Differentiated Instruction

Image by Luigi Diamanti

As an educator, part of my job is to meet students’ academic needs.  Every educator, at one time or another, asks the question – how can I meet the needs of all the students that enter my classroom?  That’s a tough questions to answer, with multiple answers, depending on your philosophy of education.  To start, you need to understand the current skill level of your students.  You might want to give some type of pre-assessment to determine what type of skills that the students possess. A lot of vital data can be extracted by analyzing student assessment data.  Student assessment data can often drive school-wide instructional decisions.  Once assessment data has been collected and analyzed, you can begin to start to differentiate and individualize instruction.  Differentiated instruction is an educational buzz word that has been around for quite some time now.  What does it actually mean and isn’t it subjective?  Here are a few definitions:


“Differentiated instruction is a teaching theory based on the premise that instructional approaches should vary and be adapted in relation to individual and diverse students in classrooms” – Carol Anne Tomlinson

Differentiating instruction ….”Maximize(s) each student’s growth by recognizing that students have different ways of learning, different interests, and different ways of responding to instruction”  – Diane Ravitch

“Rather than simply teaching to the middle by providing a single avenue for learning for all students in a class, teachers using differentiated instruction match tasks, activities, and assessments with their students’ interests, abilities, and learning preferences” Jennipher Willoughby


Throughout this post, I’m going to show one way to differentiate instruction in the classroom. Specifically, via a flexible grouping strategy.

After utilizing a pre-assessment, or some type of formative assessment, you can use the results to begin to group the students based on skill level.  Generally, different “flexible” groups are created based on the skill level of each student. Each group will work towards achieving or mastering specific skills related to the curriculum.  For example, one group might work on basic computation strategies related to practical application problems, another might practice critical thinking skills, and another group may complete enrichment projects related to statistics.  What each group works on should focus on improving students’ skills.  Student groups are fluid and can change throughout the school year as additional student data is collected.  Individuals in each group will set their own goals through a goal setting process.  By engaging in goal setting, students are given the opportunity to gain responsibility for their own learning.  Shifting some of the responsibility to the student gives ownership, therefore assisting in intrinsically motivating a student to achieve their goal.

This is only one form of differentiated instruction.  I’ve provided a list of resources on differentiated instruction below.

Disclaimer (unfortunate but necessary) : The thoughts and opinions expressed in these pages are my own, and not necessarily the opinions of my employers.

Remember Constructivism?

What do you remember learning during your K – 12 experience?  You might cringe a bit as nostalgic memories come to mind…..  Now think about what you learned academically during that same time period. If you’re like me, most of what is remembered is attached to some type of positive (hopefully) engaging learning experience. Those memories have stood the test of time for some reason.  Educators understand that teaching is a process of making personal meaning. Those “personal meaning” experiences were most likely created by teachers who planned interactive lessons that engaged students.

I may be in familiar company, but I assume some learning experiences have left my memory banks altogether.  Here’s a brief list of what I remember:

  • Working in groups with other students – collaborate group assignments
  • Interactive projects that were presented in class
  • Concepts learned in school were tied to school / community based projects
  • Using technology in some form to create projects
  • Using games to learn

Even though it’s been many years since my K-12 experience, surprisingly, I still remember the concepts associated with the instruction.  From what I remember, most of what I enjoyed (or decided to actively learn) during my K – 12 education was generated by teachers who utilized some version of Constructivist teaching theory. Constructivist teaching has been in the news recently, specifically in education circles.  In fact, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has been quoted to have an opinion regarding Constructivism in the classroom. You can find his opinion in the second paragraph of this article.  Despite recent media coverage, Constructivism is still valued by educators and is utilized in many classrooms around the world.  Not one tool, even Kahn Academy, will improve the education system overnight. I think most educators would agree that how the curriculum is communicated is one factor, among many, that impacts student learning.  If utilized correctly, Constructivist teaching strategies can be a terrific tool, enabling teachers to developing engaging lessons that improve student learning.

Additional Resources on Constructivism can be found below.

What does a Constructivist classroom look like?

More examples