructions to make a box of macaroni and cheese. Others could probably make eggs and spaghetti but that is the extent of their culinary expertise. Then I would have this top tier of friends who are so amazing in the kitchen that they make their own sauce from scratch! That's how I judge top notch: sauce from scratch.

What does this have to do with learning?

Well, I would never ask my "macaroni friends" to make their own sauce, nor would I toss a box of macaroni to my top tier friends, when I know they could be creating a divine meal from scratch! Let's apply this idea to the classroom.

Four Paths to Differentiation: Content, Delivery of Instruction, Resources, Product and Assessment

These four ideas are interconnected, but to truly understand how to differentiate instruction, it is more manageable to look at them separately.

1. Content: Content is what we teach. It is what we want students to learn, understand and be able to apply as a result of instruction.

2. Delivery of Instruction: Delivery of Instruction is the how of teaching. This can mean how activities are designed to help students make sense of content. Delivery of Instruction also includes the process of teaching and even integrating different co-teaching models if you have multiple adults in the classroom.

3. Resources and Materials: Resources act as the medium through which you teach students. Resources can include texts, supplies, videos, materials, field trips, etc.

4. Product/Assessment: A product is the evidence of learning. It is how the student demonstrates his or her understanding of an idea. A product is a method of assessment, and in a differentiated classroom there are multiple product/assessment styles offered to students.

One Lesson, Four Differentiations

Here's an example. Let's say that in a differentiated classroom, students are learning about communities.

1. Differentiated Content: Some students may be working on developing an understanding of the term "community" by exploring different books, photos and videos about communities. Others might be working on understanding the difference between rural, urban and suburban communities. Here, the content for each group of students is different.

2. Differentiated Delivery of Instruction: A teacher might teach a lesson about the different types of communities by watching a video and taking shared notes. He or she might then pull a group of students and do a read-aloud activity using a book with vivid photographs that show the different types of communities. Here, the students are learning the same content through different learning activities. The instruction is being delivered differently.

3. Differentiated Resources: A teacher might have three groups of students researching communities. One group might be using a series of easy readers and picture books to compile their information, while another group uses higher-level non-fiction text with chapters and features such as glossary and index. Perhaps there is a third group doing independent Internet research. In this case, three groups of students are using appropriate texts in the classroom.

4. Differentiated Products To assess learning, perhaps some students do an oral presentation of their findings, while others create a poster based on their research. Others design a test and answer key on the subject! In this case, student learning is being demonstrated in different ways.

The Takeaway

  1. In education, one size does not fit all.
  2. All students deserve and are entitled to appropriate instruction.
  3. We can accommodate in small, simple ways that will support growth in all of our students.

If you have any tips for differentiation -- especially small, simple things we can do -- please share them!


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Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Matt Ray's picture
Matt Ray
Elementary special educator.

This is a good launching point for people who are learning to differentiate. However I would caution that differentiation does not have to be so obvious - there are subtle ways to differentiate for a whole class (not that there's anything wrong with what's described here, just that it isn't the only way). Also, though the title alludes to special education, differentiation is not specific to special ed. It needs to happen in all classrooms.

Just want to share another way differentiation can look: http://photomatt7.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/differentiation-not-as-bad-as...

Marisa Kaplan's picture
Marisa Kaplan
Former NYC teacher, Consultant, Creator and writer of EdGeeks.com

I just read your piece on differentiation and I love what you did with your math lesson. Yes, you are right, differentiation comes in many different forms. You are also correct in saying that differentiation needs to happen in all classrooms, which is exactly why I chose to examine how all education really is special in this piece. Thanks so much for reading Matt!

Kacy Smith's picture
Kacy Smith
Humanities Teacher and Facilitator

Great article, love the cooking analogy. Using data, formative assessment, and differentiated instruction can really transform a classroom. I've been blogging about using differentiated instruction and its results:

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