ERIC Digest defines differentiation as “the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom…in order to create the best learning experience possible.” The three most important aspects of differentiation are readiness, interest, and learning profiles.


Differentiation stems from the works and theories of three famous psychologists in the field of education that focus on readiness, interest, and learning profiles. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proved that individuals learn best in connection with their readiness to do so. American psychologist Jerome Bruner further proved that when an individual’s interest is peeked, learning becomes a more rewarding and continuous process. Lastly, American psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences rounds out the final component of differentiation by stating that individuals learn in multiple, different ways connecting to the importance of learning profiles.

4 Elements for Differentiation in the Classroom:

1. Content: The “what” and “how” of learning in connection with the content the students need to learn and the process by which students will obtain that information

In the Classroom…
  • Reading materials at different levels
  • Books available on tape, CD, iPod applications, etc.
  • Opportunities for “reading buddies”
  • Spelling/Vocabulary lists at different levels
  • Auditory, visual, and kinesthetic instruction
  • Small group instruction across the curriculum

2. Process: The engaging activities that assist students in gaining knowledge and eventually mastering the content of the curriculum

In the Classroom…
  • Tiered lessons/activities
  • Interest centers based on curriculum content/topics
  • Personal agendas (Student “To Do” Lists)
  • Varying time for completion of activities
  • Manipulatives/Hands-On experiences

3. Products: The culminating items that allow rehearsal, application, and extension of student learning

In the Classroom…
  • Activities that have options/choices for students
  • The use of rubrics that match student ability levels
  • Students have the option to work alone, in partners, or small cooperative groups
  • Student creativity is embraced

4. Learning Environment: The way the classroom functions and feels

In the Classroom…
  • Quiet and distraction-free places for students to work
  • Areas for cooperative work in connection with larger groups of students
  • Materials are diverse based on students’ homes and cultures
  • Clear guidelines that match student ability levels
  • Specific routines are established
  • Teachers and students have an understanding and respect for all types of learners

Why is Differentiation so Important?

Differentiation is so important in today’s classroom due to the fact that students’ ability levels in the elementary grades vary greatly. The ability to reach all learners allows teachers to maximize students’ potential, while attending to student differences. Teachers are in turn then able to become more competent, creative, and overall extend their knowledge and professionalism as educators.

What Makes Differentiation Successful?

Teachers are able to differentiate high-quality instruction and curriculum to ensure at-level student success. Differentiation also then allows the curriculum to focus on the most valuable information. All lessons and activities are in turn designed to ensure student understanding, interests, peek excitement, and the students’ ability to apply their learning to the real-world.

How can a Teacher Differentiate in the Classroom?

Teachers can differentiate in the classroom by ensuring that assessment is ongoing and consistently linked to instruction. All activities included in lessons are “respectful” to all learners and allow for flexible grouping.

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  • Balance teacher and student needs
  • Frequently reflect on connection between teaching philosophy and the classroom
  • Maintain a mental image of a differentiated classroom
  • Prepare parents and students for differentiation
  • Change instructional pace and push beyond your comfort zone as a teacher
  • Establish and carefully teach clear management routines
  • Take time to regain energy and assess differentiation process
  • Create a support system with administrators, specialists, and other teachers
  • Celebrate your growth

How can Differentiation be Connected to Technology?

Teachers can use multiple technologies to help plan student assessment and collect student data. Educators can then redefine goals to meet varying student needs in the classroom using various technological tools. The most frequently used tools include online surveys/forms, databases, and student response systems. All of these forms of technology in connection with differentiation can then assist teachers with forming flexible groups, tiered lessons, and decisions related to student readiness.

Works Cited:

DeLucia, Jodi M. and Parsons, Catherine V. (2005). Decision Making in the Process of Differentiation. Learning and Leading with Technology, 33, 8-10. Retrieved from the ERIC Database (EJ719941).

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education: ERIC Digest. Retrieved from ERIC Database (ED443572).

Wikipedia: Differentiation (Accessed 6/5/2011)

*Smith and Throne
Chapter 3: Using Technology to Differentiate by Readiness
"Equalizer" developed by Dr. Carol Tomlinson

From Smith and Throne, Differentiating Instruction with Technology in Middle School Classrooms:

The final summary on the last page of the book emphasizes the main message "Perhaps the most important message that we've tried to communicate throughout this book is that technology should no longer be considered an "optional" tool, "afterthought," or "addition" to lesson plans and classroom content. We've emphasized how powerful technology can be as a differentiator because it engages students' imaginations and needs for visual, aural,and kinesthetic stimulation. Technology strengthens our teaching effectiveness because it enables us to customize the learning experience for all of our unique students." - pg. 217

Glossary of Strategies:

Centers or Stations: To engage students in active learning tasks (adjusted by readiness,learning profile, or interest))at various stations to apply and extend specific skills, content-based knowledge, exploration, and enrichment.

Cubing: The term actually originates from a paper cube that students roll to work out their assignments. The series of tasks printed on the cube empower students to consider a concept from different viewpoints.

Curriculum Compacting: Allows teacher to alter (speed up) typical curriculum for students who have mastered class objectives already so they can explore alternative areas of study.

Flexible Grouping: By arranging the class into teams according to interests, readiness, and learning profiles the teacher can challenge individuals team working skills and working with others similar to real world scenarios.

I-Search: Student driven investigative research paper or other product based on an interest.

Jigsaw: A peer teaching strategy in which students focus on a specific topic to report back to the group.

Learning Contract: An agreement between the student and the teacher that provides fora mix of both required and self-selected tasks. Students usually design a new product that demonstrates their conceptual understanding of teacher identified skills and ideas.

R.A.F.T. - Stands for Role, Audience, Format, and Topic,and was created originally to combine reading and writing in unconventional ways. Today teachers of all subjects rely on RAFT's to strenghten conceptual understanding using deep thinking and allow for multiple product formats.

Scaffolding: Teacher breaks down a complex into small easier to understand tasks and provides support to students as they progress to higher levels of skill or knowledge.

Think Dots: Similar to cubing (except we roll a die that corresponds to a card) the tasks involved with this strategy encourage students to consider a concept from various perspectives.

Tic-Tac-Toe or Choice Board: This strategy offers a range of options that are differentiated by learning profile, interest, and readiness.Students select tasks from a choice board.

Tiering or Tiered Assignments: Building on students' prior knowledge, teachers vary the depth of a lesson that centers on specific concepts, big ideas, and skills in order to meet students' diverse interests, learning profiles, and levels of readiness.

WebQuest: Team or individualized activities using the Internet to help students grapple with complex, open-ended questions. Tasks are research and interest based, and require problem-solving skills, such as evaluation, analysis, and synthesis of resources.

pp. 219-220