Differentiated Instruction

Teachers know that every class includes diverse learners - some struggling, some advanced, and all with different life experiences, learning preferences, and personal interests. Differentiated instruction adapts instruction to meet the needs of individual learners, providing all students with the appropriate level of challenge and the appropriate supports to help them reach learning goals.

Differentiated instruction is grounded in an understanding of how people learn. Instruction begins with an assessment of what students already know, and builds new concepts on their existing knowledge. Differentiation provides students with varied experiences to engage with content. A differentiated classroom offers multiple ways for students to access content, to process and make sense of the concepts and skills, and to develop products that demonstrate their learning (Tomlinson, 2001). Technology supports classroom strategies by creating new routes to learning, addressing multiple learning needs, and providing forums for individualized access to content and expression.

Key Research Findings

  • Intelligence is not a fixed quantity, but can be amplified through rich learning experiences. Vigorous learning actually changes the physiology of the brain (Caine & Caine, 1991).

  • Students learn best when presented with moderate challengesânot so difficult that the learner feels threatened, and not so simple that the learner "coasts" through without having to think deeply or solve new problems (Bess, 1997; Czikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993; Tomlinson, 1999).

  • Struggling learners are seldom well-served by homogeneous grouping (Oakes, 1985; Slavin, 1987, 1993). However, advanced learners can benefit from accelerated classes (Kulik & Kulik, 1991). In effective homogeneous classrooms, the needs of all learners are specifically and systematically addressed (Tomlinson, 1999).

  • Anchoring activities help teachers manage class time and by creating meaningful activities that students work on independentlyâat the beginning of class, when students are finished with assignments, or when waiting for help (Tomlinson, 2001).


  1. Differentiate standards-based instruction. Standardized learning goals do not imply "one-size-fits-all" instruction. Differentiation opens multiple paths to help your students reach the goals.

  2. Engage students in setting their own learning goals. Learning contracts, personal goal-setting, and other strategies help students recognize that they have a stake in their own learning.

  3. Build on what students know. Recognize that students build new understanding onto what they already know. Take time to assess their individual starting points, then provide students with a choice of ways to engage with key content.

  4. Engage multiple learning styles. Recognize that students' learning styles vary widely and provide them with opportunities to build on their strengths.

  5. Use grouping wisely. Think about how to group students effectively for different learning activities. Avoid stable homogenous grouping, which can be a detriment to struggling students. Support group efforts by teaching students to mediate conflicts and manage their time effectively. Help all students find a way to contribute to the group's success.

  6. Teach skills for success. Reinforce learning skills that will help all students be successful learners, such as note taking, summarizing, research strategies, and collaboration.

  7. Provide opportunities for student choice. Give students ample choices and encouragement to pursue projects that interest them as part of regular classwork. Provide students who are ready for more challenge with opportunities to tackle independent research projects.

  8. Vary assessment strategies. Use multiple assessmentsâincluding portfolios and performance assessmentsâthat will allow all students to demonstrate what they have learned.

  9. Facilitate success. Provide appropriate support and classroom management to facilitate success in a student-centered classroom.