Finding Manageable Ways to Meet Individual Needs 
Scott Willis and Larry Mann

Every child is unique. Although we may rejoice in this fact, it poses a dilemma for educators. When students are diverse, teachers can either "teach to the middle" and hope for the best, or they can face the challenge of diversifying their instruction.

Today, more and more teachers are choosing the second option. Determined to reach all students, teachers are struggling to tailor their instruction to individual student needs. They are striving to provide the right level of challenge for gifted students, for students who lag far behind grade level, and for everyone in between. They are working to deliver instruction in ways that meet the needs of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners. And they are trying to tap into students' personal interests. In short, these teachers are differentiating instruction.



One Size Doesn't Fit All

Differentiated instruction is a teaching philosophy based on the premise that teachers should adapt instruction to student differences. Rather than marching students through the curriculum in lockstep, teachers should modify their instruction to meet students' varying readiness levels, learning preferences, and interests.

Differentiated instruction is not a new concept, experts say. Back in the days of the one-room schoolhouse, when students ages 6–16 learned together, differentiated instruction "was how they did school," notes Carol Ann Tomlinson, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and author of the 1999 ASCD book The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.

The need to differentiate instruction is obvious, proponents say. "We want to accommodate the full diversity of academic needs" that students bring to the classroom, says Susan Demirsky Allan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Grosse Pointe, Mich., public schools. "We know those differences are out there, and we have to recognize that reality," Allan says. "Teachers can't assume they have 25 clones sitting in front of them." Without differentiated instruction, any child who varies from the norm will suffer, she contends.

Traditional schools are "designed for organized, left-brain learners who are book lovers," says Donna Strigari, principal of Frank J. Smith School in East Hanover, N.J., and cofacilitator of ASCD's network on differentiated instruction. This type of learner, however, represents only one-quarter of the population, Strigari says. To meet the needs of all students, educators need to "break the old patterns" of teaching and change perceptions of what school should be like, she asserts.

Living Our Beliefs

Nearly all teachers believe that it's better to differentiate instruction, experts agree—but the challenge lies in translating that belief into action. According to Tomlinson, teachers can differentiate three aspects of the curriculum: content, process, and products.

  • Contentrefers to the concepts, principles, and skills that teachers want students to learn. All students should be given access to the same core content, Tomlinson believes. Struggling learners should be taught the same big ideas as their classmates, not given watered-down content.
    "Teachers should address the same concepts with all students but adjust the degree of complexity," Tomlinson emphasizes. "The same concept can be explained in a way that's comprehensible to a very young child or in a way that challenges a Ph.D. candidate." To illustrate this point, she cites the example of a professor whom she observed teaching Shakespearean sonnets—with great success—to 1st graders.
    Content also refers to the means teachers use to give students access to skills and knowledge, such as texts, lectures, demonstrations, and field trips. Teachers can vary these vehicles as well, Tomlinson says. For example, a teacher might direct an advanced learner to complex texts, Web sites, and experts to interview, while providing a student of more modest capacity with reading buddies, videos, demonstrations, and "organizers that distill information and make it more accessible."

  • Processrefers to the activities that help students make sense of, and come to own, the ideas and skills being taught. Teachers can modify these activities, Tomlinson advises, to provide some students with more complexity and others with more scaffolding, depending on their readiness levels. (Examples of scaffolding include step-by-step directions, reteaching, and additional models.) Like content, process can be varied by student interest and learning preferences as well.

  • Productsrefers to culminating projects that allow students to demonstrate and extend what they have learned. Products reveal whether students can apply learning beyond the classroom to solve problems and take action. Different students can create different products, Tomlinson suggests, based on their readiness levels, interests, and learning preferences. For example, some students might work alone on a product, while others might work in groups.

This approach—differentiating content, process, and products—requires teachers to be "crystal clear" about what they are trying to teach, Tomlinson says. "Often, that's where we miss the boat."

Moreover, the curriculum needs to be based on broad concepts, Allan says. If it's based on "factoids," then differentiation will be very difficult, she cautions.




What Are the Strategies?

Teachers who differentiate instruction rely on a number of strategies to make it feasible, experts say. "There's not one miracle thing that works for every child," says Patricia Woodin- Weaver, an education consultant and counseling psychologist from East Hanover, N.J., who cofacilitates ASCD's network on differentiated instruction. "You need a range of strategies." Network members have used strategies such as cooperative learning, multi-age grouping, and addressing multiple intelligences, Woodin-Weaver says.

Flexible grouping is essentially a must, experts agree. "If you don't use flexible grouping, it's almost impossible to differentiate instruction," Allan says. Trying to vary instruction without grouping students is simply too "unwieldy."

Teachers can vary whole-class instruction by teaching small groups or individual students, Tomlinson suggests. Students can be grouped based on readiness, interest, or learning profile. And, she points out, groups don't necessarily have to be homogeneous. A teacher might group students with a similar readiness level (e.g., for reading instruction) or with a dissimilar one (e.g., to discuss a book they all love).

Another helpful strategy is using "tiered activities," where the teacher keeps the concepts and skills the same for all students but provides "routes of access" that vary in terms of complexity, abstractness, and open-endedness, Tomlinson says. Other strategies include using stations, compacting, and agendas (see box, "Strategies for Differentiating Instruction")



Strategies for Differentiating Instruction

Nearly all educators agree with the goal of differentiating instruction, but teachers may lack strategies for making it happen. Here are some of the many strategies—in addition to flexible grouping and tiered activities—that teachers can use to avoid lockstep instruction:

  • Stations.Using stations involves setting up different spots in the classroom where students work on various tasks simultaneously. These stations invite flexible grouping because not all students need to go to all stations all the time.

  • Compacting.This strategy encourages teachers to assess students before beginning a unit of study or development of a skill. Students who do well on the preassessment do not continue work on what they already know.

  • Agendas.These are personalized lists of tasks that a student must complete in a specified time, usually two to three weeks. Student agendas throughout a class will have similar and dissimilar elements.

  • Complex Instruction.This strategy uses challenging materials, open-ended tasks, and small instructional groups. Teachers move among the groups as they work, asking students questions and probing their thinking.

  • Orbital Studies.These independent investigations, generally lasting three to six weeks, revolve around some facet of the curriculum. Students select their own topics, and they work with guidance and coaching from the teacher.

  • Entry Points.This strategy from Howard Gardner proposes student exploration of a given topic through as many as five avenues: narrational (presenting a story), logical-quantitative (using numbers or deduction), foundational (examining philosophy and vocabulary), aesthetic (focusing on sensory features), and experiential (hands-on).

  • Problem-Based Learning.This strategy places students in the active role of solving problems in much the same way adult professionals perform their jobs.



  • Choice Boards.With this strategy, work assignments are written on cards that are placed in hanging pockets. By asking a student to select a card from a particular row of pockets, the teacher targets work toward student needs yet allows student choice.

  • 4MAT.Teachers who use 4MAT plan instruction for each of four learning preferences over the course of several days on a given topic. Thus, some lessons focus on mastery, some on understanding, some on personal involvement, and some on synthesis. As a result, each learner has a chance to approach the topic through preferred modes and also to strengthen weaker areas.

 Adapted and condensed from the 1999 ASCD book The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners by Carol Ann Tomlinson.