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The Dos and Don'ts of Differentiation

differentiated instruction

Maybe we can all pat our heads and chew gum at the same time, but can we teach a wide variety of learners with different needs at the same time?

The short answer is yes. When teachers apply differentiated instruction, they serve a range of students to achieve a content standard. This highly complex work can become unwieldy too quickly, so having practical strategies at the ready makes a huge difference. That way, students know what success looks like, and teachers hold them to clear criteria without lowering expectations or moving anyone backward into content from previous grade levels.

Do provide plenty of choice-based instruction.

We all like making decisions about the way we work, and kids are no exception. Where possible, providing certain choices is usually met with both appreciation and heightened engagement. Suppose students must write a research assignment by a specific due date, and the lesson is planned so that everyone turns in outlines by one date and rough drafts a few days later. Some individuals may struggle to meet the designated dates. Rather than lowering the expectation by modifying the assignment (i.e., asking them to do less than the stated standard), think about offering some options that would help them meet the established criteria. For example, students who finish earlier than their classmates could set up a peer support station to assist where they can, or perhaps some of the class can work independently on their projects while the teacher runs small-group instruction for those who are running behind. In addition, while deadlines cannot always be flexible, working with students to determine when they can finish something within reason is a nice option to provide, given they seek out extra support as needed and meet any agreed-upon parameters or extensions.

Don’t change the curriculum or learning outcomes.

Differentiated instruction is about how we teach, not what we teach. It is not realistic or advisable to change curricular content, nor should that step appear on the table as a possibility. When teachers make changes to learning targets, they put the class at risk for meeting standards or skills that are not at the appropriate level of achievement. Full stop.

Do provide grade-level, standards-aligned good first instruction.

When people hear the word “standards,” they often confuse it with “standardization.” While the two concepts intersect at certain points, they are not the same thing. A standardized curriculum or assessment aims to have students in a variety of locations work on the same thing (often at the same time) with very specific pacing. Standards, however, highlight specific skills in each content area and at each age. Most curriculum materials, for example, contain standards of focus next to various activities to show teachers how a task connects to what students need to know and be able to do. In each area of specialty, standards grow increasingly complex with each passing year. For that reason, it does students a disservice to move backwards with what they are supposed to know at a certain point in their education. Building an awareness of the standards and how they function is key for teachers who seek to understand what students need from lessons the first time around (otherwise known as good first instruction) so that reteaching is less pervasive as a widespread accepted practice.

Don’t provide remedial instruction.
When students are struggling to keep up, the answer is not to move them back a grade level with content. This helpful article from UnboundEd on the difference between supports and modifications delineates how to help students achieve the expected standard without lowering expectations for their performance. If teachers modify instruction for students who do not have legal accommodations to move them further from the identified learning targets, we perpetuate a vicious cycle of inequity. Instead, understanding how to support learning by providing the right resources that scaffold instruction to preserve what students need to know to move forward is essential in differentiated classrooms.

Do make sure the big picture is intact.

Each day might look like a series of details, but all instruction should be guided by just a few through-lines. What are the non-negotiable, overarching goals for learning? No matter what age or content area teachers are working with, the forest is more important than the trees in the early stages of planning for differentiated instruction. If we are fully aware of where all students should be at certain identified points in the school year, it is a lot easier to work out the nuances of how teaching and learning is carried out with the larger rocks already in place. Without that big-picture perspective, it is too easy to lose our way and accidentally move students away from appropriate objectives and targets.

Don’t dig your heels in.

When anyone gets too attached to doing something a certain way just because we like it and not because students benefit from it, the barriers that emerge can be significant. Sure, I really love teaching specific books or presenting certain projects, but taste is subjective. Not everyone enjoys the same approach, and that’s a good thing. When and where we can, boosting student engagement by allowing them to do activities or assignments in ways they enjoy will result in outcomes that reflect increases in student performance. If a detail is specifically tailored for a reason that ties directly to learning goals, that’s one thing. But if we can be flexible sometimes, that will keep the focus on the targets that really matter.

Differentiated instruction is not a simple hill to climb, but it is far from impossible to achieve with careful planning. When teachers develop lesson plans, thinking ahead to how students might be given more opportunity to express their needs as learners provides a welcome avenue to maintaining high standards and expectations while truly taking the time to center instruction around the appropriate content.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS