George Lucas Educational Foundation
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black and white photo of a student at a desk looking at the camera

In third grade, my daughter struggled with problems like 36 x 12, and she knew her multiplication facts. Fortunately, her math tutor recognized what was needed, and introduced the Lattice Method. For some educators, the Lattice Method is controversial. Just read some of the FB comments. After multiple failed attempts, this strategy made a difference for my daughter. She rediscovered her confidence in math.

As educators, we know that learning is not one size fits all, and what's best for some students may not be for others. Yet differentiated instruction (DI) remains elusive as a major part of formal planning. Myths about DI persist despite work by respected advocates such as Carol Tomlinson, Susan Allan, Rick Wormeli, and Gayle Gregory. What follows are prominent misperceptions expressed about DI, presented here so that we can separate myth from truth.

Myth #1: DI is a collection of strategies.

There are many books, workshops, and organizations offering "differentiated strategies" that, when used, will instantly have teachers differentiating for their students. Such strategies in isolation rarely have the intended outcome for most or all of the students. The reality is that any strategy can be differentiated if we know the learner's current skill level. So long as the strategy has a track record of supporting learning, it can be turned into a differentiated tool for heightened effectiveness.

Truth #1: DI is a lens for implementing any strategy in all pedagogies.

Consider that effective teachers have a wealth of tools that they use to meet student needs. DI is a lens for choosing the best tool. Would you use a screwdriver to hammer a nail? That seems obvious, yet there are many learning experiences where a diamond-point screwdriver is used to tighten connections with a screw that needs a flat blade. Diagnosing students based on data helps teachers identify the best tools to design the appropriate learning experience. Some examples include:

DI is a lens that we use ongoing during the data analysis and planning process for great strategic impact on student learning. It ensures that we use the correct screwdriver.

Myth #2: DI is incompatible with standardized state testing.

High-stakes tests are pervasive in the fabric of school culture. Everything in education must go through the testing filter so that schools can report results to the wider community about how well students test. If these tests assess mastery of state and Common Core standards, then students need high-quality learning experiences that develop their understanding and application of these learning competencies. When content coverage becomes the focus, everyone loses. To learn, students require the analytical and empathy skills of a teacher. Just because content is covered doesn't mean that students have learned. DI engages students on successful paths for mastering learning targets.

Truth #2: DI ensures that all students learn and grow in knowledge and application of state and Common Core standards.

Traditional classrooms take a whole-group instruction approach because it is a timesaver for lesson delivery. This timesaver is illusory. Without incorporating differentiation based on formatively assessed needs, students shut down as they believe that they cannot succeed. As the knowledge or skills gap widens, the learning obstacle may turn into something too massive to overcome. If we know that not all students learn at the same pace and may not process skills and concepts in the same way, then differentiation is the solution to maximizing the number of students who can apply their understanding of standards on high-stakes tests. Pre-planned Differentiation does not take significantly more time to teach a unit. DI uses existing time more effectively to meet needs of all learners. With more students mastering standards, teachers can provide more in-depth learning experiences.

Myth #3: There is no research that supports DI.

"No research" is a major misconception. It's frustrating to classroom teachers who see the results of differentiation with their own students to be told by "education experts" that there's no research supporting their efforts. DI transforms strategies and systems to meet the needs of varied learners.

Truth #3: Lots of research focuses on systems and strategies that differentiate to improve student learning.

Like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, if we remove the curtain from some effective learning systems and strategies, we find that differentiation is part of the framework for building student success. Some examples include:

  1. Guided Reading: Fountas and Pinnell, and Anita Iaquinta's article in Early Childhood Education Journal (PDF).
  2. Response to Intervention: RTI Publications, and Susan Demirsky Allan and Yvonne L. Goddard's ASCD Article.

The focus of such research does not always include DI in the article titles, but the practice is embedded. Indeed, you can find DI infused within any program or system that collects data on student achievement or growth, evaluates and diagnoses what gaps or enrichments those students need, and then designs and implements a plan to meet those needs.

Look Through the Lens

Through just these few myths and truths, we can see that one-size instruction does not fit all. We also know that classroom education is more complex, full of competing initiatives which create myths that lure us away from our core purpose: students' learning needs. We need to ensure that students' learning needs do not fall in priority and stay above instructor and administrator needs. In this more complicated world, differentiated instruction is a critical lens to successful learning experiences for students.

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

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Amanda Eastman's picture

I think this is a really great article on differentiation. This is a very important tool that all teachers need to continue using in their classrooms. I feel the biggest struggle teachers have are not being well trained on how to incorporate differentiation into their everyday lessons and sometimes I feel like there isn't enough time in the day. I am often looking for easier and more effective ways to incorporate differentiation into my classrooms.

Melanie Haydel's picture

I love this post! One way of teaching has never and will never fit all students. Everyone learns in different ways. Any great teacher already differentiates in their lessons because they know this. Each student is on a different path every day, and it is our job to help them along THEIR path. As far as standardized testing, if we are doing our job I firmly believe that our students will do well on their test. We should give them practice in the formatting, but the content will get there in differentiated lessons. I have tried to differentiate in my classroom as much as possible, and sometimes it is hard. But in the long run, it can only ensure success!

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

Hi Melanie,
Thank you for sharing about the importance of differentiating as having a long term effect. Teachers do differentiate all the time. A next level is to pre-plan differentiation for the cross-road lessons we know are coming up, which students tend to struggle.

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

Hi Amanda,

Great points. Differentiation begins with formative assessments as a way to learn where students are, and what supports or enrichments are needed. Here are some strategies and resources to support your journey:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

Rebekah Price's picture

We differentiate instruction but do not differentiate testing. Something is wrong with that.

judyd123's picture

Differentiation has always been part of successful teaching. Sometimes it is not needed if material can be presented so all students understand. The article was insightful.

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

Hi Rebekah,
Thanks for sharing your comments. Testing has a challenging dilemma. Its purpose is to collect data on what students know and do not know, the challenge is collecting accurate data, and then there is the developing systems to scale that is "efficient" ie cost effective. Sometimes these concerns loses learning what students' know and don't know. Politics and pedagogy debates aside, one thing that can be done is provide students with different ways that they can demonstrate their learning. Even ask them to design their own path some times. It may not always be the workable option, but it should be used more. What do you think?

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

Hi Judyd123,

Thank you for sharing your insights. Yes, all teachers do differentiate. It happens more often then some realize, usually every moment in the classroom. This may be through observations, Q&A, formative assessments, and assignments. Because learners enter a lesson at different places and from different perspectives, effective differentiation is intentional through pre-planning and having an understanding of each student that is more well rounded.

Kai's picture

This part jumped out at me: "Traditional classrooms take a whole-group instruction approach because it is a timesaver for lesson delivery. This timesaver is illusory." It does seem that if some students aren't following the material and they let that accumulate, the instructor will eventually have to take more time later on to repeat the unit or at least help those who didn't catch it the first time.

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

Yes. That is the underlying problem that we create for ourselves. Great catch :)

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