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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Simplifying Differentiation: Content, Process, and Product

When explaining to pre-service teachers how to differentiate in the classroom, I usually revert to drawing a simple diagram. It consists of three circles containing the words: content, process, product (I wish I could give proper credit to whoever conceptualized this diagram. While I’ve heard different theories, I’m not quite sure where it originated from).

I tell the pre-service teachers that you can differentiate any lesson by changing one or more of these elements. The content involves the curriculum, the information learned, the standards and skills being taught. The process is how students learn this content. And the product is what is produced by students, how they show their learning. Before running through an example of what this might look like in the classroom, let me address some questions that naturally arise around this topic.

Do I have to differentiate every day?

My answer to this question is: unless your students’ ability levels allow them to all learn a particular lesson at the same speed and in the same way (I find this highly unlikely), then yes you must consistently differentiate.

Do I differentiate for each child?

Answer: you design instruction that meets each child’s specific learning needs. This usually involves changing the content, process, and/or product.

Do I need to change the product, process, and content for each lesson?

Not necessarily. It depends on your students’ learning needs and on the lesson taught. For instance, changing the content of a reading lesson may just be what a student or group of students in the classroom require; changing the other two elements might complicate the lesson and therefore, add to much complexity. Like teaching itself, differentiation is more an art than a science.


Imagine a teacher is introducing fourth-grade students to the concept of good citizenship and volunteerism during a social studies unit. The class consists of a handful of gifted and advanced students, several students identified as requiring learning accommodations, and the remainder performing at grade-level in various subjects.

The teacher might alter the content of the reading materials by selecting three different texts-one slightly below grade-level, one at grade-level,and an above-grade level text. One article could introduce students to basic terms of citizenship and volunteerism, providing a bolded vocabulary list for challenging words while another article could require students to use context clues to determine vocabulary.

Finally, the above-level article may address more complex issues such as how citizenship connects to the functioning of society and government. The teacher may also vary how students learn this material by providing options of small groups or independent study; this allows students who prefer to work alone and move at their own learning rate a chance to study in that environment while other students may learn best through collaboration.

Finally, the teacher might differentiate the product—a poster displaying the main concepts, key details, and further questions students have about the topic. Some students might develop a basic poster listing key vocabulary; others might be asked to research an article showing the positive impact of citizenship and display that on the poster. The teacher can assign different products to students, each with their own rubric.

While it takes considerable planning, the teacher could attempt to differentiate using all three elements, however, changing just one of these elements, begins to provide a differentiated lesson.

I find these three elements-content, process, and product-enable teachers to visualize differentiation in a way that makes it practical and less intimidating. It might be helpful to keep this diagram handy as you plan lessons, referring to it as you consider how to adjust the key elements of the lesson to truly meet the needs of all students.