Differentiated Teaching Research Papers

This article presents an overview of differentiated instruction, an instructional philosophy that respects and celebrates the varied ways in which individuals learn. Differentiated instruction embraces years of brain research regarding ways in which we learn best and uses this data to inform everyday instructional practice in K-12 classrooms. The central tenet of differentiated instruction is that each individual's learning map is unique and, therefore, a "one size fits all" curriculum and instructional practice will not reach every learner. By differentiating the curriculum elements of content, process and product according to the unique characteristics of each student including readiness level, learning profile and interest, teachers work to ensure success for every learner. Although many differentiated instructional techniques exist, this article directly discusses learning contracts, Role/Audience/ Format/Topic (RAFT), stations, centers, tiered activities and curriculum compacting.

Keywords Anchor Activity; Curriculum Compacting; Flexible Grouping; Formative Assessments; Learning Center; Learning Contract; Learning Profile; Multiple Intelligences; Ongoing Assessment; Readiness; Role/Audience/Format/Topic (RAFT); Pre-Assessment; Stations; Summative Assessments; Tiered Instruction

Teaching Methods: Differentiated Instruction


Differentiated instruction is a philosophy of teaching that stems from the belief that all students are different. Students differ with regard to how they learn best, their strengths and weaknesses, their cultural and family backgrounds, what they are interested in learning about, etc. Differentiated instruction embraces these differences and creates learning opportunities that are respectful of student individuality and uniqueness. Carol Ann Tomlinson, the leading researcher in the field of differentiated instruction, asserts that differentiated instruction integrates what we know about constructivist learning theory, learning styles, and brain development with empirical research on influencing factors of learner readiness, interest, and intelligence preferences (Tomlinson & Allan, 2000).

When differentiating instruction, teachers may choose to differentiate one or more curriculum elements including content, process, and product. Content refers to the actual curriculum objectives for a unit of study or specifically, what teachers expect students to know and be able to do by the end of the unit. Process encompasses the variety of ways that students make sense of key ideas and use essential skills. Products include all vehicles through which students demonstrate and extend what they have learned (Tomlinson & Dockterman, 2002). When differentiating, teachers adapt these core curriculum elements based on one or more student characteristics including readiness, interest, and learning profile at any time in a lesson or unit.


Readiness refers to a student's entry point relative to a particular understanding or skill (Tomlinson, 1999). In any given classroom, there always exists a range of readiness levels. Students who are not quite ready to learn a given concept may need more one-on-one time with a teacher, more deliberate step-by-step instructions, varied activities and final products requiring different skill sets, and more opportunities for direct instruction. Conversely, advanced students might be able to move ahead at a faster pace, follow more complex directions, or even slow down to explore a topic in greater depth (Tomlinson, 1999). When considering readiness levels, teachers ensure that students are successfully and appropriately challenged at a level commensurate with their ability to understand a particular concept at a specific time.

Learning Profile

A student's learning profile is a preferred way of learning which may be influenced by learning style, intelligence preference, gender and culture (Tomlinson & Eidson, 2003). Howard Gardner's research (1983) regarding multiple intelligences serves as a primary force behind helping to differentiate according to the variety of learning styles and intelligences in a classroom. Gardner discusses eight major intelligences including

• Verbal/Linguistic

• Logical/Mathematical

• Visual/Spatial

• Bodily/Kinesthetic

• Musical/Rhythmical

• Naturalist/Environmental

• Interpersonal

• Intrapersonal

Sternberg (1988, 1997) added another element for teachers to consider with research related to analytical, creative, and practical intelligences. When differentiating by learning profile, teachers ensure that students learn through a modality that best matches their strengths.


Teachers may also differentiate content, process or product according to student interest. When students are interested in learning about a topic, they are motivated, eager and enthusiastic about taking advantage of opportunities to explore and add to their knowledge base. By skillfully connecting curriculum to student interest, teachers are able to capitalize on motivation and enthusiasm that may not otherwise be present if a student has little or no interest in a particular topic.

Traditional vs. Differentiated Classrooms

Traditional classrooms tend to "teach to the middle" and use a "one size fits all" model of instruction. When confronted with large class sizes, whole class instruction often seems the easiest methodology to employ and the one type of instruction that most teachers feel comfortable using, as it mirrors how they were taught when younger. When teaching in a "one size fits all" model, teachers pay little attention to individual differences and aim to use as much of the text as possible to ensure coverage of the curriculum. Traditional classrooms employ assessment at the end of the unit and rarely use assessment data to drive instruction on a day to day basis (Tomlinson & Dockterman, 2002). If grouping strategies are used, most often homogeneous ability groups are created with the intention of providing remedial instruction for those students who need extra help and providing challenge for those who need an extra "push." This is most apparent in traditional high school environments where tracking is used for curriculum delivery and students are divided into remedial, regular and honors courses. As Fahey (2000) indicates, this model greatly impacts the quality of instruction provided, creates quite an inequitable structure, and sends a negative message to students regarding expectations for performance.

