Foundations and Current Issues of Early Childhood Education/Chapter 3/3.3

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Differentiation in Education[edit]

“Differentiation is not a methodology or series of steps; it is a philosophy that one accepts.” -Carol Ann Tomlinson

What is differentiation? Curriculum differentiation is a broad term referring to the need to tailor teaching environments and practices to create appropriately different learning experiences for different students (Farmer, 1996). Differentiation occurs in diverse classrooms. The students are given ability-appropriate assignments and are often able to select assignments that appeal to them. By being able to have some choice in assignments, those students will be able to work with their learning strengths and interests. In this best-of-all-worlds “differentiated” scenario, lower-ability students stand to benefit from learning sparks thrown off by higher-level students (Fischer, 2004). In most classrooms there are students who struggle with learning, others who perform beyond expectation, and the rest in between. This diversity raises the need of differentiation in instruction. If teachers what to have maximum potential in individual students, then they will have to address different needs.

Another benefit of differentiation includes the reduction of inequality in the classroom. The rationale of the arguments in favor of a differentiated curriculum as a strategy of reducing educational inequalities is straightforward: Students do better when they can study subjects and levels within subjects that match their abilities and inclinations (Ayalon, 2006). With this in mind, underprivileged students can also have the chance to benefit from instruction. Yet despite the reasons behind differentiation, some teachers hesitate to apply it to their own classroom. Feeling it is time consuming and that they lack resources and support, teachers forgo this process without debate. However, if the teachers are properly informed about what they can do and the effects, perhaps they will embrace this philosophy. According to the differentiation philosophy, teachers could organize assignments. Some tasks may need groups based on interest, learning style, or student readiness; meaning the level of their skills such as reading and writing.

The topic of differentiation of instruction has many different opinions concerning organization. It seems that the main elements of differentiation include content, process, products, and the learning environment.

Content modification uses the student’s abilities to build a richer knowledge base. This element of differentiation encourages abstractness, complexity, variety, the study of people, and the study of methods of inquiry. Examples of differentiating content at the elementary level 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 (Tomlinson, 2004).

Process modification promotes creativity and higher level cognitive skills. This is developed through encouraging higher levels of thinking, creative thinking, open-endedness, group interaction, variable pacing, a variety of learning processes, debriefing, and freedom of choice. Examples of differentiating process or activities at the elementary level 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 manipulative's 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 (Tomlinson, 2004).

The next element involves product modification. The aim here is to facilitate opportunities for talented students to produce a product that reflects their potential (Farmer, 1996). This can be accomplished through creating real problems, real audiences, real deadlines, transformations—original manipulation and not an exact copy, and appropriate evaluation. Differentiation of products can involve giving the students the option of how they will express information; using rubrics for varied skill levels; giving students opportunities to work alone or in groups; and encouraging individual product assignments while containing the required elements.

The last element of differentiation is the learning environment. The goal here is to create a safe, flexible environment where students are able to take risks and build knowledge and abilities to the maximum extent available. This environment is student-centered, fosters independence, is open and accepting, complex, and highly mobile. Examples of differentiating learning environment at the elementary level 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, 2004).

If we want to maximize the student’s potential, differentiating instruction is a practical and effective way of doing so. Teachers cannot just make one or two different lessons and find this as differentiation. To do this successfully, they should follow the different elements suggested, along with other practices. The first tasks teachers need to ensure are clear learning objectives to determine curriculum decisions. Another step would be scaffolding. Scaffolds are temporary supports that help a learner bridge the gap between what he or she can do and what he or she needs to do to succeed at a learning task (Carolan, Guinn, 2007). Along with these supports, to make differentiation successful, teachers should also make lessons interesting and relevant to students and keep the learning active.

Beginning to use differentiated instruction may seem overwhelming to teachers. However, there are a few suggestions that can help a teacher to begin differentiating or differentiating more effectively in a classroom where it is already used. One suggestion is to prepare students and parents for the new structure in the classroom. Another suggestion would be to teach routines and review the effectiveness of these routines. Having the students in tune with the teacher and the new structure of the classroom will help differentiating instruction begin smoothly. Teachers should also talk to other educators and administration to build a support system. Planning and sharing ideas can help promote a successful classroom. Differentiating instruction can help students benefit from an education. However, teachers need to make sure they are actually differentiating the instruction and doing so efficiently. With the proper tools in place, students can enjoy and take something away from lessons.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

1.) Differentiation of instruction is: a. Using two or more versions of a lesson b. Grouping students according to different learning levels c. Creating appropriate learning experiences for different students d. Teaching different skills to each student

2.) Four essential elements for differentiating instructions include all except: a. Process b. Data c. Content d. Learning Environment

3.) A learning environment should include all except: a. Setting clear guidelines b. Allowing students to move around c. Provide a variety of materials to reflect different cultures d. Keep students separate according to abilities

4.) Content modification should include: a. Using reading buddies b. Providing interest centers c. Offering manipulatives d. Giving students the opportunity to work alone or in groups

5.) To keep from overwhelming teachers with differentiating instruction, teachers should do all of the following except: a. Prepare students and parents for new structure b. Teach and explain new routines c. Keep students working independently instead of in groups d. Collaborate with teachers and administration

Answers: C, B, D, A, C

Essay Question[edit]

What are the four elements of differentiated instruction? Give examples of each.

Sample Essay Response: The four elements of differentiated instruction include modifying content, process, products, and learning environment. Content modification includes activities that will assist with the material being presented. This includes reading buddies, text materials on tape, presenting ideas in auditory as well as visual means, and using reading material at varying levels. Process modification uses personal agendas, provides interest centers, and offers manipulative’s or other supports for the students who need them. Product modification gives students the choice of how they want to express learning, encourages students to create their own products, and has teachers use rubrics according to varied skill levels. Finally, the learning environment creates areas for both independent and collaborative work. Independent sections are available without distractions and collaborative areas are allowed for group discussions. The learning environment also allows students to move around when needed and routines are created. Teachers can use these elements to guide them to creating a structured, as well as flexible, environment for a variety of learners.


Ayalon, H (2006). Nonhierarchical Curriculum Differentiation and Inequality in Achievement: A Different Story or More of the Same?. Teachers College Record, 108, Retrieved March 1, 2007, from;jsessionid=SHL2PSY2PFMZXQA3DINCFGGADUNGMIV0

Carolan, J, & Guinn, A (2007). Differentiation: Lessons from Master Teachers. Educational Leadership, 64, Retrieved March 1, 2007, from;jsessionid=SHL2PSY2PFMZXQA3DINCFGGADUNGMIV0.

Farmer, D (1996, January 27). Curriculum differentiation. Retrieved February 26, 2007, from Austega Web site:

Fischer, M (2004, May 10). Is differentiation the answer to the tracking debate?. Retrieved February 26, 2007, from Education World Web site:

Tomlinson, C. A. (2004). Differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades. Retrieved February 26, 2007, from ERIC Digest Web site: