George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners: What Teachers Do

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and crew are so intimidated by the Wizard's enigmatic personality that they struggle to talk with him on equal footing. Fear and frustration overwhelm them as they blindly accept a suicide mission to slay the Witch of the West. In return, they each receive a treasured prize: a heart, a brain, courage, and a way home. Ironically, they already have these gifts -- which they only discover after unveiling the man behind the curtain posing as the grumpy wizard.

Differentiated instruction (DI) casts a spell on educators as to how it meets all students' needs. The skillset required to differentiate seems mystical to some and incomprehensible to others in this environment of state standards and high-stakes tests. Where does one find the time? The reality is that every teacher already has the tools to differentiate in powerful ways for all learners. I address some of these elements, such as assessment fog, in other Edutopia posts.

The DI elements were first introduced to me in How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms by Carol Tomlinson, and my understanding later deepened thanks to my friend and mentor, Dr. Susan Allan. The core of differentiation is a relationship between teachers and students. The teacher's responsibility is connecting content, process, and product. Students respond to learning based on readiness, interests, and learning profile. In this post, we'll explore the teacher's role for effective planning of DI, and in the next three posts, we'll look at how students respond.

learner relationship chart
learner relationship chart

Content, process, and product are what teachers address all the time during lesson planning and instruction. These are the areas where teachers have tremendous experience in everything from lesson planning to assessment. Once the curtain is removed for how these three areas can be differentiated, meeting students' diverse needs becomes obvious and easy to do -- because it's always been present.

Differentiating Content

Content is comprised of the knowledge, concepts, and skills that students need to learn based on the curriculum. Differentiating content includes using various delivery formats such as video, readings, lectures, or audio. Content may be chunked, shared through graphic organizers, addressed through jigsaw groups, or used to provide different techniques for solving equations. Students may have opportunities to choose their content focus based on interests.

For example, in a lesson on fractions, students could:

  • Watch an overview video from Khan Academy.
  • Complete a Frayer Model for academic vocabulary, such as denominator and numerator.
  • Watch and discuss a demonstration of fractions via cutting a cake.
  • Eat the cake.

This example should reassure teachers that differentiation could occur in whole groups. If we provide a variety of ways to explore the content outcomes, learners find different ways to connect.

Differentiating Process

Process is how students make sense of the content. They need time to reflect and digest the learning activities before moving on to the next segment of a lesson. Think of a workshop or course where, by the end of the session, you felt filled to bursting with information, perhaps even overwhelmed. Processing helps students assess what they do and don't understand. It's also a formative assessment opportunity for teachers to monitor students' progress.

For example, having one or two processing experiences for every 30 minutes of instruction alleviates feelings of content saturation. Reflection is a powerful skill that is developed during processing experiences. Some strategies include:

Of these three DI elements, process experiences are least used. Start with any of the shared strategies, and see long-term positive effects on learning.

Differentiating Product

Product differentiation is probably the most common form of differentiation.

  • Teachers give choices where students pick from formats.
  • Students propose their own designs.

Products may range in complexity to align to a respectful level for each student. (I discuss readiness in another post.) The key to product options is having clear academic criteria that students understand. When products are cleanly aligned to learning targets, student voice and choice flourish, while ensuring that significant content is addressed.

For example, one of my favorite practices is providing three or four choices for product options. All but the last choice are pre-developed for students who want a complete picture of what needs to be done. The last choice is open-ended, a blank check. Students craft a different product idea and propose it to the teacher. They have to show how their product option will address the academic criteria. The teacher may approve the proposal as is or with some revisions. If the proposal is too off-focus, then the students work on developing a new idea. If they cannot come up with an approved proposal by a set due date, they have to choose from one of the predetermined products.

Reach Higher

Content, process, and product are key elements in lesson design. Fortunately, educators have many instructional tools that can differentiate these core areas of instruction, such as these 50+ social media tools, which set the stage for students to respond through the next three DI elements in this series:

I do an activity where I ask participants to stand and reach as high as they can. Then, I ask them to reach even higher. They do. When considering your students' needs, reach even higher in your practice -- that extra stretch is inside us all -- and students will benefit.


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

Hi Martin,
Thank you. Please share with others if you think it might help reassure teachers that there is much they're already doing. Of course there is more then, that we can do :)

Sarah's picture

Hi John,
Thank you so much for sharing this article. As a first year teachers I am glad to see that I am implementing some of the strategies that you discussed. I love the reach higher section or your article. It has some great ideas to implement into my lessons!

judyd123's picture

Great article. I like how you said to differentiate the product. It is easy to give options on the process and intend the product to look the same. This should not be the case. The end product does not have to look the same. This is food for thought.

Carlos Abou Mrad's picture

Dear John,
Your article has helped me organize my thoughts regarding differentiation and the need to support diverse learners. As an administrator and a teacher working in Bahrain, it amazes me how learning is considered a universal language but teaching is not. In your post, you stated, "The reality is that every teacher already has the tools to differentiate in powerful ways for all learners." This notion made me ponder and contemplate its applicability and pose a question: do all teachers have the tools to differentiate for all learners? I believe that most teachers are aware of the curriculum content and the standards needed but may not be aware of the best practices when it comes to differentiation and addressing learners' styles, interests, and preferences.

Furthermore, teachers need to pursue professional development and professional learning communities such as Edutopia and your blog to build on their knowledge, refine their instructional repertoire, assess their own beliefs and styles about teaching, and reflect on their teaching philosophy. In order to meet the 21st century educational skills, many changes and modifications should take place in terms of the teaching/learning process as students tend to learn best through personalized learning, group work, discovery, and cooperative learning.

Finally, your recommendation to "Reach Higher" as in raise the academic bar, challenge students, and motivate them to achieve their highest potential is what matters to ensure success and optimal and lifelong learning for every student.

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

Hi Carlos,
Thank you for sharing your reflections about what makes for a successful teacher--life long learning matters. To your question: "Do all teachers have the tools to differentiate for all learners?"
Yes, "every" teacher does have the tools. Before I expand on this, it's important to note that like what you described as the professional growth that a teacher needs to constantly explore and experience, there are layers (or levels) of differentiation.
Back to your question:
Every teacher does have the tools. At a foundational level, formative assessments drive instruction "only if" teachers use the results first to identify the needs of their learners. In classrooms, teachers observe (informally assess) every time they take a breath--Scanning, listening, monitoring responses by students. When students ask questions and teachers take those opportunities to provided support in different ways, either for the student or a group of students--differentiation is happening.

All of this is at a basic level. To raise efficiency and learner success with differentiation, there are more layers to add. Yet, teachers are learners too. We must differentiate with them based on their readiness for more foundational differentiation and later complex work.

Here are some other articles that I've explored these concepts:

Feel free to contact me on Twitter:
Or Post here ;)

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

Hi Sarah,
Keep up the good thinking and implementing this year. Hone those skills so that each year will be even better for your students :)

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

Hi Judy,
Glad this was helpful. How are you differentiating with products?

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