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The Bottom Line Differentiated Instruction — Easier Than Most Teachers Realize

“Differentiated instruction,” or tailoring instruction to meet individual needs (commonly referred to as DI), is growing in popularity in education circles. First introduced by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe in their 2006 text, Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids, the concept, while not revolutionary, was described with new clarity and caught traction with readers.

The Challenge Within the Classroom

Sarah D. Sparks, in her article, “Differentiated Instruction: A Primer,” poses a question which illustrates the challenge teachers face:  “How can a teacher keep a reading class of 25 on the same page when four students have dyslexia, three students are learning English as a second language, two others read three grade levels ahead, and the rest have widely disparate interests and degrees of enthusiasm about reading?”

Tomlinson and McTighe recognized that students differ vastly in their learning readiness, background knowledge, learning styles, strengths, abilities, interests, and motivation. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is neither rational nor successful.

A Solution

Simply put, the authors argue that instruction needs to be customized to align with the full spectrum of student individuality. Differentiated instruction involves teachers adapting along the way to help individual students achieve the specific learning outcome. The outcome is the same, but the approach for reaching the outcome is tailored to the unique learner.

Differentiated instruction is grounded in the principle of meaningful student-teacher relationships and, in turn, teacher flexibility and responsiveness to individual student learning needs. Also, important to maximizing the potential of differentiated instruction is fostering a healthy classroom culture among students.

Furthermore, Tomlinson and McTighe argue that differentiated instruction can be merged with an educational planning approach known as the “backward design” framework. Instructors consider overarching learning goals and how students will be assessed throughout the learning before considering how to teach the content. Backward design is considered a more intentional approach to course design than traditional methods.

According to ASCD, “Understanding by Design is predominantly a curriculum design model that focuses on what we teach. Differentiated Instruction focuses on whom we teach, where we teach, and how we teach.” The educational strategies of backward design and differentiation are employed in unison to create lesson plans that focus on essential knowledge and skill development for the given content to effectively teach a wide variety of learners within the same classroom. 

Putting Differentiated Instruction into Practice

Despite the increasing popularity of this concept, progress needs to be achieved toward actual implementation. When asked by administrators to differentiate instruction within their classrooms, teachers typically feel overwhelmed at what they believe to be a daunting, if not an impossible, task. However, differentiated instruction may not be as difficult as most think. Education Week created a short video entitled “Differentiated Instruction: It’s Not as Hard as You Think,” which provides an overview as well as specific examples for how to implement.

When exercised, differentiated instruction can mean adjusting the learning content, the learning process, and the learning product, that is, what or how the student demonstrates learning. The main learning objectives remain while flexibility is given to the content and product. Similarly, the process can be adaptive by grouping students based on similar or different current ability or understanding levels. Flexibility on the part of the teacher is foundational. Technology tools are readily available to assist teachers in their efforts to differentiate instruction.

Giving students a choice in learning assignments is a simple yet powerful approach to increasing student engagement and motivation. Choice fosters student responsibility by allowing for increased ownership for reaching the end goal through preferred avenues. We all enjoy, and are more motivated to engage with, activities that interest us or in which we are more gifted. The same is true for students.

Evaluating Student Learning Not Teacher Delivery

Teachers need to self-assess their performance based not on how well they taught the learning content, their stating of the learning goal, nor how orderly their classroom environment was, but instead on whether or not students learned. Likewise, evaluation of teachers by administrators, whether formally a few times a year or informally with weekly classroom walkthroughs, needs to focus on the degree to which students are learning.

All too often, the criteria used to determine teacher performance has little to do with evaluating student learning. Instead, it has much to do with a host of other teacher-related criteria that rate subject matter expertise and seamless delivery. When teachers get those measurements right, they receive a positive evaluation from an administrator for successful job performance — even while student learning languishes. These misaligned measurements create a misconception. In reality, across the nation, assessment data reveals that students are not learning on grade level by a significant degree.

Imagine a supervisor in any other field employing a similar approach, void of evaluation of the results an employee generates or the lack thereof — in other words, disregarding employee effectiveness. For example, in the case of a salesperson, this would equate to an employee clearly explaining the product specifications, stating the goal of the demonstration to the customer, and having an organized showroom, yet the supervisor failing to evaluate the sales volume the employee achieves. Without producing the desired outcome results, the salesperson would not long retain the position. The other factors mentioned can help cultivate the desired outcome but do not necessarily guarantee results. Thus, they cannot be the sole, or even primary, means of evaluation.

An Absolute Must

Differentiated instruction is an outstanding lever for engaging, motivating, and boosting student learning. Teachers must be urged, guided, and held accountable for implementing responsive and adaptive approaches that result in actual student learning. Differentiated instruction is easier than most teachers realize and an absolute must to make education effective in today’s increasingly diverse classrooms.

Keri D. Ingraham

Senior Fellow and Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She is also a Senior Fellow at Independent Women’s Forum. Dr. Ingraham has been a guest on Fox News multiple times. Her articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Federalist, Real Clear Education, The Washington Times, National Review, The American Spectator, Washington Examiner, The Epoch Times, The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal, The Daily Signal, and a host of other media outlets. Fox News has featured her work. Prior to joining Discovery Institute, she spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. She authored multiple chapters for the book, Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda, published in 2022. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored “From Gutenberg to 5G.” Dr. Ingraham was awarded the George W. Selig Doctoral Fellowship in 2013. The following year she received the “World Changer in the Field of Education” award from Regent University.
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