There are some words educators use that can mean little to parents and students, and there are education buzzwords that are ubiquitous but mean different things to different people. Differentiation is one pervasive and important term that school communities would benefit from teasing out beyond its basic definition to a shared understanding of what it means and what it looks like in practice.
Differentiation is a deceptively simple concept that embodies layers of complexity when implemented effectively. Rooted in the word difference, differentiation is about inclusion and equity of access to learning for all students. It is about student engagement, learning and achievement, based in the assumption that all students deserve opportunities for learning challenge, support, growth and success.
Carol Ann Tomlinson (2008) calls differentiated instruction ‘student-aware teaching’ that empowers students as autonomous learners. Kylie Bice (2017) describes differentiation as “the art of each teacher knowing their students well in order to ensure learning gain for every child.” Tomlinson (2017) defines differentiation as giving students “multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively.”
Differentiation is not a specific strategy, but a set of understandings and practices that come together to address the diverse needs of learners. Differentiating means considering when and how it is appropriate to adjust content, process, product and learning environment. It is context dependent and student dependent. While there are key underlying principles and best practices, schools will have their own frameworks, policies, programs and practices for differentiating and for ‘how we understand and do differentiation around here’.
Quality differentiation requires teachers to know their students and students to increasingly know themselves as learners.
For teachers, this means systematically, thoughtfully planning curriculum delivery and assessment based on best practice and the best available evidence. It means continually generating and responding to data that includes standardised, individualised, formative and summative information about student learning, achievement and even wellbeing. It means setting appropriately high expectations for each child and regularly checking on their knowledge and understanding. Differentiated teaching is adaptive and flexible enough to respond to the needs of the child, class and cohort. Teachers develop and refine their suite of differentiation beliefs and strategies over time. These strategies span planning, programming, resourcing, classroom practice, use of data to inform teaching and learning, intervention, support, enrichment, extension, feedback and assessment.
Tomlinson (2017) argues that a differentiated classroom follows a rhythmic, organic sequence of whole-class instruction, review, and sharing, followed by individual or small-group exploration, extension and production. She (2008) describes teaching strategies that embrace flexibility such as small-group instruction, reading partners, text at varied reading levels, personalised rubrics, mini-workshops, product and task options with common learning goals, varied homework assignments, intentional student groupings and ongoing assessment. Bice (2017) outlines a range of differentiation foci for teachers such as pre-assessment, data to ability-group students, writing differentiated success criteria, flexible grouping, building content knowledge, increasing students’ ability to work independently and designing marking rubrics.
For students, differentiation means becoming engaged in choices in their learning and understanding themselves as learners, with guidance from their teachers. Personalised learning puts the student at the centre as agentic, active participant in their own learning. As agents of their own learning, students set goals, take responsibility, participate, reflect, influence, and respond to feedback as an opportunity to grow.
My experience as a teacher who focuses on student needs and empowering students as learners results in opportunities to partner with students in their learning and witness their engagement in learning. A current example is in my Year 12 Literature class in which students are beginning work on their final assignment. Through a creation in a form of their choice they will explore and demonstrate what the study of Literature has taught them about themselves and the world. Students are telling me that they are having to monitor the time they are spending on this assignment, as they are so immersed they’re finding it hard to pull away from their flow state to focus on their other courses. Highly personalised learning—a rarity in the standardised world of Year 12 assessments—is resulting in imaginative and thorough engagement with the course material in ways that allow students to drive their learning and for me to work alongside each young person at their point of need.
Differentiating instruction does not mean individualising learning for every child, or students never doing the same thing at the same time. It absolutely does not mean the end of teacher-led instruction. Differentiation is about beginning with an understanding of each learner. It involves balancing whole-class and explicit instruction with opportunities for inquiry, student choice, and support in smaller groups or one-on-one. It is about designing and negotiating formative and summative assessments that allow learners to demonstrate their understanding and skills in ways that are varied but also manageable within a classroom context. Differentiation is part systematisation and part intuition. It requires trusting the expertise of teachers and the capacity of students. At its heart it is a set of practices of equity and inclusion.
Bice, K. (2017). Leading differentiation. E-Leading, 6. Australian Council for Educational Leaders, 1-3.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2008). The goals of differentiation. Educational leadership, 66(3), 26-30.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms. ASCD.