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What is meant by differentiated instruction? [Answered]

The strategies that I will use to meet the diverse needs of my learners are grounded in the critical difference between equity and equal opportunity. Geneva Gay speaks to this extraordinarily important point: “Every child in the U.S. has the right to an equitable education…Equity involves giving students what they need. It is not the same as equal opportunity. More specifically, equal opportunity does not acknowledge that students have needs that require differentiation” (Gay, 2000, as cited in Brown-Jeffy, S. & Cooper, J.E. 2011). Gay goes on to say, “The notion of equity as sameness only makes sense when all students are exactly the same. Various children have different needs; addressing those needs dictates that some teaching methods may not be applicable” (Gay, 1994, as cited in Brown-Jeffy and Cooper, 2011).

I believe that understanding and appropriating the critical difference between equity and equal opportunity is the first step and key to meeting the needs of diverse learners. The next steps include the use of differentiated instruction and formative assessment.

Carol Tomlinson defines differentiation as “a teacher’s proactive response to a learner’s needs” (Tomlinson, 2013). She goes on to describe the principles of differentiation and the learning areas where it is applicable (Tomlinson, 2013). The principles include:

  1. A safe environment that encourages and supports learning

  2. Quality curriculum

  3. Formative assessments that inform both teaching and learning

  4. Instruction that responds to student variance

  5. Teacher leadership for students and purposeful management of classroom routines

Differentiated instruction is applicable to the following areas:

  1. Lesson Content - A number of elements and materials are necessary to increase student access to the lesson content. The lesson tasks and objectives must align with the learning goals. While the lesson concepts should be the same for all students, the complexity and expectations must be adjusted for diverse learners. Every child should feel challenged relative to their abilities.

  1. Learning Process - Lessons must be engaging and accessible for all learners. Along with whole class work and conferences, small group work is important, but the grouping and regrouping must be dynamic and strategic, changing with the content and ongoing assessments.

  1. Learning Product - How students demonstrate what they know, understand, and can do must be flexible and inclusive. Varied means of expression and opportunities to revise their work following feedback, is the only way to ensure that all students will be able to present their best work. Initial and ongoing assessment of student readiness and growth are essential so teachers can provide the approaches, choices, scaffolds, and feedback needed for their diverse learners. Expectations, requirements, and assessment must be varied to accommodate all learners.

Finally, Tomlinson suggests a repertoire of instructional strategies, including (Tomlinson, 2013):

  1. Learning/Interest Centers/Book Clubs

  2. Small-Group Instruction

  3. Graphic Organizers

  4. Scaffolded Reading/Writing

  5. Tiered Assignments

  6. Independent Projects

  7. Expression Options

  8. RAFT Interactive Teaching Technique for Writing

In addition to Tomlimson’s description of differentiated instruction, Tracey Hall suggests the following:

The purpose of differentiated instruction is to maximize diverse learners’

potential and result in growth for all learners (Hall, n.d.). Differentiated

instruction requires teachers to be flexible in their approach to teaching

and adjust the curriculum and presentation of information to learners

rather than expecting students to modify themselves for the curriculum…

The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s

growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she

is and assisting in the learning process” (Hall, n.d.).

The key is meeting the student where they are; otherwise their needs cannot be met. Hall then describes the implementation of differentiated instruction with Universal Design for Learning (UDL):

Universal Design for Learning is an implementation of the principles

of differentiated instruction. Particularly important is “minimizing

barriers and maximizing flexibility in relation to three essential facets

of learning…flexible methods of presentation, flexible methods of

expression, flexible options for engagement,” as well as the use of

digital materials with their inherent flexibility (Hall, n.d.).

My strategy for meeting the diverse needs of my students is a combination of a student equity mindset, the principles and purpose of differentiated instruction, the use of UDL, and the use of formative assessment. In addition, I believe that the teacher/student relationship, as well as a mindset of servant leadership, is also important. According to an Educational Leadership article, the author suggests:

The quality of teaching and learning hinges upon the quality of the teacher-

student relationship…Building a healthy rapport and positive relationship

with students requires the careful cultivation of mutual respect, honesty, and

trust…If we are truly going to establish respect and build rapport with our

students, we must take the stance of servant leadership—where we put others’

needs before our own in an effort to…facilitate opportunities for students…to

perform at their highest potential” (Benn, 2018).

