Differentiation refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Differentiation is commonly used in “heterogeneous grouping”—an educational strategy in which students of different abilities, learning needs, and levels of academic achievement are grouped together. In heterogeneously grouped classrooms, for example, teachers vary instructional strategies and use more flexibly designed lessons to engage student interests and address distinct learning needs—all of which may vary from student to student. The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations.
Teachers who employ differentiated instructional strategies will usually adjust the elements of a lesson from one group of students to another, so that those who may need more time or a different teaching approach to grasp a concept get the specialized assistance they need, while those students who have already mastered a concept can be assigned a different learning activity or move on to a new concept or lesson. In more diverse classrooms, teachers will tailor lessons to address the unique needs of special-education students, high-achieving students, and English-language learners, for example. Teachers also use strategies such as formative assessment—periodic, in-process evaluations of what students are learning or not learning—to determine the best instructional approaches or modifications needed for each student.Also called “differentiated instruction,” differentiation typically entails modifications to practice (how teachers deliver instruction to students), process (how the lesson is designed for students), products (the kinds of work products students will be asked to complete), content (the specific readings, research, or materials students will study), assessment (how teachers measure what students have learned), and grouping (how students are arranged in the classroom or paired up with other students). Differentiation techniques may also be based on specific student attributes, including interest (what subjects inspire students to learn), readiness (what students have learned and still need to learn), or learning preference (the ways in which students like to learn material best).
Differentiation vs. Scaffolding
As a general instructional strategy, differentiation shares may similarities with scaffolding, which refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. Because differentiation and scaffolding techniques are used to achieve similar instructional goals—i.e., moving student learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be—the two approaches may be blended together in some classrooms to the point of being indistinguishable. That said, the two approaches are distinct in several ways. When teachers differentiate instruction, they might give some students an entirely different reading (to better match their reading level and ability), give the entire class the option to choose from among several texts (so each student can pick the one that interests them most), or give the class several options for completing a related assignment (for example, the students might be allowed to write a traditional essay, draw an illustrated essay in comic-style form, create a slideshow “essay” with text and images, or deliver an oral presentation). Alternatively, when teachers scaffold instruction, they typically break up a learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then give students the assistance they need to learn each part. For example, teachers may give students an excerpt of a longer text to read, engage them in a discussion of the excerpt to improve their understanding of its purpose, and teach them the vocabulary they need to comprehend the text before assigning them the full reading.
The following comparison chart will help illustrate the differentiation concept and its major component strategies:
|Element||Traditional Example||Differentiated Example|
|Practice||A math teacher explains how to calculate slope to the entire class and gives students fifteen problems to practice.||A math teacher pre-tests students to determine their understanding of critical mathematical skills and then arranges students into groups based on their learning progress and understanding. Some students work online to practice the skills, some work in groups with the teacher, and some work individually with occasional teacher support.|
|Process||In an art class, students complete the following activities in order: write an artist statement, critique a peer’s work, and then compile artifacts for a portfolio of their art.||Students determine the order in which they will write an artist statement, critique a peer’s work, and compile artifacts for a portfolio of work. Some tasks can be done at home and some in class, and some can be done collaboratively and some individually.|
|Products||In a social studies class, students write a four-page essay arguing a position related to free speech that uses supporting evidence drawn from historical and contemporary sources.||Students may elect to write an essay, op-ed, or persuasive speech, or they may create a short documentary arguing a position related to free speech that uses supporting evidence drawn from historical and contemporary sources.|
|Content||In English class, students read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and discuss the messages it conveys about race and racism in the United States.||Students choose between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Invisible Man to discuss different messages about race and racism in the United States. The three groups share their knowledge with each other.|
|Assessment||In a math class, students take an exam and are given a percentage grade based on how many answers were correct.||Students take an exam and receive feedback on which mathematics standards they have mastered, which standards they are making progress on, and which standards need more attention. The feedback suggests remedies for students with learning gaps and new projects for students who have mastered all the required skills and knowledge.|
|Grouping||Students are either grouped as a full class or they work independently most of the time.||Teachers use grouping strategies to address distinct learning needs. Students may be working independently, in small groups, in pairs, or using technology. Some groupings are by choice and some are assigned based on common learning needs. Some groupings or individual students work closely with the teacher and others have more independence.|
|Interest||In a social studies class, the teacher assigns a single topic, such as the Civil War, for a unit or project, and all students research the same historical event.||The teacher poses a question, such as “Why do nations go to war?” Students may select a military conflict that interests them most and address the question in different ways—for example, one student may choose to read historical literature about World War II, while another student may research films about the Vietnam War.|
|Readiness||In an English course, the teacher plans out the course topics and reading assignments in advance, and all students work through the same series of readings, lessons, and projects at the same pace.||The teacher evaluates students to determine what they already know, and then designs lessons and projects that allow students to learn at different levels of difficulty, complexity, or independence. For example, teachers may determine reading levels and then assign a variety of texts, reflecting different degrees of difficulty, to ensure an appropriate level of reading challenge for each student.|
|Learning Preference||In a math course, every student receives the same problems and assignments, which are all structured in the same way.||The teacher assigns a topic: solving quadratic equations. Some students choose to work with a software program that uses visual representations and simulations, other students work in teams and solve a series of problems from a book that increase in difficulty, and still others watch an online tutorial that can be viewed multiple times until the concept becomes clear.|
Differentiation plays into ongoing debates about equity and “academic tracking” in public schools. One major criticism of the approach is related to the relative complexities and difficulties entailed in teaching diverse types of students in a single classroom or educational setting. Since effective differentiation requires more sophisticated and highly specialized instructional methods, teachers typically need adequate training, mentoring, and professional development to ensure they are using differentiated instructional techniques appropriately and effectively. Some teachers also argue that the practical realities of using differentiation—especially in larger classes comprising students with a wide range of skill levels, academic preparation, and learning needs—can be prohibitively difficult or even infeasible.
Yet other educators argue that this criticism stems, at least in part, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategy. In her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, the educator and writer Carol Ann Tomlinson, who is considered an authority on differentiation, points out a potential source of confusion: “Differentiated instruction is not the “Individualized Instruction” of the 1970s.” In other words, differentiation is the practice of varying instructional techniques in a classroom to effectively teach as many students as possible, but it does not entail the creation of distinct courses of study for every student (i.e., individualized instruction). The conflation of “differentiated instruction” and “individualized instruction” has likely contributed to ongoing confusion and debates about differentiation, particularly given that the terms are widely and frequently used interchangeably.