The differentiated classroom , on the contrary, greatly emphasizes and values student differences. Teachers are sensitive to student learning differences and develop curriculum opportunities that are responsive and appropriately challenging for each individual student. After careful examination of readiness levels, learning profiles and interest, teachers focus on a variety of instructional methodologies that reach each learner and create opportunities for students to make intelligent choices regarding the learning process. Ongoing assessment plays a crucial role and provides invaluable information to teachers as they work from day to day to develop lessons that best meet student needs. The differentiated classroom is responsive (as opposed to reactive) and truly emphasizes and celebrates diversity of learning styles. It does not assume that one student's road map for learning is identical to anyone else's (Tomlinson & Dockterman, 2002).

As American public education moves steadily into the future, students continue to enter classrooms with ever more diverse backgrounds, learning styles, and interests. Orfield and Kurlaender (2001) remind us that our schools are bursting with diversity and our awareness of this diversity continues to increase rapidly. In addition, Mills & Keddie found that, across many parts of the world, at the same time that the student population is becoming increasingly diverse, bringing to classrooms divergent racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic experiences, the teacher population is becoming more homogeneous, primarily white and middle class (Mills & Keddie, 2012). Although educators recognize the reality of diversity, traditional classroom practices dominate and as Kohn (2004) states, many educators are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the perceived disconnect between the traditional classroom experience and the expectations of our future citizens.

Marx (2000) clearly identified ten trends in education for the 21st Century. Among these trends, Marx discusses the need for educators to realize that we will soon be a nation of minorities with widely different backgrounds and perspectives, that the "one size fits all" classroom does not address the increasing diversity reflected in society, and that we must hold all students to high expectations once reserved for only a select few. Differentiated instruction may just be the model that holds the key to enable educators to respond to increasing diversity in classrooms and to ensure that all children are appropriately challenged through modalities best suited for optimal learning potential.

Application: Differentiated Instruction Applied in the K-12 Classroom

Strong Curriculum Foundation

A powerful and clearly articulated curriculum is an absolute requirement for differentiating instruction. Differentiated instruction does not work if clearly defined learning objectives are not in place. In order to successfully differentiate content, process or product, teachers need to know exactly what they expect students to be able to do and understand by the end of a unit of study. Often, it is quite useful to begin with the end-goals in mind and work backwards to define the different processes and products that can be used to achieve the objectives (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). Tomlinson & Dockterman (2002) indicate that once a teacher has a strong curriculum in place, he or she can modify instructional methodologies according to readiness, learning profile and interest so that each learner comes away with the understandings and skills necessary to move to the next level of learning.

Respectful Tasks

Tomlinson (1999, 2003) discusses the critical importance of developing tasks that are respectful of each learner in a classroom. When teachers take the time to assess student readiness, learning profile and interest, they, in turn, respect the uniqueness and individuality of each learner. By respecting readiness levels, holding high expectations for student growth, increasing degrees of difficulty as students develop understandings and skills, and developing tasks that are equally interesting, important and engaging, Tomlinson (1999) asserts that teachers deeply respect the identity of each individual in the classroom.

When teachers create tasks respectful of different readiness levels, learning profiles and interests, all students benefit, including those with significant learning differences and those who are gifted. Lawrence-Brown (2004) discusses the impact of differentiated instruction on the learning outcomes for students with disabilities and concludes that classrooms employing differentiated instruction with appropriate supports benefit both students with and without disabilities. Reis & McCoach (2000) studied the effects on gifted children and further indicate that in classrooms where instruction is appropriately differentiated for learners, gifted students feel challenged, encounter both struggles and successes, are called on to develop advanced study and production skills, and are able to develop their particular interests.


In a traditional classroom, assessment is typically summative and designed to collect data regarding those students who mastered major concepts and those who did not at the end of a unit of study. This type of assessment is of little use when aiming to maximize student potential throughout the learning process because it provides relatively no information regarding how best to "reach" students through different modalities. The information obtained is typically used to assign grades and to evaluate student performance once the unit is complete. Should a student misunderstand a concept or need re-teaching at some point, teachers are unable to detect these needs when using one culminating assessment.

In a differentiated classroom, assessment takes on a variety of forms. Benjamin (2006) asserts that "students are more likely to be successful if the assessment system encompasses a broad spectrum of abilities and modes of expression" (pg. 59). When differentiating instruction, assessments are both summative and formative in nature. Summative assessments provide meaningful data regarding student understanding of core concepts while formative assessments provide information that assists teachers to formulate and modify their instruction to meet the needs of a diverse student population. Pre-, ongoing, and final assessments are all major components of a differentiated classroom.

Pre-assessments play a crucial role as they provide the necessary information for teachers to skillfully create flexible groups for different learning purposes. Such...

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