What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction (DI) is the way in which teachers anticipate and respond to a variety of competing and disparate student needs in the classroom. To meet these differing student needs, teachers differentiate by modifying the content (what is being taught), the process (how it is taught) and the product (how students demonstrate their learning).

DI is an approach that takes its philosophy from the root of its name: different. Every theoretical classroom of 25 students will have 25 different combinations of personality, interests, learning styles and background knowledge about that content area. A differentiated classroom presents these students with choices in terms of how to learn concepts, how to practice the concepts, and how to show the teacher that they know it.

In teaching, one size does not fit all.

Differentiated instruction (DI) is not new. Concern for attending to the needs of particular students is captured in writings about teaching in ancient Greece and Egypt, in descriptions of life in the one-room schoolhouse and in every instance where instructional plans are adjusted to better meet the needs of an individual learner. 

Planning for DI can feel overwhelming at first, but most teachers differentiate teaching and learning naturally and intuitively, adjusting teaching for a class and for individuals during as needed. Implementing DI seems to be more time-consuming at first, but DI is widely considered best practice as it seeks to meet the needs of all students.

Assessment For Learning (AFL) to understand what each student already knows and can do, what each should learn next, and how each best shows what each have learned, is an integral component of differentiated instruction.

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, an experienced classroom teacher and one of America's outstanding thought leaders in developing K12 classrooms that provide effective instruction for academically diverse student populations and an expert in differentiated instruction, argues that teachers use Assessment For Learning. She states that it is "really a compass for daily planning."

Lorna Earl, a Canadian educator and author, says in one of her books that if teachers have clear learning targets in mind and assess to understand where students are relative to those goals at a given time, differentiation will no longer look like an “extra,” but rather will be the next logical step.
She said, "Formative assessment is equivalent to tests a doctor runs to know what to do next. The tests aren’t ever 100% reliable, but they lead to way better results than just diagnosing by hunch. So, formative assessment helps us plan for instruction more intelligently, which helps students learn better from their varied entry points – and it’s a reminder of the need for differentiation."

Organizing instruction based on Inquiry Learning and transdicisplinary IntegratedCurriculum techniques would seem to be the easiest way to incorporate Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Assessment for Learning (AFL). Dr. Carol AnnTomlinson writes that in order to differentiate curriculum effectively, it is crucial that learning goals are crystal clear. She recommends that learning goals be stated in a KUD format, that we articulate our goals in terms of what we want students to Know, Understand, and be able to Do as a result of a unit of study.

The “Know” goals represent facts and procedural knowledge, such as know the steps in solving the quadratic equation or know the names and locations of all continents and major bodies of water. The “Do” goals represent skills and are transferable to other contexts such as: write persuasively for a given topic and specified audience, or compare andc ontrast similarities and differences of two civilizations. The “Understand” goals are known as “big ideas,” “essential understandings,” or generalizations, and represent ideas that are transferable to other contexts (e.g. time, cultures, situations).

This organization of learning goals is remarkably similiar to and consistent with Inquiry Learning planning tools and templates. 

Read more about differentiation or download the document, The 2010 Differentiated Instruction Educator’s Package, Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, by clicking on the link below:


Read more about differentiation or download the document, Differentiated Instruction Educator’s Package - Facilitator’s Guide – Assessment For Learning, Ontario Ministry of Education, 2009, by clicking on the link below:


Key Principles of Differentiation


by Carol Ann Tomlinson

Copyright 2012


Great teaching happens when the teacher says, "And I’ll dowhatever it takes to make it work for every student!" That’s what differentiation is about - the determination to connect the best content with each learner in a way that changes his or her life for the better.

Every key principle of differentiated instruction exists for that purpose - to connect the best content with each learner - and should be used in a way that works toward that end. There are four (4) key principles. They are:

1. An environment that actively supports student success

  • Growth mindset teaching
  • Teacher student connections
  • Community
  • High quality curriculum
  • Clear KUDs (Know, Understand, Do)
  • Focus on student understanding
  • A plan to engage learners
  • Respectful tasks
  • Teaching up

2. Assessment to inform instruction

  • Pre- and formative assessment
  • Aligned with KUDs (Know, Understand, Do)
  • Used by teacher and student to build to success
  • Practice to support a growth mindset
  • 3-P grading (performance, process, product)

3. Responsive Instruction

  • Aligned to KUDs (Know, Undesrstand, Do)
  • Informed by assessment
  • Addressing readiness, interest, learning profile
  • Multiple strategies
  • Flexible grouping

4. Flexible Management

  • Leadership
  • Routines

Differentiation: A teacher’s Response To a Learner’s Needs

Effective differentiated instruction requires educators to take thoughtful and deliberate actions to address the particular needs of students. Differentiated instruction allows teachers to see learning from a variety of perspectives and provides countless, unexpected teachable moments that may otherwise be missed.

