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Different Strokes
For Little Folks:
Carol Ann Tomlinson
On Differentiated Instruction


Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson understands the challenge of providing appropriate learning experiences for all students. Once a classroom teacher who had to simultaneously meet the needs of kids struggling to read at grade level and those who were ready for Harvard, she turned to differentiated instruction. Included: Tomlinson offers ideas to help teachers "get their feet wet" with differentiated instruction.

As classroom teachers struggle daily to design learning experiences that serve students' unique abilities, backgrounds, learning styles, and interests, a very practical approach promises to assist them in their quest -- differentiated instruction. Billed as more than another educational "buzzword," this method involves tailoring assignments to suit students' needs. If differentiated instruction has a single "voice," it may be that of Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor of educational leadership, foundations and policy at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

Carol Ann Tomlinson

A veteran educator, Tomlinson works with teachers across the U.S. and abroad to help them develop classroom lessons that are suited to students with varied learning needs. She is the author of more than 150 articles, book chapters, books, and other professional development materials. Her books include Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching.

Tomlinson has more than 20 years of experience as a public school teacher and more than 12 as a program administrator of special services for struggling and advanced learners, and she has been named Virginia's Teacher of the Year (1974) and Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education (2004). She is co-director of the university's Summer Institute on Academic Diversity and Best Practices Institute.

Tomlinson shared with Education World some insights into how differentiated instruction works and how teachers can get started using it in their classrooms.

Education World: How do you define differentiated instruction?

Carol Ann Tomlinson: On some level, differentiation is just a teacher acknowledging that kids learn in different ways, and responding by doing something about that through curriculum and instruction. A more dictionary-like definition is "adapting content, process, and product in response to student readiness, interest, and/or learning profile."

EW: You've stated that differentiated education isn't a new "phenomenon" in teaching, and in fact, the same kind of approach was required in the one-room schoolhouse of yesteryear. In what ways is differentiation a blend of old and new educational philosophies?

Build on

Carol Ann Tomlinson says that it's always important to remember that quality curriculum is of prime importance in a differentiated classroom.

"The higher the quality of what we differentiate, the greater the likelihood of success," she added. "In my perfect world, we'd spend lots more time developing rich, high quality curriculum -- then talking about how we modify our teaching so that far more kids have access to the quality."

Tomlinson: Anything worthwhile we do in schools is inevitably a blend of old and new. The basic issues and challenges of teaching are constants. How we address those challenges evolves as our understanding of teaching and learning evolves. Ideas of varying materials, meeting with students in small groups, providing scaffolding suited to student need, and so on, are certainly not new. Some of the particular strategies we use to respond to learner need may be new -- or newly adapted to provide support for particular groups of learners (such as English language learners or students with learning disabilities). Our understanding of how students learn is continually evolving. That enables us to refine or better target our assistance to students.

EW: Although both seek to meet students' needs as unique learners, how does differentiated instruction differ from individualized instruction?

Tomlinson: Individualized instruction proposes that each learner have materials and tasks based on the very particular needs of that student. It's likely that (a) we could never generate enough lesson plans to address the needs of each individual we teach, and (b) we really don't know how to make such precise distinctions between each student so that we could "slice the onion that thin" -- even if time were not an issue.

Differentiation suggests we look at "ballparks" or "zones" in which students cluster -- so that on a particular day, depending on our students and their needs -- we might offer two or three or four routes to a goal -- not 23 or 30. In addition, during the heyday of individualized instruction, our sense of student learning was based on behaviorism (absorption, drill, repetition) -- and curriculum had that orientation. Now we understand more fully the role of the brain in learning -- the need for students to make sense of what they learn. Individualized instruction tended to have more of a drill orientation. Differentiation focuses also on helping students understand ideas and apply skills so that they develop frameworks of meaning that allow them to retain and transfer what they study.

EW: Based on your experience, how do students respond to differentiated instruction?

Tomlinson: I think kids are keenly aware of differences among themselves. I think they fully understand they are not cookie-cutter images of one another. They see that in many facets of their lives. When teachers engage kids in talking about their particular strengths, weaknesses, interests, and ways of learning -- and in developing a classroom where everyone gets the help and support they need to grow as much as possible -- I see kids who are very enthusiastic about that approach to teaching and learning. Without having opportunities to engage in conversation about what makes a classroom effective, how such classrooms need to operate to be effective, and how they can contribute to that, it's likely that many students would feel uncomfortable because of uncertainty about how things work.

EW: How do you recognize a differentiated classroom? Is there a feature that immediately suggests to you that a teacher is using this method?

Tomlinson: I think the two most readily visible hallmarks are flexibility and student-focus. In a differentiated classroom, it's likely an observer would readily notice the teacher's intent to use materials, time, space, small groups, tasks, and a host of other resources in flexible ways. In addition, it would likely be clear that the teacher puts the kids at the center of learning -- as well as involving them in making decisions about how the classroom is working for them and for their peers.

EW: What often surprises teachers who practice differentiated instruction?

Tomlinson: A common surprise for teachers is that many students who are restless, uninvolved, or misbehave in one-size-fits-all settings become "less problematic" in effectively differentiated classrooms. I think we often worry particularly about students who pose behavior issues in the classroom and conclude that in more flexible settings, the problems would intensify. In fact, they often lessen because the system is working better for the student.

EW: How do you counter those who suggest that this method can be too difficult and time-consuming for the regular classroom teacher to implement?

Tomlinson: We can do nearly anything we need to do in a classroom as long as we are (a) willing to begin developing the necessary skills, and (b) willing to persist in ensuring that the skills mature. It makes much more sense to begin working with responsive teaching in small ways, and building on those over time. Trying to do too much too fast is likely to overwhelm and discourage us. A step at a time, we can do pretty amazing things. Teachers who have differentiated instruction for a long time will tell you it ultimately takes them no more time to plan to teach that way than any other way. The approach becomes natural -- second nature. The challenge is in the early days when the skills feel new and uncertain to us. At that point, the trick is to ensure that we're moving forward, but not pushing ourselves beyond reason.

EW: Will you describe a simple kind of differentiated classroom activity that would enable teachers to "get their feet wet" with this method?

Tomlinson: There are lots of possibilities. Teachers can use graphic organizers to help some kids take notes more effectively -- there are good ones available commercially. We can give kids the options of working alone or with a partner. We can provide two ways to express learning rather than just one. We can highlight text -- marking the really essential portions of a chapter with a highlight marker -- to support reading of English language learners or students with learning disabilities. We can make sure to do whole-to-part teaching rather than only part-to-whole. We can meet with small groups of students while other kids are doing required written work. There really are many things we can do to make classrooms a better fit for more kids without "breaking the bank" of our planning time.

EW: What advice do you have for teachers who are just starting out with differentiation?

Tomlinson: Become a kid watcher. Study the kids in any moment and in any way you can. Learn to see them as individuals rather than a group. Ask them how the class is working for them and how to make it work better. Then begin to respond to what you see. Each step you take will teach you, if you want to learn. If you combine that with regular pre-assessment of student competencies and begin to think about teaching with student needs in mind, you'll be off to a great start.

This e-interview with Carol Ann Tomlinson is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 05/27/2004
Last updated 12/16/2010