Ways to Develop a Culture of Differentiation


Differentiated instruction is a concept whose nuances are too numerous for a full understanding from a single blog post. However, after writing a brief introduction to differentiated instruction earlier on our blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight some strategies and wisdom discussed by the differentiation master, Carol Ann Tomlinson, at a recent workshop I attended called Differentiation and the Curriculum-Assessment-Instruction Connection.

Tomlinson during her workshop

For Tomlinson, good instruction starts with curriculum. Planning a focused curriculum means—at the very least—clarity about what students should:

  1. Know—facts, vocabulary, definitions
  2. Understand—principals/generalization, big ideas of the discipline
  3. Do—process, skills

The principals of KUD serve as the framework for Tomlinson’s curriculum and lesson theory. “To ensure understanding,” she exhorted, “work from clear KUDs!”

Another interesting component of Tomlinson’s theory is her plea that every lesson plan should be, at its heart, a motivational plan. “Young learners are motivated and engaged by a variety of conditions,” she explained. From Tomlinson’s 2003 book Fulfilling The Promise, she lists those conditions as:

  • novelty
  • cultural significance
  • personal relevance or passion
  • emotional connection
  • product focus
  • choice
  • the potential to make a contribution or link with something greater than self

For Tomlinson, the best lessons are ones that capture a student’s attention from the beginning by asking questions to which students will want to know the answers.

ImageDr. Tomlinson used this image as an allegory for her philosophy about curriculum and instruction. In classrooms, we need to say, “if you hit these targets you will be successful.” In the end, if we as teachers are unclear about learning goals, how can we expect students to master them? In the words of Rick Stiggins, the founder of the Assessment Training Institute, “Students can hit any target that they know about and that stands still for them.”

There are many ways to bring elements of differentiation into your classes. Remember, the primary goal of differentiation is that all students will learn as much as possible. Strategies for bringing differentiation into your classroom are:differentiation

  • Breaking students into different groups based on their understanding
  • Have students answer questions asked by other students–Can they arrive at understanding without you?
  • Use “experts of the day” to answer questions
  • Use brainstorming or think-tank groups prior to beginning work
  • Provide graphic organizers with prompts to guide gathering and synthesizing of information
  • Have students show you what they know
  • Create assessments that allow students to show they learned the content–the hallmark of a good test is that kids have the opportunity to show you all they know about at topic
  • Try really hard to find different ways for students to show you what they know
  • Use exit cards as a way for students to show understanding
  • Give students choice
  • Besides giving students essential questions think about the teacher’s essential question: Why should young learners care about this stuff?
  • Give students surveys to determine if your teaching is working

Regardless of your instructional approach, the lessons from an expert like Tomlinson have tremendous value. I was particularly struck by a slide she shared which outlined her philosophy. In short, it describes what effective teaching is.

Effective differentiation is part of effective teaching:

  • Creating an environment that invites learning
  • Knowing with clarity the learning destination
  • Checking regularly to see where students are in regard to the destination
  • Adapting instruction to ensure steady progress for each learner
  • Establishing routines that balance structure and flexibility to allow attention to varied learner needs

Looking for more on differentiation?

Carol Tomlinson’s website has many resources including a list of all her publications. The Teaching Channel has over 50 videos on the topic. And here’s a blog by the Education Technology Guy with a whole host of links to resources.