There are clear, underlying principles for Differentiated Instruction. Differentiated instruction is a cyclical process of finding out about the learner and responding by differentiating. As teachers continue to learn more about the learner, they respond by differentiating instruction with increased precision and effectiveness.

As Carol Ann Tomlinson says, however one conceives it, every lesson plan should be, at its heart, a motivational plan. According to young learners are motivated and engaged by a variety of conditions. Among those are:

  • novelty
  • cultural significance
  • personal relevance or passion
  • emotional connection
  • product focus
  • choice
  • the potential to make a contribution or
  • link with something greater than self.

To read and/or download the rest of Dr. Tomlinson's slideshow, click on the link below:


Teach to Students' Analytic, Creative, and Practical Abilities

In order to improve student learning, Dr. Tomlinson also advises classroom teachers to teach "triarchically," which means to teach students how to analyze, do, and create.

• Some of the time, teach analyically, helping students learn to analyze, evaluate, contrast, critque and judge.

• Some of the time, teach practically, helping students learn to apply, use, utllize, textualize, implement, and put into practice.

• Some of the time, teach creatively, helping students learn to create, invent, imagine, explore, and suppose.

• Much of the time, enable all students to capitalize on their strengths.

• Most of the time, enable all students to correct or compensate for their weaknesses.

• Make sure your assessments match your teaching, calling upon analytical, creative and practical as well as memory skills.

• Value the diverse patterns of abilities in all students.

Tomlinson's recommendation is based to some extent on Robert J Sternberg's general theory of intelligence, the triarchic theory (1981, 1988, 1993). Sternberg's theory, outlined in his seminal work, The Triarchic Mind: A New Theory of Intelligence (NY: Viking Press, 1988), states that intelligence consists of three fundamental aspects: analytical abilities, creative abilities, and practical abilities. 

Analytical ability (componential intelligence) is essentially critical thinking and problem-solving. It is what intelligence tests typically measure and thus what our current education system emphasizes and rewards. Creative ability (experiential intelligence) is the capacity to generate new ideas and new ways to solve problems. Practical ability (contextual intelligence) is one’s ability to understand what is needed in a given situation and respond effectively to the circumstances. To sum the three parts up, think of it like this: “You need creative intelligence to come up with an idea, analytical intelligence to know if it’s a good idea, and practical intelligence to sell it.”

Sternberg's theory broadens our understanding of what intelligence really is. It is not an entirely new idea. There is a close link to that of Aristotle’s 2,300-year-old premise that intelligence is composed of three aspects: theoretical, practical, and productive intelligence.

Sternberg's research suggests that his view of education has clear implications for classroom teaching. His research studies show that many students can learn more effectively if they are taught in a way that better matches their patterns of abilities. Teaching for what he calls successful intelligence provides a way to create such a match. It involves helping all students capitalize on their strengths and compensate for or correct their weaknesses. (Sternberg, Successful Intelligence In The Classroom, The Ohio State University, 2004.)

In his book, Talk About Assessment: Strategies to Improve Learning (Nelson Canada, 2006), Damian Cooper, a Canadian educational consultant, recommends a similar approach to teaching and assessment. Cooper states that an accurate and fair picture of student learning must be based on the "triangulation of data." This means that assessment must consist of three types of assessment: write, say, & do. This recommendation has since been fine-tuned to four types: write, say, make, & do.

Teaching triarchically also means being extremely selective about the material taught. The book, Intelligence, Instruction, and Assessment: Theory Into Practice, 1998, edited by Robert J Sternberg and Wendy M. Williams, states that students learn better when teachers are more selective about what they teach and make clear to students what is really worth learning. In Ontario we call these learning goals. Damian Cooper and Carol Ann Tomlinson are in agreement with Sternberg's viewpoint.

If you want to read more of Carol Ann Tomlinson's slide show or download it, please click here:


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