“Differentiating instruction means creating multiple paths so that students of different abilities, interest or learning needs experience equally appropriate ways to absorb, use, develop and present concepts as a part of the daily learning process ... it is now recognized to be an important tool for engaging students and addressing the individual needs of all students. (Enhance Learning with Technology, 2008)” (Robinson, 2008).

In the traditional model of education, the teacher teaches the whole class using the same methods and evaluation. This often leaves some students behind while others may feel uninterested or unchallenged. The goal of differentiating instruction is to focus on the students and to respond to their learning needs.

Every classroom has students “who span the spectrum of learning readiness, personal interests, culturally shaped ways of seeing and speaking of the world, and experiences in that world” (Tomlinson, pg.1) and classroom instruction should reflect these differences. As educators it is our responsibility to engage all of our students and maximize learning in the classroom. Teachers use ongoing assessment as a diagnostic tool in order to determine where students are in their learning and how best to modify the instruction.

There are several elements that can be differentiated based in readiness, interests and learning preferences:
  • Content: What students will learn
  • Process: Activities and teaching methods
  • Products: Demonstration of learning and knowledge
  • Affect/Environment: Physical or emotional environment in which learning takes place

Some general strategies for engaging students using differentiated instruction include allowing for students choice in content, process or assessment and taking ownership of learning, appropriate use of flexible groupings (based on readiness, interests or learning preferences), connecting course material to student interests and varying delivery methods in order to appeal to different learning styles.

Backwards design is a useful tool when approaching DI. By first clustering and selecting the expectations, the teacher ensures that several key learning expectations and skills are clearly determined from the curriculum expectations before the teacher develops the evaluation and instructional methods to address various student needs and interests within the classroom.

This is not a method where every lesson is modified for each individual student, but rather the students are offered different paths from which to attain the same expectations. Some lessons the instructor may still decide that a unified approach is most advantageous for learning. It is also important to note that, unless a student has an IEP, the curriculum expectations are not altered but rather the delivery method is developed and accommodated to engage the most students possible within the class.

An overview of differentiated instruction and strategies by Carol Ann Tomlinson:


Case/Intermediate Connection:
In our case study Mrs. Brown is addressing a mixed-level class of grade 7 students entering a junior high school. Differentiated instruction is good practice in classrooms of any grade. However, students at this age are also undergoing rapid physical, emotional and intellectual growth and, students in this particular case are experiencing the adjustments involved in changing schools. These are therefore very important years in the students’ development and it is essential that the teacher recognizes these difficulties and changes and supports the students’ learning needs.

Web Resources:

Bush, Mary Amber. 2003. Differentiated Educational Strategies in the Elementary Art Classroom. Retrieved from https://digarchive.library.vcu.edu/bitstream/handle/10156/1640/bushma_thesis.pdf?sequence=1

Robinson, Shelley. 2008. Literature Review of k-12 Fine Arts Programs. Retrieved from http://education.alberta.ca/media/900551/promising.pdf

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. 1999. The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Google Books. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=8IJTzhv66ccC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

EduGAINS. 2009. Reach Every Student Through Differentiated Instruction: Grades 7&8. Retreived from http://www.edugains.ca/resourcesDI/Brochures/7&8DIBrochureRevised09.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education. 2005. TIPS4RM: Developing Mathematical Literacy. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/studentsuccess/lms/files/tips4rm/TIPS4RMDevMathLit.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education. 2011. Learning for All: A Guide to Effective Assessment and Instruction for All Students, Kindergarten to Grade 12. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/LearningforAll2011.pdf