How to Differentiate Instruction 
in Mixed-Ability Classrooms

by Carol Ann Tomlinson

What Differentiated Instruction Is And Isn't

Kids of the same age aren't all alike when it comes to learning, any more than they are alike in terms of size, hobbies, personality, or likes and dislikes. Children do have many things in common because they are human beings and because they are all children, but they also have important differences. What we share in common makes us human. How we differ makes us individuals. In a classroom with little or no differentiated instruction, only student similarities seem to take center stage. In a differentiated classroom, commonalities are acknowledged and built upon, and student differences become important elements in teaching and learning as well.

At its most basic level, differentiating instruction means "shaking up" what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products.

In many classrooms, the approach to teaching and learning is more unitary than differentiated. For example, 1st graders may listen to a story and then draw a picture about what they learned. While they may choose to draw different facets of the story, they all experienced the same content, and they all had the same sense-making or processing activity. A kindergarten class may have four centers that all students visit to complete the same activities in a week's time. Fifth graders may all listen to the same explanation about fractions and complete the same homework assignment. Middle school or high school students may sit through a lecture and a video to help them understand a topic in science or history. They will all read the same chapter, take the same notes, complete the same lab or end-of-chapter questions, and take the same quiz. Such classrooms are familiar, typical, and largely undifferentiated.

Most teachers (as well as students and parents) have clear mental images of undifferentiated classrooms. After experiencing undifferentiated instruction over many years, it is often difficult to imagine what a differentiated classroom would look and feel like. How, educators wonder, can we make the shift from "single-size instruction" to differentiated instruction so we can better meet our students' diverse needs? Answering this question first requires clearing away some misperceptions.

What Differentiated Instruction is NOT

Differentiated instruction is Not the "Individualized Instruction" of the 1970s.

We were probably onto something important in the '70s when we experimented with what we then called individualized instruction. At least we understood that students have different learning profiles and that there is merit in meeting students where they are and helping them move on from there. One flaw in the '70s approach was that we tried doing something different for all 30-plus students in a single classroom. When each student had a different reading assignment, it didn't take long for teachers to become exhausted. A second flaw was that in order to "match" each student's precise entry level, we chopped up instruction into skill fragments, thereby making learning fragmented and largely irrelevant. While it is true that differentiated instruction offers several avenues to learning, it does not assume a separate level for each learner. It also focuses on meaningful learning or powerful ideas for all students.

Differentiated instruction is Not chaotic.

Most teachers remember the recurrent nightmare (and periodic reality!) from their first year of teaching: losing control of student behavior. A benchmark of teacher development is the point at which the teacher has become secure and comfortable with classroom management. Fear of losing control of student behavior is a major obstacle for many teachers in establishing a flexible classroom. Teachers who differentiate instruction quickly point out that, if anything, they exert more control in their classroom, not less. Compared with teachers who offer a single approach to learning, teachers who differentiate instruction have to manage and monitor many activities simultaneously. And they still must help students in developing ground rules for behavior, give and monitor specific directions for activities, and direct the sequence of events in each learning experience. Effective differentiated classrooms include purposeful student movement and some purposeful student talking. They are not disorderly or undisciplined.

Differentiated instruction is Not just another way to provide homogeneous grouping.

Our memories of undifferentiated classrooms probably include the bluebird, cardinal, and buzzard reading groups. Typically, a buzzard remained a buzzard, and a cardinal was forever a cardinal. Under this system, buzzards nearly always worked with buzzards on skills-focused tasks, while work done by cardinals was typically at "higher levels" of thought. In addition to being predictable, student assignments to groups was virtually always teacher-selected.

A hallmark of an effective differentiated classroom, by contrast, is the use of flexible grouping, which accommodates students who are strong in some areas and weaker in others. For example, a student may be great at interpreting literature, but not so strong in spelling, or great with map skills and not as quick at grasping patterns in history, or quick with math word problems but careless with computation. The teacher who uses flexible grouping also understands that some students may begin a new task slowly, and then launch ahead at remarkable speed, while others will learn, but more slowly. This teacher knows that sometimes she needs to assign students to groups so that assignments are tailored to student need, but that in other instances, it makes more sense for students to form their own working groups. She sees that some students prefer or benefit from independent work, while others usually fare best with pairs or triads. In a differentiated classroom, the teacher uses many different group configurations over time, and students experience many different working groups and arrangements. "Fluid" is a good word to describe assignment of students to groups in such a heterogeneous classroom. In the older, "three groups approach" to instruction, student assignment to tasks was more fixed.

Differentiated instruction is Not just "tailoring the same suit of clothes."

