George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The microwave oven is a great timesaver for getting any food on the table. Yet it's a taste killer. The more I use the grill and oven to cook meals for my family, the more I experience the diversity of tastes that come from grilled or baked salmon, chicken, and burgers, plus sautéed vegetables. A microwave oven dries everything out, and thus limits the tastes. There are days when I get home exhausted with work still to be completed, but I bypass the microwave most times. I value my family's need for flavorful meals over dried-out, tasteless food that I nuked just to check off a chore.

So why would I not do the same for my students by differentiating based on their needs, instead of using one-size-fits-all methods?

Does one-size-fits-all really save time if students haven’t learned? The learning quality of differentiated instruction far surpasses anything that a single-delivery model can provide. If differentiated instruction is viewed as part of the planning process, the additional planning time is not noticeably different. If managed well, differentiation becomes a seamless part of instruction that does not add time. Instead, it enhances the existing learning experiences by ensuring that students build understanding and mastery sooner.

In an earlier post, I looked at a few common differentiated instruction myths. Now, let's focus on some myths about DI and time.

Myth #1

I teach 180 students across five classes. It's far easier to differentiate with small class sizes. How do I differentiate when there are too many students to teach?

The greater number of students means there is a higher urgency to differentiate. When class size is small, it's easier to find common connections among the students. Differentiation exists, but the scale appears easier because the overlap between common understanding and needs can be found. Larger class sizes mean more groups of students with a greater number of learning perspectives. On the surface, this appears messy, overwhelming, and indecipherable.

Solution: Put students into small learning teams.

Use learning profile cards to form groups based on students' readiness of content concepts. Mix in different teams that are heterogeneously grouped, based on common interests or cross-trained learning profiles. These small groups are treated like classrooms with a small roster. Change the makeup of teams every unit or 5-10 weeks. This keeps the teams fresh and helps students learn global competencies like collaboration and influencing across networks with different people and groups. The jigsaw classroom is another means to put students into temporary learning groups to tackle complex tasks.

Myth #2

My curriculum is so packed. With so much to cover, how do I find the time to differentiate?

We need to change the dialog from content coverage to content learning. Coverage is an adult need to check off a list of standards to present. Learning makes students the focus for all decisions. If students have not learned the content, we need to differentiate in another way.

Solution: Use daily formative assessments to inform learning experiences.

The primary purpose of formative assessment is to understand where students' skills exist so that we can diagnose gaps (and extensions for gifted), and develop and implement a differentiated lesson that meets each student's needs -- and then repeat the cycle. Some daily K-16 strategies include:

If students learn and process at different rates, formative assessment helps us monitor their growth. Providing feedback, not grading, helps students build self-awareness. Grading would be unfair to students while they are in the learning process and because they learn at different rates. Leave the grading to those milestones in the unit where students are ready to demonstrate that they understand content and skills, and are ready to move on to the next unit or level of complexity.

Myth #3

The class periods are short. I've barely started teaching when it's time for the next class. Where do I squeeze in differentiation without it feeling like one more add-on that I simply have no time for?

Just as teachers struggle with time to instruct, students struggle to get what they need in the limited time. Efficient use of time is critical. Differentiation gives students the best chance for learning, and teachers the best chance of meeting the expectation that all students achieve.

Solution: Manage activities that differentiate content, process, and products.

Differentiation occurs in whole-class, small-group, and individual activities. Review the core outcomes of lessons based on the content, process, and products (formative assessment), and consider how to differentiate one or more of these areas based on readiness and interest. Explore learning centers. These prepared stations immediately involve students with significant content at the start of class, maximizing learning time while the teacher quickly takes attendance and then turns to coaching. Other helpful tools include Think Dots, Task Cards, and Learning Menus.

Use Time Wisely

Avoid the microwave oven approach. Differentiated instruction is a necessity if we hope to ensure that all students will learn. The main course of lessons requires quality time for students to consume learning outcomes, and for teachers to coach and guide. How we use our time can allow learning experiences to marinate with students long after the lesson is finished. The key to meeting students' needs is differentiating when time feels limited. As educators, we are highly qualified professionals who have the tools to be innovative chefs of our time frames. If we don't meet learner needs, who will?

Was this useful? (2)
Differentiated Instruction
When it comes to how students learn, one size does NOT fit all.

