George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A photo of an elementary-school girl practicing writing.

What if you could predict the winning numbers to the biggest prize of a major lottery? Would you play? Here are the odds for two lotteries:

If you could reduce the odds to 1 in 3 attempts or 1 in 1 attempts, would you play then? I would.

Teaching curriculum and ensuring that all students achieve can sometimes feel like long odds because of the many obstacles that exist in education. But what if those odds could be reduced so significantly that they led to many more students achieving on a regular basis?

Sometimes, starting to implement differentiated instruction (DI) is foggy at best. The market is full of voices touting quick-fix strategies and big, abstract philosophies without adequately connecting the dots for exactly how those approaches will lead to student growth. The result is naysayers who use their soapbox to proclaim that DI has either failed to meet its promise or simply does not exist. What are teachers to believe?

Answer: themselves, their colleagues, and their students.

By just looking inside their classrooms, teachers see mixtures of skills, personalities, and paces for developing understanding. Educators grapple with this diversity every day. In fact, at the beginning of any school year, teachers can guarantee that their student roster will not be comprised of students sharing the same skill levels, nor will they all think alike. As you consider differentiation, consider its two forms: intuitive and intentional.

Intuitive Differentiation

Teachers differentiate every day based on observations of student response to work. Take this quiz to see if you differentiate intuitively. Do you:

  1. Give students choices for work options?
  2. Provide mini-lessons or small-group instruction to a few students who struggle with a skill? Or provide more in-depth coaching to advanced and gifted students?
  3. Explain or model content for understanding in two or more approaches (strategies) or media (video, speaker, inquiry, etc.)?
  4. Group students by common academic needs for some activities based on similar skill level?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you have differentiated. Instinctively, teachers find different ways to help students succeed. While important to do, intuitive differentiation is what critics attack with impunity, because such decisions are made in the midst of the lesson. They may not align with the learning outcomes or have the refinement to fully get students where they need to be. Carol Tomlinson echoes this point in her book The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (2nd Edition).

For example, during a lesson on inference-making, several students don't understand the concept. In the midst of the lesson, I intuitively think of an analogy that inference-making is like describing an object without naming it. The example helps the students make the connection, but I wonder if there might be an experience that tells less and shows more.

The next time that inference-making comes up, I'm better prepared. Prior to the lesson, knowing that some students would likely struggle to understand inference-making, I pre-planned an activity where students walked the campus and chose three or four items to describe without naming them. They share these riddles in class to see who can guess the objects. This interest-based, intentionally-differentiated activity has worked well to introduce and reinforce the concept of inference-making.

Intentional Differentiation

Differentiated instruction is most effective when used as an instructional lens that brings learners' gifts and needs into the planning. When we use formative assessment data to identify student skill levels, we can identify the strategies to be used, and differentiate them to raise student success. Any strategy can be differentiated, depending on what assessment data tells us what students need for a learning outcome. Learner gifts and needs are based on their readiness, interests, learning profiles, and the learning environment. Based on what we learn about our students, we have many options, such as:

  • Readiness: Form homogenous groups based on common skill needs, such as Guided Reading or a tiered math activity.

  • Interests: Provide choices that allow students to self-select the form or type of tasks to be executed, such as learning-center activities or reading circles.

  • Learning profiles: Plan different approaches for making sense of content or crafting products. These should allow learners to process understanding in different ways, such as Think Dots or Robert Sternberg's Triarchaic Theory-based product options.

  • Environment: Consider students' perception of themselves and the curriculum. We often need to mediate students' negative perceptions of their capabilities as we teach them the curriculum. The two are tightly entwined for students to engage and learn. The physical environment is also critical to how we support all learners. Consider Universal Design for Learning for additional perspective.

Intentional differentiated instruction is pre-planned based on learning targets. It anticipates that some students will struggle while others will exceed expectations, and that prior to instruction, a plan should be in place to provide appropriate support for all groups.

Gaming the System

Differentiated instruction helps us beat the odds. We know that our students' skill levels and processing time vary widely. How do we know this? Based on formative assessments, a teacher knows which students are exceeding expectations and which are struggling. This knowledge enables us to plan lessons that intentionally align to needs. We have nothing to lose by pre-planning differentiated instruction. Not doing so means that struggling students are knowingly left behind to fail, and advanced students are left adrift with few opportunities for testing their true potential.

What will you do next to ensure your students' achievement?

