The term differentiation is one of those overused, commonly misunderstood, and seldom-successfully-applied concepts in the school business. All that is unfortunate, because when differentiation is applied successfully by the master teachers out there, it is a wondrous site to behold. I’ve seen teachers who are gifted at this type of teaching, and they never went to a workshop on it, don’t have any teacher textbooks on the subject lying on their desks, and don’t even use the term when they describe what they’re doing.

To describe what differentiated instruction looks like in the classroom, here are five things that I see happening: 1) students get into small groups, which are determined by shared interest or ability levels; 2) instruction will alter within a classroom period or throughout several days, based on students’ different learning styles; 3) teachers are continually rethinking lessons and adjusting their follow-up lessons based on what they observe to be the students’ needs; 4) assessments could be very different from one student to the next, based on how that student best exhibits knowledge or competency; 5) what the teacher is asking of each student outcome could differ from one small group to the next, so that expectations may be high for all, but they are not uniform.

To get into the nitty gritty of differentiated instruction, the educator who made this all popular and who is perhaps the preeminent publisher of books on differentiated instructional practices, is Carol Ann Tomlinson. All her stuff is marketing through the solution tree site, and you can check it out at .

As much as I like Carol Ann Tomlinson’s books, a greater influence in my teaching comes from two Stanford professors back in the 1990’s who started the instructional approach that later morphed into differentiation, but originally (and still is called this on their site) it was called Complex Instruction. Their central aim is described a bit differently from Tomlinson’s purpose, but they are close enough to include here on this Differentiation page. Professors Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan have done phenomenal work in what they would describe as creating equity in the heterogeneous classroom. Their approach is still being practiced, and you can learn more about it on the Standford website: .

My aim on this page will be to gather teacher ideas and teacher sharing of classroom approaches to differentiation, as I pick them up from comments and suggestions, below, or from direct emailing to me at, or from what I pick up via my twitter account @enliven_minds.

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