Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat No. 3: Differentiated Instruction

Each week, The Educated Reporter will feature a buzzword or phrase that You Need To Know (yes, this designation is highly subjective but we’re giving it a shot). Send your Word on the Beat suggestions to

Word on the Beat: Differentiated instruction.

What it means: Differentiated instruction is when a teacher adjusts the content, instructional process, and even the physical environment of a classroom to respond to variances among student learners. In some cases that can mean using separate vocabulary or spelling lists matched to each student’s degree of readiness, re-teaching skills to remedial students in small groups, or providing opportunities for more advanced students to delve deeper into a topic when the fundamentals have been mastered.

Differentiated instruction has become a popular catchphrase, but definitions – and applications – can vary widely at the state, district, campus and classroom level. That’s made it difficult for researchers to compare approaches and identify best practices.  

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, has been called the architect of differentiated instruction. Her website describes differentiated instruction as a means of accommodating different learners, with “a hefty dose of common sense, as well as sturdy support in the research and theory of education.” In a summary for the Educational Resources Information Center Digest, Tomlinson describes differentiated instruction at the elementary level as including: high-quality curriculum, closely aligned assessments, “respectful activities for all students,” and “flexible grouping” of students, to make sure individual children are given the chance to work in a variety of settings, and with a variety of their peers.

Why it matters: The U.S. Department of Education has said that differentiated instruction is a key component of what 21st Century Learning Should Look Like. Differentiated instruction has also become a popular buzzword in discussions of how to best enact school reform and turnaround efforts at campuses nationwide. But the practice isn’t without controversy or critics. In Education Week in 2010, education consultant Mike Schmoker who contended differentiated instruction was too demanding for a single teacher to successfully implement, and had “corrupted both curriculum and effective teaching.”

Who’s talking about it: Educators, policymakers, reform advocates. In Fairfax County, Va., schools superintendent Jack D. Dale credited differentiated instruction with an increase in students both taking – and passing – Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams. States which have received waivers from some requirements of No Child Left Behind are required to have improvement plans for the lowest-achieving campuses. A number of those states, including Indiana, Virginia and Washington, intend to use differentiated instruction as a means of boosting student achievement. In Connecticut, teachers will receive training in how to use differentiated instruction to implement the new Common Core State Standards.

Want to know more? The Curry School of Education maintains Differentiation Central, an online resource. The Harvard Education Letter also had a thoughtful overview of the debate last year, written by the talented Laura Pappano.

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

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