George Lucas Educational Foundation

Question: What's the Difference Between Inclusion and Differentiation?

Question: What's the Difference Between Inclusion and Differentiation?

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For quite sometime when I learnt about the learning approach of Inclusion I failed to see how this was different from Differentiation. Especially when trying to incorporate it in our teaching practices there seems to be little difference between the two. Both require altering or scaffolding learning activities to match learner abilities, both foster formative assessment and personalized learning. So is it just a change of words? Inclusion suggests greater acceptance of differences while differentiation seems to increase the divide. But how else do you cater to varying abilities and learning styles unless you plan different activities and taper the level of difficulty according to learner ability.

Can someone shed some light on this?

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Well, you are correct on the how to differentiate. This is a short answer, but in my education experiences when the word inclusion is used it's usually students with IEPs entering a regular ed class most of the time with two teachers (regular ed. And special ed.) The IEP determines the academics adjustments (differentiation). So, differenciation happens in an inclusion classroom (it has to by law). However, teachers in a regular ed. Class are encouraged to differenciate lessons and activities by level (not IEP). I use writing and reading workshop to differentiate language arts and small groups in math.

This is my experience. I'm sure there are other samples out there.

Hope this helps.


Margaret Shafer's picture
Margaret Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Gaetan has described one example of inclusion. At least in my state, inclusion is differentiated from collaboration as special education interventions. Students being included in the classroom may have significantly different academic needs that the rest of the regular education students and may be included in the classroom for social rather than academic needs. In contrast, students in collaboration classrooms can do much of the regular education academic expectations with adaptations. A special education teacher or paraprofessional accompanies students in both situations.

As Gaetan said, regular education teachers are encouraged to differentiate. Differentiation can be by level, by interest, by learning styles and more.

SpTeacherJames's picture
Special Education Teacher, Tutor, and Education Consultant

Inclusion describes a classroom composition that includes a proportion of students with disabilities that reflects the proportion of people with disabilities within broader community.

Differentiation is an instructional and pedagogical approach provides students with different means to access material (content), practice the material (process), demonstrate learning (product), and the classroom environment. Here's a great article that outlines some simple differentiation practices:

Related to differentiation is the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The premise is that teachers can design learning environments that are accessible to students with a wide range of learning needs. Learn more from CAST about UDL here:

In summary, inclusion describes a mixed-ability classroom with general education students and regular education students learning alongside each other. As you mentioned, this increased acceptance of differences, mostly because students with IEPs aren't excluded from this "typical" learning environment. Differentiation and UDL are things the teacher does to meet the diverse needs of ALL their students (even those without IEPs).

I would argue against your assertion that differentiation increases the divide between students. When done right, differentiation targets individual student needs. It brings that child closer to the learning goal in the most efficient way possible. Even if they are not meeting the learning goal in that lesson, proper scaffolding will bring the child closer to being ready to meet that particular learning goal. As in any classroom, there are going to be kids who will need differentiation in order to benefit from instruction. Often, this includes kids without IEPs. Differentiation and UDL acknowledge that everybody is different. By incorporating UDL and differentiation into their practice, teachers can meet the broadest range of learning needs.

Note: The students with IEPs should only be included in inclusion classes if they are ready to be challenged with grade-level material. If the current knowledge/skill gap is too wide, the student may struggle in an inclusion classroom, even with adequate support. That's why it's important that schools offer a range of services; some students clearly benefit from more targeted, individualized instruction in a resource Special Education classroom.

Faiza Amir's picture

A lot of points cleared from all, thank you. I understand that differentiation is a pedagogical approach which facilitates in creating an inclusive classroom. An example of this could be allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge of the curriculum content in a variety of ways, i.e differentiation by product. Whenever we are incorporating differentiation in our lessons we are in fact creating an inclusive classroom environment. So really despite of not having an IEP being implemented we are in fact catering for inclusion.


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