Education trends: Differentiated instruction

Education trends: Differentiated instruction

The idea of differentiated instruction is a novel concept in education. It is different way to think about teaching, but is it the right way? And does it apply to any and all educational levels? In this article we will take a look at differentiated instruction and its applications.


In differentiated instruction, a teacher tailors lessons and teaching methods to the abilities of each student. In this way, students are all able to understand subjects in spite of having different learning styles. According to Scholastic, differentiated instruction means teachers observe and understand the differences and similarities among students and use the information to plan instruction.

In the front of the movement, Carol Ann Tomlinson has created books, videos, and DVDs that have been embraced by many school districts and professional developers. According to her philosophy, a teacher differentiates instruction based on at least four classroom elements: content, process, products, learning environment. The content area is the information a student needs to learn or how the student will gain access to the information. The processes are the activities the student engages in in order to make sense of the information. The products are how the students shows they have learned the content. The learning environment is the way the classroom works and feels.

As a result of the four pillars, differentiating instruction may mean teaching the same material to students using a variety of strategies based on the ability of each student.

Who uses it?

This type of approach to education works best in a classroom environment, and is seen most often in younger grade levels. The movement has roots in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which addresses children in public education. The students who can be best served are among those who just go through the motions in class rather than paying attention. These are not people who are necessarily in class because they want to be or because they know they will earn a degree at the end of their work.

How does it work?

The concept of differentiated learning works by addressing the four classroom elements mentioned above. For instance, being attentive to the learning environment may mean moving furniture around the classroom so students can read in groups or individually.

Some teachers find this approach to be more difficult than instructing using a singular approach. It takes more time to develop lesson plans, which can add an extra burden to a busy teacher. Plus, the process of implementing this practice school-wide can be tough since some schools lack professional development resources.

However, students who are given more options on how they learn take on more responsibility for their learning. Also, students can be more engaged in learning, and often have fewer discipline problems in classrooms where teachers provide differentiated lessons.

What are critics saying?

It appears the theory and the application of differentiated instruction have two very different outcomes. One critic referred to it as “a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.” That critic, James Delisle, went on to explain that while it sounds great, it causes teachers to produce multiple sets of materials and dumb down the work required. He says the only people who say differentiation is achievable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves.

An author for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Mike Schmoker, also believes differentiated instruction causes much more work for teachers. In his words, “the attempt often devolved into a frantically assembled collection of worksheets, coloring exercises, and specious ‘kinesthetic’ activities.”

The idea of differentiated instruction is controversial. In fact, Schmoker and Tomlinson argued over the merits of it and whether there is concrete evidence that it works. Their debate centered around how individualized instruction should be. While Tomlinson would never say differentiated instruction is easy, she believes it is a path to better and more expert teaching.
Differentiated instruction is a popular concept in education, although the merits of its application in secondary school have not been founded in concrete evidence. Critics agree the idea of varying instruction according to a student's needs is a strong, however the practice can be too taxing for some teachers.


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