Many teachers think that they differentiate instruction when they ask some students to answer more complex questions in a discussion or to share advanced information on a topic, grade some students a little harder or easier on an assignment in response to the students' perceived ability and effort, or let students select which questions to answer or skip on a test. Certainly such modifications reflect a teacher's awareness of differences in student profiles and, to that degree, the modifications are movement in the direction of differentiation. While they are not necessarily ineffective or "bad" strategies on the teacher's part, they are a "micro-differentiation" or "tailoring," and are often just not enough. If the basic assignment itself is far too easy for an advanced learner, having a chance to answer a complex question is not an adequate challenge. If information is essential for a struggling learner, allowing him to skip a test question because he never understood the information is ineffective. If the information in the basic assignment is simply too complex for a learner until she has the chance to assimilate needed background information and skills, being "easier" on her when grading her assignment does not help her in the long run. In sum, trying to stretch a garment that is far too small or attempting to tuck and gather a garment that is far too large is likely to be less effective than getting clothes that are the right fit at a given time.

What Differentiated Instruction Is

Differentiated instruction is Proactive.

In a differentiated classroom, the teacher assumes that different learners have differing needs. Therefore, the teacher proactively plans a variety of ways to "get at" and express learning. He still needs to tailor or fine-tune instruction for individual learners, but because different learning options are available based on his knowledge of varied learner needs, the chances are greater that the learning experiences will provide an appropriate fit for many learners.

Differentiated instruction is more Qualitative than quantitative.

Many teachers incorrectly assume that differentiating instruction means giving some students more work to do, and others less. For example, a teacher might assign two book reports to advanced readers and only one to struggling readers. Or a struggling math student might have to do only the computation problems while advanced math students do the word problems as well. Although such approaches to differentiation may seem to have an adequate rationale, they are typically ineffective. One book report is too much for a struggling learner without additional support in the process of reading as well as interpreting the text. Or a student who could act out the substance of the book effectively might be overwhelmed by writing a three-page report. If writing one book report is "too easy" for the advanced reader, doing "twice as much" of the same thing is not only unlikely to remedy the problem, but it could also seem like punishment. A student who has already demonstrated mastery of one math skill is ready to stop practice related to that skill and begin practice in a subsequent skill. Simply adjusting the quantity of an assignment will generally be less effective than adjusting the nature of the assignment to match student needs as well.

Differentiated instruction provides Multiple approaches to content, process, and product.

In all classrooms, teachers deal with at least three curricular elements: (1) content�input, what students learn; (2) process�how students go about making sense of ideas and information; and (3) product�output, how students demonstrate what they have learned. These elements are so important in differentiating instruction that they are dealt with in depth in Chapters 8, 9, and 10. By differentiating these three elements, teachers offer different approaches to what students learn, how they learn it, and how they demonstrate what they've learned. What these different approaches have in common, however, is that they are crafted to encourage substantial growth in all students.

Differentiated instruction is Student Centered.

Differentiated classrooms operate on the premise that learning experiences are most effective when they are engaging, relevant, and interesting. A corollary to that premise is that all students will not always find the same avenues to learning equally engaging, relevant, and interesting. Further, differentiated instruction acknowledges that later understandings must be built on previous understandings and that not all students possess the same understandings at the outset of a given investigation. Teachers who differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms seek to provide appropriately challenging learning experiences for all their students. These teachers realize that sometimes a task that lacks challenge for some learners is frustratingly complex to others.

Differentiated instruction is A Blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction.

There are times in all classrooms when it is more effective or efficient to share information or use the same activity with the whole class. Such whole-group instruction establishes common understandings and a sense of community for students by sharing discussion and review. As illustrated in Figure 1.1, the pattern of instruction in a differentiated classroom could be represented by mirror images of a wavy line, with students coming together as a whole group to begin a study, moving out to pursue learning in small groups or individually, coming back together to share and make plans for additional investigation, moving out again for more work, coming together again to share or review, and so on.

Differentiated instruction is "Organic."

In a differentiated classroom, students and teachers are learners together. While teachers may know more about the subject matter at hand, they are continuously learning about how their students learn. Teachers assess students' readiness in a variety of ways and then design learning experiences based on their best understanding of students' needs and interests. Ongoing collaboration with students is necessary to refine the learning opportunities so they're effective for each student. Differentiated instruction is dynamic: Teachers monitor the match between learner and learning and make adjustments as warranted. And while teachers are aware that sometimes the learner/learning match is less than ideal, they also understand that they can continually make adjustments. Differentiated instruction often results in more effective matches than does the mode of teaching that insists that one assignment serves all learners well.

A New Image to Keep in Mind

As you continue reading about how to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms, keep this new image in mind:

In a differentiated classroom, the teacher plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs.