Search form

The Differentiation Difference

Research still supports it, and some experts say it is easier than teachers think.

Facing a classroom full of students – each one with different strengths and weaknesses – is often challenge enough for a teacher armed with just one carefully crafted lesson plan. Having to assess and teach to various levels can seem impossible.

But experts say there are some reasons why teachers might have more motivation today to use differentiated instruction (DI) in their classroom, despite some thoughts that it is too much to expect from them.

 Research continues to show it benefits their students, and experts say it isn’t as difficult as teachers think and may even make their job easier. Beyond that, technology can help.

The research support

A recent review of the research about differentiation found two things: that teachers believe it usually benefits students, but also found it challenging to accomplish.

“The teachers faced challenges using face-to-face instruction, including time management, planning, administrative support, and lack of professional development opportunities,” the report notes.

It also reported that research about differentiation was not always thorough, or used over a long enough period of time to gain good data on outcomes.

But it also noted that research has concluded it benefited students considerably

“The use of DI in the classroom greatly improved student’s interest to learn English,” one researcher found. Related to math, another found “DI was highly effective; Students scored 12% higher.”

Other reports have found that more research on the practice overall need to be completed, but that there is little doubt the individual practices are useful, such as assessing student readiness, responding to learning styles, grouping students for instruction and teaching to the student's ‘zone of proximal’ level.

Where are we now?

Experts generally say that teachers who undertake differentiation find that not only do their students become more successful, there are fewer behavior problems and each student is more connected to the information. They say it is increasingly expected in the classroom.

There are various different practices connected with differentiation, and some experts now believe teachers should approach it understanding and experimenting with various facets of it gradually rather than thinking of it more broadly as a big, unmanageable change in their teaching. Some strategies might be implemented more quickly than others; some may be difficult with certain groups. A lot of it, experts say, is being used by teachers already and comes intuitively.

 “The concept is pretty much universally accepted,” says Carol Ann Tomlinson, often considered one of the founders of the movement. “But sometimes we just don’t put it into practice very well in a school and in the classroom. If I had a quarter for everybody who says they do differentiation, I’d be very rich. But it just isn’t the case that it’s being done thoroughly and properly that often,” she said in an interview.

The strategies include:

  • A steady stream of assessments to help determine student learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Assessment throughout the process with both traditional and nontraditional evaluation methods to determine if students are understanding.
  • Instructional decisions based on student readiness, interests, and learning profiles.
  • Incorporation of a mix of strategies to reach the diverse needs of students, with an understanding that students learn differently and at a different pace.
  • Whole-class, small-group and individual instruction, with a classroom focus on relevant content about real-world problems.       

Teacher reluctance

In her early books more than two decades ago Tomlinson carefully explained the process, but she says today district and school leaders often don’t give it a high enough priority and busy teachers are sometimes reluctant to take it on.

But advocates say they should realize that it isn’t as difficult as it seems, and can be undertaken in steps or modified for their teaching style and skill set – and for the class they are teaching.

Rachelle Lynette, an experienced teacher who also has worked with other students having specific needs and gifted students says there are benefits that aren’t immediately evident.

“I am a firm believer that differentiation is not only best practice, but it also will actually make your job easier in the long run,” she writes 

However, James R. Delisle, an educational consultant, wrote about why "Differentiation Doesn't Work”, in a opinion article that got a lot of attention.

"It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals,” he wrote.

Tomlinson and Anne Baily Lipsett, a who has worked in special education for 16 years and now serves as an educational consultant, both responded to the much publicized opinion article. Tomlinson replied in a published response that EdWeek requested when the column resulted in “an avalanche of reader comments”. Lipsett later replied in a blog post.

They both, of course, said that the approach is effective, and noted that it doesn’t create much extra work and will save teachers time in the end because student performance and behavior will improve, and they will become less reactive to problems.

“I've always wondered why teachers felt it was so hard to implement. It doesn't have to be overly difficult or taxing,” says Lipsett. “It's often a matter of asking thoughtfully tiered questions during focus lessons that drive home the different skills one wants to teach to each group.”

She says open-ended tasks can allow students to approach the assignment at their level, or three levels of worksheets can be used – one that re-teaches the material, one on grade level and one advanced.

Technology boost

Advocates say technology also can make differentiation easier.

Formative assessment data collection tools such as Survey Monkey or Policat have been used by teachers to understand the level of learning by their students and get other feedback. Other applications allow them to instantly poll students in their classroom.

Communications applications ranging from text messages, email, blogs and teacher web sites along with school grade reporting systems can give teachers new avenues to connect with individual students to check on concerns and levels of understanding – and get their feedback. Wikis also allow users collaborate to create information. 

Of course, there are a host of applications that allow students to learn online at their own pace in the classroom with teacher guidance or at home. Advocates say that while teachers need to put in time exploring them and finding the one that fits their needs, the payoff will be worth it. Students will be engaged, and teachers will have more time to work with them at the level they require.

Flipped learning is gaining increasing attention, and allows teachers to provide a standard presentation (sometimes at different levels, but generally similar to a traditional introductory lesson they would give), and have students work at their own pace and level at home while devoting classroom time to individual guidance.

Here are some other resources available about differentiation:

Here are some video presentations about it:

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

Copyright© 2019 Education World