Finally, I believe that socio-emotional proficiency, culturally relevant proficiency, cognitive empathy, a growth mindset for teacher and student, a validation mindset, and asset-based, envisioning, and reinforcing language is also important in meeting the needs of diverse learners.

How will you use formative assessments to differentiate instruction?

According to the text, Classroom Literacy Assessment, “The word assess derives from the Latin, assidere, which means ‘to sit beside…’ This derivation seems particularly relevant because it situates teachers and students together in the collaborative analysis of written work” (Paratore & McCormack, 2007). I love this description of assessment, although I believe that it applies only to formative assessments - done in the classroom during the natural flow of a lesson. Formative assessment is students and teachers, ‘sitting together,’ as they gather, interpret, and use the evidence about what and how the students are learning.

According to Grant Wiggins, the key to formative assessments is timely, specific feedback which gives the student the opportunity to self-adjust, refine their thinking, practice skills, and revise their work (McTighe, n.d.). This is important because students need multiple opportunities to be assessed on the same information for it to be formative and promote continuous improvement.

Wiggins’ insights have been supported by the research of Dylan William, Robert Manzano, and John Hattie which strongly supports the idea that feedback is one of the highest-yielding strategies for enhancing achievement (McTighe, n.d.). This means that formative assessment, consisting of lots of student feedback and opportunities to use that feedback, enhances learning.

The point of assessment in education is to advance learning…To reach any

genuine standard, we need lots of trials, errors, and adjustments based on

feedback…In their seminal report ‘Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards

Through Classroom Assessment,’ British researchers Paul Black and Dylan

William shows that improving the quality of classroom feedback offers the

greatest single performance gains of any instructional approach. ‘Formative

assessment is an essential component… We know of no other way of raising

standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be made’ (Wiggins, 2006).

Wiggins offers a best-practice summary: “Both common sense and research make it clear: Formative assessment, consisting of lots of feedback and opportunities to use that feedback, enhances performance and achievement” (Wiggins, G., 2012).

Formative assessment is the assessment methodology that best supports differentiated instruction and learning for understanding. It is aligned with differentiated instruction given the ongoing feedback and embedded assessments that monitor ongoing student progress, as well as areas of strength and areas needing improvement. The data from the ongoing assessments can be used to effectively inform instruction so that it can be adjusted as needed for each student.

I believe in student equity and the principles and purpose of differentiated instruction - including ongoing formative assessments with feedback that actually helps the student align their learning and work product with their learning goals. I believe in the use of UDL and a teacher/student relationship that reflects the mindset of servant leadership. Finally, I believe that socio-emotional proficiency, culturally relevant proficiency, cognitive empathy, a growth mindset in both teacher and student, a teacher validation mindset, and teacher asset-based, envisioning, and reinforcing language are also important in meeting the needs of diverse learners. This is my strategy for meeting the diverse needs of my learners.


Benn, G. (2018). Relationships and Rapport: “You Don’t Know Me Like That!” Educational Leadership, 76(1), p.20-25.…ships-and-Rapport@=Tou-Don%27t=Know-Me-Like-That!aspx

Brown-Jeffy, S. and Cooper, J.E. (2011). Toward a Conceptual Framework of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: An Overview of the Conceptual and Theoretical Literature. Teacher Education Quarterly 38(1) p.65-84.

Hall, T., Strangman, N., and Meyer, N. (n.d.). Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation. NCAC.

McTighe, J., (n.d.). Three Lessons for Teachers from Grant Wiggins.

Paradore, J.R. and McCormack, R.L. (2007). Classroom Literacy Assessment. The Guilford Press, New York, NY.

Tomlinson, C.A. & Moon, T.R. (2013). Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom. ASCD.

Wiggins, G. (2006). Healthier Testing Made Easy: The Idea of Authentic Assessment. Edutopia.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. ascd.


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