Differentiated instruction is a student-centered approach to teaching and learning. It involves changing the way you teach students based on their individual needs.
A teacher will teach one topic to a class but give each student a different experience. The differentiated instruction approach is focused on ensuring content and learning environment are flexible to the needs of students.
Differentiation may focus on changing your teaching based on:
- Abilities and disabilities
- Learning styles
- Hobbies and preferences
- A student’s prior knowledge
But there are some downsides.
Pitfalls of differentiated instruction include:
- It’s Time Consuming
- It’s Resource Intensive
- It Leads to Dumbing Down the Content
- It Cannot be Done for Every Student
- It is Unrealistic in Context of Standardized Tests
- The Learning Styles Concept is Unproven
- Students need to Learn in all Different Ways
Definition of Differentiation in Education
Differentiated instruction involves varying the ways a lesson is taught so that it meets the individual needs of students.
You may want to cite a scholarly definition in your essay to show you have consulted a respectable academic source. Here are a few good scholarly definitions that I found:
- ” At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.” (Tomlinson, 2000, p. 287)
- Differentiation is a teaching strategy that “offers different paths to understanding content, process, and products, considering what is appropriate given a child’s profile of strengths, interests, and styles” (Dixon et al., 2014)
- “Differentiation is responsive instruction designed to meet unique individual student needs” (Watts-Taffe, 2013, p. 303)
There are four ways to differentiate instruction: varying the content, varying the learning process, varying the assessment, and varying the learning environment (Carol Ann Tomlinson, 2000).
1. Varying the Content
Varying the content involves mixing up what students will learn.
This does not necessarily mean “dumbing things down” for some students – which is a bad thing to do!
Often, it just means getting students to choose an aspect of a topic that catches their imagination.
If an assigned learning outcome on the curriculum is: “Can explain elements of 19th Century history”, you might be able to differentiate instruction by letting your students choose a 19th history figure (soldier, dancer, politician, explorer) that your student is most interested in.
Here, you’re meeting the assessment outcomes while varying the content.
2. Varying the Learning Process
Varying the learning process involves changing the activities involved in learning the content to meet students’ individual needs.
One student might want to do internet research, another might want to use the library books, and another wants to make phone calls to local museums. These are all legitimate differentiated ways of learning the same content – but they give the students maximum choice to keep them engaged.
Often, varying the learning process also means mixing up lessons based on learning modalities. A visual student might be more drawn to watching a video, while a reader might prefer to read a book on the topic. A musical learner meanwhile might want to listen to a song about the topic!
3. Varying the Assessment
Varying assessment involves changing the ways students demonstrate their knowledge of the same content.
It does not (or should not) mean giving one student an easier assessment than another.
Often at college I am asked by the student support team to differentiate assessment for students with anxiety and PTSD. These students will often find it hard to talk in front of a group, so I’ll ask them to write an essay instead.
Sometimes I’ll also have some students with dyslexia or cerebral palsy who are disadvantaged in reading and writing tasks. So, for them, I might ask them to present a poster or verbal presentation that demonstrates they have developed sufficient knowledge of the topic..
4. Varying the Classroom Environment
Varying the classroom environment involves changing the classroom atmosphere to meet a student’s individual needs.
Some students with sensory processing issues (common in autism) often need quiet spaces to learn. When I was teaching in elementary school, I would happily let them go into a quiet room at the back of the classroom to study in peace.
Sometimes it’s great to have a classroom with mixed workstations like the one in this image. It has a classroom layout that lets children choose how to work – in quiet, in groups, on computers, or a mix.
Pros and Cons of Differentiated Instruction
|1. Student-Centered||1. Time Consuming & Resource Intensive|
|2. Strives for Equity||2. Often Leads to Dumbing Down the Content|
|3. Acknowledges Difference||3. Cannot be Done for Every Student|
|4. Gives Students Choice||4. Unrealistic in Context of Standardized Tests|
|5. Increases Engagement||5. Learning Styles are Unproven|
|6. Increasingly Possible with Tech & AI||6. Students need to Learn in all Different Ways|
Advantages of Differentiation in the Classroom
Advantages of differentiated instruction include:
This approach ensures classes are focused on the needs of the students, not the needs of the teacher.
It also ensures the teacher is focused on the student’s needs. It gets the teacher to think about how they can write lessons that will best help students overcome hurdles and learn in ways that suit them.
2. It Strives for Equity
‘Equity’ means that everyone gets a fair go. It doesn’t mean that everyone is treated exactly the same (see: difference between equity and equality).
In a differentiated classroom, the class is more equitable because the teacher gives every student due consideration for what their needs really are.