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John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Thanks Marjan,
Ideas for differentiating when in these crunches is what helps support learning. These are good strategies to use, wrapped around topics that staffs need opportunities to talk about how best to navigate them for supporting their students.
Appreciate your sharing the ideas to your networks.

Charity Stephens's picture
Charity Stephens
Transforming point chasers to knowledge seekers

I loved how this article addressed the issue of time, class size and curriculum timelines. While all are very real concerns in today's classroom, it is our professional responsibility to meet the needs of each learner. You did a fantastic job at recognizing these concerns while offering solution oriented strategies to meet each learner at his/her own level of readiness. Thanks for generating a list of simple ideas/links that can immediately be used in the classroom!

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Charity,

I appreciate your insightful breakdown of the tools. Large class size, limited class time, and curriculum mandates are the realities we need to grapple, and as educators strive to address that issue, students need support in the interim. These strategies and approaches are ways to meet learner needs by addressing these 3 issues. As you've pointed out: "a list of simple ideas/links" that can have an immediate impact to support learners. Thanks.

Jeffrey Benson's picture

I like the attitude--it can be done! It is both a belief and a set of tools, and an environment in which administrators support teacher efforts. Unfortunately what I see in my work in schools is an ever increasing set of demands on teachers without a matching amount of support. Because, really, if it can be done and always was able to be done, what's been the barrier? Because that barrier to robust classes that work for all students is not going to disappear by telling teachers to just do it--or it would already be the norm. When I am hired by schools to support differentiation, I also ask the administrators, "In addition to hiring me, what can the administrators do to support this effort?" That prompted me to write the following article:

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Jeffrey,
Yes, teachers confront many challenges, obstacles, and mandates that are beyond their control. Or at least, feels that way. While I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion that administrators should explore ways to provide more planning time so that teachers can address the needs they see in their classrooms, again, that resource tends to be outside of their decision-making. So as consultants like yourself advocate for this time and coach administrators on finding ways to provide such a needed resource, the students and their teacher cannot wait for that to be put in place.

This blog, as you've noted (thanks) is about meeting all students' needs as best we can, within the zone of control we have, which is inside the classroom where instruction takes place. Empowering administrators to address the need for time is needed, a more crucial and immediate concern is empowering teachers on how they can differentiate for diverse learners so that students are better prepared for life...and all those mandates that are imposed.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

When Jenifer Fox and I wrote The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists for Jossey Bass, we did so in order to make differentiation easier for teachers- it's organized so it can make differentiation do-able and not so complicated, like something else that needs more training, learning, practice, and time.
I hear in professional development meetings all the time that no one ever has time for X or Y. It is in part about priorities, and it's in part giving people easy ideas so that "differentiation" is not come scary monster- it may be something they are already doing some of already, but just don't realize it.
For example, open ended questions let students answer them to the best of their ability. You can have a grading rubric, of course. Some kids will give elaborate sentences, and others more to the point. Some won't answer the question or prompt at all, but will write something completely different. Some will surprise you with their understanding and depth of knowledge, and others won't give you a lot. But this sort of prompt or question will let every kid, regardless of their ability, approach the problem and give you a better sense of what they know than a multiple choice test ever will. That, in and of itself, can be differentiating.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Whitney,
Yes, there are many strategies that exists in a teacher's toolbox that can be differentiated. I would suggest that the "process" of differentiation is most effective when the use of the tool is intentionally aligned with student needs. This goes to differentiating for readiness in particular, and applies to the other DI components. Intentionality is so important, yet can be easily lost in the process.

Thanks for offering ideas and your book reference for adding to teachers' toolbox from which they can address student needs via the DI components. Are there any examples from your book that connect strategy to intentionality?

kmzumbr's picture

Thank you, for including easy to implement solutions to common issues that occur within the classroom. You addressed concerns that I have regarding class size and meeting curriculum timelines.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Kmzumbr,
Thank you for letting me know that you found ideas that can help. How are you working to overcome such challenges through differentiated instructional practice?
Have a great week!

Savanna Flakes, Inclusion For a Better Future's picture

Great article. I also wrote an article expressing a similar idea: Differentiation is a Journey and not a one-stop fix,

Here are a few great resources to begin differentiating the process of acquiring content: and and providing students' various choices in product:

Happy Differentiating!

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