Differentiation strategies: a teacher's guide

Paul Main

How can your classroom differentiate instruction to make learning accessible and challenging?

What is Differentiation in the classroom?

Differentiation is a way to modify instruction to meet students' individual needs. Teachers may differentiate process, content, resources, or the learning environment. A flexible grouping and ongoing assessment can make differentiation one of the most successful instructional strategies.

One may consider differentiation, as a way to teach or even a philosophy that's designed to meet the needs of the whole class. It is not a package or collection of worksheets. It motivates teachers to understand their pupils so they can help each student to enhance learning. As Carol Ann Tomlinson (1999) explains, differentiation means providing students with many options for gaining knowledge. Carol Ann Tomlinson believes that Differentiation is an instructional strategy to help educators teach while keeping students as well as content in mind. Differentiation ensures that learning and teaching work for every student, which really should be a teacher's main purpose of teaching. Differentiating teaching means that the teacher would observe and identify the similarities and differences among students and use this knowledge to teach students.

How can we differentiate instruction?

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, there are four ways in which teachers may differentiate their instruction.

  1. Content: There are six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (a classification of degrees of intellectual behaviour ranging from lower-order thinking skills to higher-order thinking skills of advanced learners) i.e. remembering, conceptual understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Therefore, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson, the teachers must differentiate the content by creating activities for each group of students covering different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  2. Process: Every student has a preferred style of learning, and successful differentiation allows the delivery of instruction to different mediums of learning (we are not advocating for learning styles!): auditory learners, visual, verbal and kinesthetic learners. This process-related strategy also considers the fact that each student demands a different amount of support from the instructor, and they may choose to work individually, in groups or pairs. Carol Ann Tomlinson believes that teachers may improve learning by providing support based on the individual needs of each student. The universal thinking framework enables teachers to design different learning journeys that achieve the same goal. Instead of using generic strategies for everyone, teachers can move pupils from an introductory level to a more advanced understanding of the content using the learning actions. Advanced learners can be stretched and challenged using the red icons that indicate higher-order thinking.
  3. Product: After completing a lesson, the students create a product to show content mastery. It may be in the form of reports, projects, tests or any other activity. For example, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson, the teachers may ask students to complete activities to show mastery of maths lessons as preferred by the students, depending upon their preferred learning style.
  4. learning environment: The optimal learning conditions include both psychological and physical elements. A differentiated classroom layout is crucial, including a wide range of arrangements and classroom furniture to support both personal and group work. Carol Ann Tomlinson states that to support students' psychological wellbeing, teachers must use that classroom management and teaching strategies that promote a supportive and safe learning environment.

10 differentiation strategies
10 differentiation strategies

What are some of the most popular Differentiation Strategies used in a classroom?

There are several broad differentiation strategies that can be used across different subject areas. Differentiation begins from the students' essential understandings, prior knowledge assessment and skills and through individual learning objectives. It is suggested that the success criteria and the respective learning objectives must be shared with the students. This fosters self-regulation, metacognition and empowers learners to control their learning progress. Following are some of the most effective differentiation strategies used in a differentiated classroom:

  • Ongoing, formative assessment: Teachers need to continually assess and identify students’ areas of need and strengths so they can modify their teaching style and help students to move forward.
  • Response to Intervention: This is a very effective focused differentiation strategy, which is normally implemented as a whole school implementation technique. This multi-layered approach to classroom learning allows teachers to identify individual learner abilities and help to provide additional instruction to the students who may take advantage of teaching in more targeted settings.
  • Recognition of diverse students: Each student has a diverse level of expertise and experience with reading, writing, speaking, thinking and problem-solving. Ongoing assessments are the most common strategies that allow teachers to adjusting content and plan differentiated instruction strategies to fulfil every students’ needs.
  • Explicit Teaching: In explicit teaching, the differentiation focus remains on offering students a strong conceptual understanding of new ideas and knowledge and opportunities for individual and group practice. The phases of this strategy, frequently simplified to "I do, we do, you do", offer numerous opportunities to differentiation. In the phase of "we do," teachers model the new knowledge application, they can evaluate the conceptual understanding level, give feedback to the students, design targeted interventions and offer further support to the entire class. In the phase of "you do," teachers may walk in the classroom and offer individual feedback, invite individual auditory learners for conferencing, and create small groups for differentiated instruction.
  • Group Work: This is a student focused differentiation strategy in which learners collaborate in small groups and pairs and the members of the group may change as needed. Learning in groups is a focused strategy that allows learners to learn and observe from each other and to engage in meaningful conversations.
  • Feedback: Feedback has a major role in differentiation. Actionable and timely feedback allows learners to identify the next stages needed to enhance their basic learning. Individualised feedback, alongside the clear success criteria and learning intentions may promote self-regulation. Here the differentiation focus remains on the advanced learners' feedback, which may also help regular students to show a deep understanding of the success criteria and what advanced learners may do to improve their essential understandings, level of competency and learning process.
  • Problem Solving: The main focus of the lesson plan with differentiated instruction remains on the concepts and issues, rather than the chapter or “the book.” This motivates learners to explore big ideas and improve their knowledge of key concepts.
  • Flipped Classroom: Within the flipped classroom, the learning phase of direct instruction occurs online or at students' homes. For example, students may access their content (mostly in the form of videos composed by their maths teachers) anywhere and at any time. A flipped classroom experience offers great opportunities for differentiation as it allows teachers to spend more of their free time in the classroom with their students. Teachers may spend their free classroom time addressing a group or individual needs or providing feedback to the students. Students may also forge ahead, learn to self-regulate or spend time to improve their level of competency and revise the level of complexity of content that needs revision.
  • Choice: Teachers may use 'Choice' as a focus strategy and leave it to students to decide what do they wish to read or write in the projects and tasks they complete. While engaging students in this student focused differentiation strategy, teachers may change different aspects of content leading to continuous improvement in students and create motivating assignments according to students' varied interests, level of competency and diverse needs.

Differentiate by designing different learning processes
Differentiate by designing different learning processes


Differentiation in your classroom

The most effective teachers may use evidence of differentiation focus, knowledge about individual student learning profiles, students' ability levels, basic learning progress and their learning readiness, to make changes in different aspects of content such as level of complexity and lesson planning to ensure that each student must experience success, challenge and improved learning. A student focused differentiation strategy allows teachers to tailor instruction to fulfil individual needs. In conjunction with focus strategies of process, content, learning environment or product, the teachers may use other approaches such as flexible grouping and ongoing assessment to make differentiation a successful instructional strategy. If you are using an inquiry-based learning or project-based learning pedagogy, you might want to look at the block building methodology. This learning strategy helps students develop deep conceptual understanding within a playful environment. This innovative method is also a good example of a differentiated instruction strategy. Advanced learners can take their knowledge in different directions whilst pupils working at introductory levels can move through the task at their own pace. This strategy is not just for kinaesthetic learners (we now understand so much more about learning styles), the colour-coded nature of the strategy helps children to organise their thinking which produces rich dialogue.

Personalising learning using the block building pedagogy
Personalising learning using the block building pedagogy