Example: If a teacher was dominantly a visual learner so their learning materials were always very visual, the students who are visual learners would have a big unfair disadvantage in the class. But through varying the way the lesson is taught, the teacher ensures all students get a chance to learn in their preferred way, thereby helping them all to get a better chance at learning the content in their own way.
3. Gives Students Choice
A differentiated classroom allows students to learn in ways that they prefer. We all might have preferences for learning in certain ways.
If we give students some choice about how they want to learn, we empower them to learn in ways that they prefer. This can dramatically improve a student’s learning experience in the classroom.
4. Increasingly Possible with Tech & AI
While it may be very hard to differentiate lessons, it’s getting easier.
We now have technology that learns about students’ strengths, weaknesses and preferences. With technology, teachers can vary the ways lessons are taught much more effectively.
For example, the app Thinkster Math tracks how a student comes to a mathematical answer. It learns how a student learns, and adapts its lessons to make personalized worksheets for students.
5. Increases Engagement
When students are being taught lessons that are targeted at their needs they are more likely to engage in the learning materials. They will feel less isolated. They will also feel like their voices are listened to. Therefore, they will hopefully be more willing to approach schooling with goodwill and excitement. They may even develop a love of learning!
Disadvantages of Differentiation in the Classroom
Disadvantages of differentiated instruction include:
1. Time Consuming & Resource Intensive
Planning six lessons a day is hard enough. Now imagine having to vary each lesson for all your students! It becomes very time consuming.
Similarly, if you want to differentiate the learning process you need a lot of resources. One student might want a computer, another will want books, and another might want to go to the local museum. Suddenly, you’ve got a lot of resources that you need to juggle all for one lesson.
2. Often Leads to Dumbing Down the Content
Too often, teachers see differentiation as permission to dumb down content for students who are struggling. They will vary it so some students have easier lessons than others.
On the one hand, this might make sense because each student learns within their zone of proximal development (learning at the appropriate level). On the other hand, it could also be used as an excuse to have low expectations of students.
3. Cannot be Done for Every Student
It’s unrealistic to differentiate instruction for a whole class of students – each with their own learning style. There are not enough hours in the day to vary lessons for all 25 students in your class.
Teachers therefore often vary lessons not for individual students, but for small groups. They might group students into three or four so they can work in groups. This makes differentiation easier, but cruder and less effective.
4. Unrealistic in the Context of Standardized Tests
Most teachers have to prepare students for standardized tests. These are tests that require students to all complete the exact same exams in the exact same way, and they can’t choose to do exams that suit their learning style.
A standardized test is the exact opposite of a differentiated classroom. So, if we are teaching in varied ways, we’re not actually preparing students for their tests!
5. Learning Styles are Unproven
This approach seems to embrace the concept of ‘learning styles’. It insinuates that different learners have different ways of learning, and that teachers need to acknowledge this in their teaching.
However, extensive research has shown that students’ learning styles are an unproven concept. Namely, Coffield et al. (2004) show that there is no valid research basis underpinning how learning taxonomies are developed, and there is no evidence that people are born better at learning in one way than another.
6. Students need to Learn in all Different Ways
Even if we differentiated learning so students can learn in ways they personally prefer, we may be doing our students a disservice.
For example, if a student says they prefer to learn via movies then books … then they’ll never become better at reading! Perhaps teachers should be encouraging students to learn in ways they find difficult in order to improve on their weaknesses.
Differentiated instruction is a valuable 21st Century approach to education in elementary school, high school and even university. It helps students to overcome barriers to learning and helps teachers to think about how to teach in ways that are most effective.
While the concept can help students learn more effectively, it also has downsides. It can be time consuming and at its worst can even set lower expectations for students in the classroom.
Teachers therefore need to use this approach carefully!
I hope this guide has been helpful for you.
– Prof. Chris.
Coffield, F. J., Moseley, D. V., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles: What research has to say to practice. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Dixon, F. A., Yssel, N., McConnell, J. M., & Hardin, T. (2014). Different instruction, professional development, and teacher efficacy. Journal for the Educational Leadership, 37(2), 111-127.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). What is different instruction? In: Callahan, C. M., & Hertberg-Davis, H. L. (Eds.). (2012). Fundamentals of gifted education: Considering multiple perspectives. (pp. 287-300). London: Routledge.
Watts‐Taffe, S., Laster, B. P., Broach, L., Marinak, B., McDonald Connor, C., & Walker‐Dalhouse, D. (2012). Differentiated instruction: Making informed teacher decisions. The Reading Teacher, 66(4), 303-314.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]