"Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction."
-Carol Ann Tomlinson, the author of this definition, is one of the people who coined the term years ago.
At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.
Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:
Content – what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information;
Process – activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content;
Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and
Learning environment – the way the classroom works and feels.
Examples of differentiating content include the following:
Using reading materials at varying readability levels;
Putting text materials on tape;
Using spelling or vocabulary lists at readiness levels of students;
Presenting ideas through both auditory and visual means;
Using reading buddies; and
Meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners.
Examples of differentiating process or activities include the following:
Using tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity;
Providing interest centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the class topic of particular interest to them;
Developing personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified agenda time or as students complete other work early;
Offering manipulatives or other hands-on supports for students who need them; and
Varying the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.
Examples of differentiating products include the following:
Giving students options of how to express required learning (e.g., create a puppet show, write a letter, or develop a mural with labels);
Using rubrics that match and extend students' varied skills levels;
Allowing students to work alone or in small groups on their products; and
Encouraging students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain required elements.
Examples of differentiating learning environment include:
Making sure there are places in the room to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration;
Providing materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings;
Setting out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs;
Developing routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately; and
Helping students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly (Tomlinson, 1995, 1999; Winebrenner, 1992, 1996).