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Differentiation is not "Individualized" Instruction!

Teaching is a complex art form and consists of a craft which is dynamic, uncertain and extremely rewarding. Students differ in a myriad of ways from their strengths, backgrounds, needs, interests, and catering to these differences can prove challenging.

Differentiated instruction is at the core of effective teaching and is a complex endeavor that involves planning, adapting and catering for students’ individual learning strengths, needs and interests when developing curriculum and planning for learning.Tomlinson (2013; 2014), a leading world expert in differentiation in the classroom, described differentiation as a basic tenet of good instruction in which teachers build positive relationships with students and present learning materials that respond to learners’ interests and needs. Effective differentiation strategies ensure every student achieves progress in their learning, regardless of their starting point. Tomlinson (2010) suggested differentiation should be referred to as respectful teaching where every student is taken into consideration in the classroom. A common strategy for differentiation in the math classroom is to give more able students more work and less able students less work. This does not necessarily represent an equitable approach as often this is seen as a punishment rather than a reward (Wathall, 2016).

Students need to be differentiated by either working on different or tiered tasks, and explore different paths to common outcomes, or given different outcomes (Wathall, 2016). Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) outline four key elements in a differentiated classroom which are based on three areas of students’ needs and variances; readiness, interest and learning profile. The four key differentiation strategies include differentiating by content which is the most common format employed by teachers. In mathematics, this could be giving tiered tasks of varying levels of difficulty and allowing students to choose entry levels.

The second element is to differentiate by process and this refers to adapting the process of learning. An example for mathematics learning would be to organize different learning stations acting as mini workshops with different activities and have students decide which stations to visit and how they want to learn. One station could display videos on various methods of solving polynomials which models a flipped classroom approach, while another station could support a more hands-on approach. Structured and guided inquiry tasks are also methods to differentiate the process where the different levels of inquiry provide students with more or less guidance (Blair, 2008). Another way to differentiate the process is to use Sternberg and Grigorenko’s (2000) Tri-Mind strategy in which students are presented with the same learning outcomes but three different ways to approach them: analytically, practically, or creatively. This is a tool to support differentiation of different thinking styles in a classroom. Sternberg and Grigorenko’s (2000) work on the tri-mind reported there are three thinking styles: analytical, practical and creative. They state:

"Many students could learn more effectively than they do now if they were taught in a way that better matched their patterns of abilities. Teaching for successful intelligence provides a way to create such a match. It involves helping all students capitalize on their strengths and compensate for or correct their weaknesses. It does so by teaching in a way that balances learning for memory, analytical, creative, and practical thinking" (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000, p 274).

The third element involves differentiating by product and giving students a choice for the medium of their product, which could be a video, website, or presentation from a tiered activity.

The fourth element is the affect which refers to the emotional side of learning. Emotions affect the ability to learn, affect motivation for a subject, and one’s self-esteem. Overwhelming research support that teachers who know their students and connect with learners on a positive level leads to increased learning and motivation.

Tomlinson (2003) developed six key principles when fostering equity and excellence in academically diverse learners and they are: carefully planned and well thought-out curriculum, designing tasks that respect each and every learner, when in doubt teach to stretch learners, use flexible groupings, gather regular and continuous formative assessment to support learning, and grade to reflect growth in learning.

Differentiated instruction is not synonymous with individualized instruction. Individualized instruction emerged in the 1960’s and Esbensen (1968) reported that Individually Prescribed Instruction (IPI) was developed to address individual needs and most likely emerged from the “liberalizing wave that swept over Europe and America” (Molenda, 2012, p. 13). IPI consisted of a program of individual prescriptions, frequent monitoring of student performance, and frequent test- based assessments. Other individualized programs emerged, during this time, such as Program for Learning in Accordance with Needs (PLAN) and Individually Guided Instruction (IGI). These types of programs represent self- instruction models, and they did not allow students to progress through material at different rates. Further, all learners were exposed to the same content in terms of study materials and usually in the same sequence (Molenda, 2012). Learners worked in isolation most of the time, and very rarely was learning hands on or applied to real life. Current pedagogical practices have shifted to “personalization” (Keefe & Jenkins, 2008) which emphasize the importance of the social dimension when learning. Personalized learning encourages a learning environment which fosters inter-personal and social connections among students and teachers by working in collaborative groups and assessing using authentic performance assessments.

One of the main ideas reported from Nunley’s (2004; 2011) work on differentiation was to hold students accountable for their learning and encourage high order thinking. Nunley (2004, 2011) reported three steps to layering curriculum to encourage differentiated instruction. The first step is by providing students with choice in lessons. Choice provides a motivational factor and gives students the perception of control. Nunley (2004, 2011) suggested the following strategies to utilize giving students choice:

  • Allow students to practice the understanding of concepts through different mediums such as practicing problems through computer games, using manipulates to complete a task or work in small groups

  • Give students choice whether they would like to attend a mini workshop with you to clarify conceptual understandings

  • Allow students to choose from a variety of different tasks offered

The second step in Nunley’s model involves holding students accountable by awarding credit for the actual learning or the acquisition of a particular skill rather the completion of of an assignment or for practicing a skill. In many courses, students can gain credit by completing assignments without having learned anything at all. Focusing on actual learning will support individual student progress and promote differentiation.

The third step in Nunley’s model involves encouraging more complex learning by dividing the instructional unit into three layers: basic rote information, application and manipulation of that information which reflects understanding, and critical analysis of a real-world issue.

In conclusion, differentiation is not a set of instructional strategies, it is not giving students more work, and it is not planning teaching for the most able students. Differentiation is about valuing the diversity of students and planning instruction to cater for their differences in a heterogeneous environment.


Blair, A. (2008). Inquiry teaching. Retrieved April 29, 2018, from

Molenda, M. (2012). Individualized instruction: a recurrent theme. TechTrends, 56(6), 12–14.

Nunley, K. F. (2004). Layered Curriculum: The Practical Solution for Teachers with More Than One Student in Their Classroom, Second Edition (2nd edition). Amherst:

Nunley, K. F. (2011). Enhancing Your Layered Curriculum Classroom: Tips, Tune-ups and Technology.

Sternberg, R.J. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence: to increase student learning and achievement / Robert J. Sternberg, Elena L. Grigorenko. Arlington Heights, IL.: SkyLight Professional Development.

Sparks, S. D. (2015, January 28). Differentiated Instruction: A Primer - Education Week. Education Week. Retrieved from

Sternberg, R. J. (2000). The Theory of Successful Intelligence. Gifted Education International, 15(1), 4–21.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2003). Deciding to Teach Them All. Educational Leadership, 61(2), 6–11


Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd Edition. ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (1 edition). Alexandria, Va: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Moon, T. R. (2013). Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Wathall, J. (2016). Concept-Based Mathematics: Teaching for Deep Understanding in Secondary Classrooms (1 edition). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

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