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Not All Students Getting the Same, But All Students Getting What They Need

If you have ever worked with children, whether as a parent, a teacher or a coach, you know that meeting a child at their level of success is essential to an effective learning experience.  What does this have to do with differentiated instruction? Let’s see.

Differentiated Defined

The definition begins with this: Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need. Approaching all learners the same academically doesn't work. We have to start where each child is in his learning process in order to authentically meet his academic needs and help him grow. With a classroom full of children at different stages of learning, this certainly sounds overwhelming, I know-but it is doable if you prepare appropriately.

Essential to this process are pre-assessments and ongoing assessments. These assessments provide information and feedback to both the teacher and the student. 

You may be thinking, “You want me to do what!!! But I have 30 students!  How can I possibly do it? Where do I begin? I don’t have time for that amount of planning! How CAN I do this?????”

The idea of differentiating instruction can be overwhelming, but it can be done.  In this post, we will begin with an explanation of what it is. Later posts will address the how.

What it is and What it is not

First, let’s clarify what we are talking about by looking at what differentiation is Not and, then, what it IS. Teaching and Non- teaching examples, when presenting a new concept help to eliminate confusion on the part of the learner. How would we truly know what joy is if we had never experienced sorrow?  How we would know if something were soft, if we had never felt something that was hard? Teaching and Not Teaching examples should always be used when introducing new concepts to students- adult or child.

What it is not

Differentiated Instruction is not:

  • Assigning more work at the same level to high-achieving students.
  • Requiring students to teach material they have mastered to others who have not mastered it.
  • Giving all students the same work most of the time.
  • Grouping students into cooperative learning groups that do not provide for individual accountability or do not focus on work that is new to all students.
  • Focusing on student weaknesses, ignoring student strengths.
  • Using only the differences in student responses to the same class assignment to provide differentiation. Class assignments are only ONE way to monitor student progress and assess student needs.

What it is

Differentiated Instruction is:

  • Providing multiple assignments within each unit, tailored for students of different levels of achievement. Some students might receive an assignment to write 3 sentences about a topic, another group, however, could be provided a graphic organizer with sentence stems to complete
  • Allowing students to choose, with the teacher's guidance, ways to learn and how to demonstrate what they have learned. We can provide choices that include: art, writing, speaking, or group presentations
  • Permitting students to opt out of material they already know and progress at their own pace through new material.

Why Differentiate?

Differentiation, when implemented well, will help prevent children from making errors during the learning process. If while teaching a new concept we did not have to stop teaching to correct students’ mistakes, we would gain immeasurable academic time to actually instruct!  In addition, stopping to correct student errors often causes other students to go off task.  Differentiated Instruction reduces the need to stop and correct. 

We also know those children who do not do well instructionally are also often those same children who have behavioral issues. Good instruction—and differentiated instruction is good instruction-reduces behavioral issues.

In Charlotte Danielson’s work, differentiating instruction is referred to as "flexibility and responsiveness". These terms are further defined as the “teacher’s skill in making adjustments in a lesson to respond to changing conditions.” When a lesson is well-planned, and possible mistakes are actually planned for ahead of time, there may be no need for changes during the course of the lesson itself. Shifting the approach in midstream is not always necessary: In fact, with experience comes skill in accurately predicting how lessons will go and being prepared for different possible scenarios. But even the most skilled and best prepared teachers will occasionally find either the lesson is not proceeding as they would like or a teachable moment has presented itself. They are ready for such situations. Furthermore, teachers committed to the learning of all students persist in their attempts to engage them in learning even when confronted with initial setbacks.


Differentiated Instruction is an effective tool in the meeting the needs of learners. Teachers are often overwhelmed with the feeling that they have to do it all and do it right away.  It is not a question of doing it all and doing it now. The important thing is to start.  Starting means:

  • Assessing and planning
  • Reflecting on what happened in the classroom
  • Observing how students responded (collecting data)
  • Adjusting instruction as needed moving forward

Applying what you learn to your instruction will not only affect how your students learn, but how you teach.

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