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Brain research confirms what experienced teachers have always known:
  • No two children are alike. 
  • No two children learn in the identical way. 
  • An enriched environment for one student is not necessarily enriched for another. 
  • In the classroom we should teach children to think for themselves. 

Marian Diamond


Consequently, it necessarily follows that although essential curricula goals may be similar for all students, methodologies employed in a classroom must be varied to suit to the individual needs of all children: ie. learning must be differentiated to be effective.  

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 allows students to take greater responsibility and ownership for their own learning, and provides opportunities for peer teaching and cooperative learning.

Differentiating is not new, the concept has been around for at least 2 decades for gifted and talented students. (Also see Instructional strategies for G&T). However, it is now recognized to be an important tool for engaging students and addressing the individual needs of all students. Differentiating instruction is also an essential tool for integrating technology into classroom activities. The most difficult and least effective way to integrate technology is to consistently take all students in to the computer lab to work on the same activities at the same time, and this may well be true for many other subjects. This is not to say that some activities are not appropriate for all students at some times. In the interest of expediency, it is sometimes most appropriate to conduct some whole group instruction. What is important is to recognize that this is just one of many strategies and it is most effective when used at the appropriate time for common needs such as the introduction to a new learning unit.

There are generally several students in any classroom who are working below or above grade level and these levels of readiness will vary between different subjects in school. It is important to offer students learning tasks that are appropriate to their learning needs rather than just to the grade and subject being taught. This means providing 3 or 4 different options for students in any given class (not 35 different options). Readiness (ability), learning styles and interest vary between students and even within an individual over time. In a differentiated classroom all students have equally engaging learning tasks.

In preparation for differentiating, the teacher diagnoses the difference in readiness, interests and learning style of all students in the class, using a variety of performance indicators.

For the teacher who is beginning to differentiate learning in the classroom, differentiation may begin by varying the content, processes or product for each group in the class. As the teacher becomes more proficient using these techniques, differentiation can occur at all 3 stages of the process for some students. This is especially appropriate for the more able students. The essential curricula concepts may be the same for all students but the complexity of the content, learning activities and/or products will vary so that all students are challenged and no students are frustrated.

Students with specific needs/weaknesses should be presented with learning activities that offer opportunities for developing needed skills as well as opportunities to display individual strengths. More advanced students may work on activities with inherently higher level thinking requirements and greater complexity.

Four Ways to Differentiate Instruction:

Differentiation can occur in the content, process, product or environment in the classroom.

1. Differentiating the Content/Topic

Content can be described as the knowledge, skills and attitudes we want children to learn. Differentiating content requires that students are pre-tested so the teacher can identify the students who do not require direct instruction. Students demonstrating understanding of the concept can skip the instruction step and proceed to apply the concepts to the task of solving a problem. This strategy is often referred to as compacting the curriculum. Another way to differentiate content is simply to permit the apt student to accelerate their rate of progress. They can work ahead independently on some projects, i.e. they cover the content faster than their peers.

2. Differentiating the Process/Activities

Differentiating the processes means varying learning activities or strategies to provide appropriate methods for students to explore the concepts. It is important to give students alternative paths to manipulate the ideas embedded within the concept. For example students may use graphic organizers, maps, diagrams or charts to display their comprehension of concepts covered. Varying the complexity of the graphic organizer can very effectively facilitate differing levels of cognitive processing for students of differing ability.

3. Differentiating the Product

Differentiating the product means varying the complexity of the product  (http://www.rogertaylor.com/reference/Product-Grid.pdf) that students create to demonstrate mastery of the concepts. Students working below grade level may have reduced performance expectations, while students above grade level may be asked to produce work that requires more complex or more advanced thinking. There are many sources of alternative product ideas available to  teachers. However sometimes it is motivating for students to be offered choice of product.

4. Diffferentiating By Manipulating The Environment or Through Accommodating Individual Learning Styles

There has been a great deal of work on  learning styles over the last 2 decades. Dunn and Dunn (http://www.learningstyles.net/) focused on manipulating the school environment at about the same time as Joseph Renzulli recommended varying teaching strategies. Howard Gardner identified individual talents or aptitudes in his Multiple Intelligences theories.  Based on the works of Jung, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (http://partners.mce.be/wbt/mbti/personal.htm) and Kersley's Temperament Sorter focused on understanding how people's personality affects the way they interact personally, and how this affects the way individuals respond to each other within the learning environment. The work of David Kolb and Anthony Gregorc's Type Delineator follows a similar but more simplified approach.

Even though these approaches look at learning styles in vastly different ways they all have merit for some children. However, an amalgamation or blending of these concepts is probably more effective than any one approach.  The Dunn and Dunn approach would be most effectively applied in a building designed to accommodate environmental changes. Many classrooms offer limited opportunities to change the lighting or sound levels, to eliminate visual distracters, or to provide a more casual seating arrangement for students. Varying teaching strategies makes sure that students will occasionally learn in a manner compatible with their own learning preference but also expands their repertoire of  alternative learning strategies in turn. The Multiple Intelligences Theory is very helpful for helping teachers recognize that students have differing aptitude in different subject areas, but it still requires the application of the kinds of learning strategies listed here to be effective. The MBTI and Gregorc's Style Delineator help teachers recognize how personality differences can either enhance or distract from communication between individuals.

The most significant issue relating to learning styles  is the paradigm shift in education in recent years. This paradigm shift is illustrated in the way that curriculum is presently defined in the most recent programs of studies.  Curriculum is no longer defined in terms of what a teacher will teach but rather in terms of what a student will be able to demonstrate. If we are to be responsible for what a child learns then it is essential that we understand what (s)he knew at the beginning and how to move him/her forward from that point in a successful manner. This means we need to understanding how each student learns best.   It also means that we need to build on what they already know.

Within these four ways for differentiating there are embedded many learning strategies which are used in conjunction with each other.  

Since April 26th 2004


P Theroux, Teacher,
 Alberta, Canada

Updated 11/16/2011


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