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Differentiated Instruction
When it comes to how students learn, one size does NOT fit all.

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Claire Murray's picture
Claire Murray
Counselor and Teacher

I smiled when I read the lottery example. It really does illustrate how DI can greatly improve students' odds of mastering the material. Every good teacher does a certain amount of Intuitive Differentiation. But, in the long run, it is the Intentional Differentiation which does the most good because it means we are prepared ahead of time with activities to support the students who need it.

Victoria's picture

Even when intentional differentiation is being practiced, there are moments in the classroom that will necessitate intuitive differentiation. Although, it is better if the teacher practices intentional differentiation.

Melissa Morse Loflin's picture

I like that you grouped the differentiation into two categories. I never thought about differentiation in that way. I think that I could be better at intentional differentiation.

Rose's picture

Hi my name is Rose, I am a special education teacher in a MH classroom. In the classroom I have to use differentiated instruction because my students are on different grade levels. I agree lessons should be adjusted to the learning style of each individual students. I also know these lessons take time to plan and need reflection after because the teacher needs to know if the lesson was effective to the students.
I do feel differentiated instruction helps the teacher learn the students strengths and work on their weaknesses. I use informal assessments, observations, and small group to learn my students learning strategies.
Thanks for the blog!

Jessica Blevins's picture

I believe many people are unaware of the difference between intuitive and intentional differentiation or they have never thought of differentiation being split into more than one category. I believe ALL teachers experience intuitive differentiation on a regular basis, but intentional differentiation is less apparent. I find it easy to create ability leveled groups using assessment data and teacher observation. On the other hand, it is very time consuming to create different activities or centers for my kids when they are working independently. I believe the amount of front loading is what intimidates a lot of teachers, like myself, from practicing more intentional differentiated instruction.

A. Kochel's picture

It was very helpful that the two forms of differentiation were explained. I loved the example of the intuitive differentiation that was described using inference-making. And providing a list of some various types of intuitive differentiation allowed me to realize that I am using different ways to help my students be successful. It also makes me acknowledge that I need to work on my intentional differentiation. Great article!

BirdyByrd's picture

This was a great article! I specifically liked how the author pointed out the two specific types of differentiation! I think most teachers do typically differentiate whether they realize it or not; however, it's much more difficult to be an "intentional differentiator."

As someone stated earlier, "One size does not fit all!" Differentiation can seem hard at times, but it really doesn't require that much extra planning. Once you develop a system, it's very easy to tier activities to meet individual student needs.

Differentiation really is key to student academic success!

Coach C's picture

As a new teacher, this is an area where I really need to improve! I am struggling to find the balance in class to give the appropriate time and instruction to all my students, and need to really put some time into pre-planning. The book that you referenced is going to be the next in my library. Thank you.

Savanna Flakes, Inclusion For a Better Future's picture

Great article! Very practical for teachers. In my article- my response to James R. Delisle's Education Week post "Differentiation Doesn't work," I also share a few resources for those beginning to start their journey in differentiating instruction. Differentiating instruction is a journey and not a one-stop fix.

Here is a small blurb from my article:
The foundations of differentiation are building a collaborative classroom community, establishing consistent routines, and teaching students to have a Growth versus Fixed Mindset. For resources on helping students develop a Growth Mindset, check out Carol Dweck's Next, during planning, consider your essential questions, objectives, and summative task or assessment. As you scope out your curriculum unit, consider areas where students usually struggle and/or possible misconceptions that commonly arise with a given concept and skill. As you plan, think about informal or formal pre-assessments that could provide you with background on what students know so that the lesson is able to support and/or extend students' learning. In reviewing this information, begin to plan a few ways to teach the concept, possibly using a hands-on approach, visual supports, cooperative learning, and a blended learning component from or Think about the assessments that will be used, and consider providing students with a choice in how they will demonstrate their mastery on this concept, moving beyond just paper and pencil. At this point, you are differentiating instruction, which just so happens to be good for ALL students. Check out for hundreds of pre-created learning menus on various subjects and objectives. For the full article see-

Feel free to contact me for helpful advice and resources to start or continue your differentiation journey. Happy Differentiating!

Lamparo's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. I learned a few things about DI. As a kindergarten teacher, differentiating instruction is key for success. We do this a lot to ensure comprehension of skills and concepts. When I interact with students in small groups, I really get to know them and get to know how they learn best.

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