Related Terms: Differentiated Learning, Personalized Contextual Instruction, Academically Responsive Instruction
LDA Education Committee
As inclusion remains the program of choice and mandates from IDEA 2004 provide for accessing the general education curriculum in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with disabilities, teachers in inclusive classrooms are challenged to align curriculum content and activities to meet the individual needs of a variety of diverse learners in their classrooms. In the 1970s curricular modifications were introduced for children with disabilities as well as those who were gifted and talented; the 1980s addressed learning styles and multiple intelligences; the 1990s explored the use of essential questions and; now, in the 21st century, we have differentiated instruction which appears to be a combination of all three.
As identified in the literature, differentiated instruction is student centered and focuses on the learner to determine student readiness, interest, and learning profile (Tomlinson, et al., 2003). Student abilities and learning styles drive content, process, and product forcing many teachers to change their teaching styles and the way they manage their classrooms. By adjusting the material that is taught (content), encouraging critical thinking (process), and providing a variety of opportunities for students to demonstrate what they have learned (product), more students including students with learning disabilities will have the chance to achieve academic success in the classroom (Smutny, 2003; Lewis & Batts, 2005).
The Teacher's Role
Traditionally, special educators are trained to provide individualized instruction to each student on their caseloads. They create individual education programs (IEPs) based on student needs and align goals and objectives with grade-level curriculum and state standards as much as possible. Rarely is there time or the opportunity for special educators to teach large groups of students. Special educators differentiate instruction routinely; it is their job and what they are trained to do. On the other hand, general educators are trained in teaching methods and content area subjects (English, mathematics, science, reading). They teach large groups of students; rarely, is there time for individualized instruction. As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act - 2004, general educators are now being asked to, design materials and activities that can meet the needs of all students initially, rather than make modifications after the fact (van Garderen & Whitaker, 2006). Differentiated instruction is becoming a model to help teachers change the way they teach.
Tomlinson (1999) indicates, There is no one 'right way' to create an effectively differentiated classroom; teachers craft responsive learning places in ways that are a good match for their teaching styles, as well as for learners' needs (p. 3). Sometimes all students will be working on the same assignment with different assessment criteria. Sometimes students will be working on different assignments that focus on the same concept. Teachers may not differentiate instruction all of the time; only when they observe a need to do so (Smutny, 2003).
Figuring out how to differentiate instruction depends on knowing students' learning and thinking styles (Smutny, 2003, p. 8). Teachers may observe or interview their students to determine their interests (books, talking, technology), learning styles (auditory, visual, tactile/kinesthetic), and learning preferences (large group, small group, individual). Interactive discussions between teacher and students and material related to content generate ideas based on student interests, experiences, and prior knowledge. This information is valuable to teachers when developing unit plans, identifying state standards that are appropriate for each lesson, choosing the content material based on curricular guidelines, determining the skills students need to acquire, and creating assessment criteria to determine the knowledge gained by each student (Painter, 2006). Teachers differentiate instruction by building on student strengths, providing options in content material and assessments, and aligning instructional strategies with student learning styles (Schlechty, 1997; Smutny, 2003).
Differentiated instruction must give all students challenge and incentive to apply themselves in new ways (Smutny, 2003). Therefore, teachers need to incorporate a variety of teaching techniques or pedagogical strategies that provide students with a variety of opportunities to engage in the learning process. A sampling of pedagogical strategies include: whole group discussions; small, collaborative learning groups; individual contracts; self-paced learning centers; literature circles; or team technology projects. Providing numerous opportunities for students to engage in classroom activities, makes students less competitive with each other... (Smutney, 2003, p. 3) and helps to prevent underachievement among these students by giving them more choices in the way they process information and in the kinds of activities and materials they use to show what they understand (p. 8).
What Parents Need to Know
Since parents know their children better than anyone else, it is favorable for them to chat with teachers about curriculum content, academic expectations, and student strengths, problems, interests, and past experiences in school (Smutny, 2003, p. 8.). Parents should know the type of classroom their child attends. They can help by visiting their child's classroom, discussing classroom activities with their children at home, reviewing homework assignments, and helping their children brainstorm project ideas that reflect culture, interests, and experiences.
Benefits to Students
Differentiated instruction addresses individual learning needs and adjusts instruction to fit the skills and experience level of each student in a classroom (Smutny, 2003, p. 1). Students need choices as to how they will engage in classroom activities in order to be successful. They have to be excited and interested about the topics discussed in order to participate and make academic gains. Furthermore, connecting curriculum in the classroom with life happenings outside of the classroom makes learning meaningful (Voltz, 2003). When students take ownership of their learning, they become involved, interactive, and take control by using their individual learning styles to access information, interpret material, and demonstrate what they have learned.
Curriculum Associates offers a free, on-line course on Differented Instruction that includes lesson plans, handouts, and video interviews. This course can be accessed at the following website:
Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) provides information on universal design at:
The ATOMS Project: Assistive Technology, Universal Design, and Instructional Design can be accessed at:
Lewis, S., & Bates, K. (2005). How to implement differentiated instruction? Journal of Staff Development, 26(4), 26-31.
Painter, D. (2006). Instructional planning for differentiated learning. Learning & Leading with Technology.
Schlechty, P. (1997). Inventing better schools: An action plan for educational reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Smutny, J. (2003). Differentiated Instruction. Phi Delta Kappa Fastbacks 506, 7-47.
Tomlinson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Tomlinson. C., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C., Moon, T., Brimijoin, K, Conover, L., & Reynolds, T. (2003). Differenting indstruction in response to student readiness interest, and learning profile in academically diverse classrooms: A review of the literature. Journal of the Education of the Gifted, 27(2/3), 119-145.
van Garderen, D., & Whittaker, C. (2006). Planning differentiated, multicultural instruction for secondary inclusive classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(3), 12-20.
Voltz, D. (2003). Personalized contextual instruction. Preventing School Failure, 47(3), 138-43.