What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated Instruction Infographic

In 1946, Aldous Huxley wrote satirically of a Utopian world where humans are created by cloning, fostering longevity of life, universal happiness, and utmost, equality. The children of Huxley’s Brave New World would be poor candidates for differentiated instruction, unlike the children of the real-world classrooms of today. As teachers, we are tasked with educating students with a broad range of academic abilities, each with varying levels of engagement, and from a wide variety of backgrounds. As good teachers, we try to maximize the learning experience of each student in our room. Differentiated instruction is a way to make that happen.

I had heard about differentiated instruction in college, about its merits for student learning and growth. In the happy and comfortable confines of the world of academia it sounded rather ideal and I was sure that I would be tackling my first teaching job with such innovation and creativity that my students wouldn’t have a chance to do anything but succeed. When riding such a high horse, it it often nice to have a grand reality check. I have never experienced the sense of failure, before or since, that I did in myself during my first year of teaching. I struggled. I scraped by. I barely survived. There was no creativity. Student collaboration was a pipe-dream. Each day, just before falling into bed in a state of exhaustion, I drew a thick, black line through another square on the calendar, hoping to make it to the end of May.

I returned to school in Montana, leaving rural Alaska for a time. I knew that teaching was still what I wanted to do, but I needed to make it work better. By pure chance, a half-time middle and high school teaching position opened up right before the start of my return to college. I had no time to prepare, so I arrived the first day of school with the students. My 9th grade biology class eagerly waited while I passed out ancient textbooks and then we opened them to the first chapter. Within the first paragraph was a sentence that stated: Mushrooms are also part of the plant kingdom. It was the sentence that forced me to rethink how my students were going to learn that year.

After collecting the textbooks, I informed the class that we would not be using a book that year, but rather the students would work in groups or individually to learn about biology. I would present the topic, the students would have class time to research and work on presentations, and then there would be time for culminating activities. I had a wide range of learners in my room, including many special education students. I was able to work with the special education staff to find materials at the appropriate reading levels and made those available. Students could pick their own groups and their own method of demonstrating mastery of the material. Examples of work that was turned in included written reports, diagrams, children’s books, PowerPoint presentations, physically acting out cycles (Krebs, life, cell), creating raps, and poetry. With each topic, the quality of presentations became more refined.

It wasn’t an easy year of teaching. I don’t think any year of teaching is ever easy. What it was was an incredible journey, a transformation in my overall thinking about what could and should happen in the classroom. I saw students who had never had success in a traditional environment flourish. I saw students who were overly comfortable with the “read a chapter, answer the questions” style of learning struggle, but through that struggle find that learning could have more depth, more value. Those ninth graders smiled and laughed and learned the entire year.

In the year 2000, the world of technology as we know it was still in its infancy. Still, with four IBM classroom computers running Windows 95 and access to the internet, the world of learning was opened to my students. As the years go by and technology becomes more readily available and certainly more capable of helping students create amazing things, I wonder what that biology classroom would look like today. My teaching journey continued with the completion of another degree and my return to rural Alaskan classrooms. Thanks to that 1968 biology textbook and the misinformation it contained, I returned with a broader sense of what I wanted the learning within my classroom to look like and how I could accomplish that.


Huxley, A. (1946). Brave new world. New York, NY: Harper & Bros.

Smith, G. E., & Throne, S. (2009). Differentiating Instruction with Technology in Middle School Classrooms. Eugene, OR, USA: ISTE. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

WCPSS AG Program. (2009). Toolbox for planning rigorous instruction: Essential elements of differentiated instruction. Retrieved from http://tpri.wikispaces.com/file/view/03-02%20Essential%20Elements.pdf/163388445/03-02%20Essential%20Elements.pdf