Differentiation: The Latest Great Debate

-by Krista Taylor

Educational pedagogy can be as faddish as the fashion industry – what is de rigueur one year, can become passé just as quickly. We are all looking for the perfect teaching methodology that works for every student, every time.

Of course, such a utopian ideal doesn’t exist, and can’t ever exist, because education is about people, and people will never fit into a one-size-fits-all model because people are messy.

Differentiation is the latest practice to run the risk of having the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.differentiation sign

Recently in Education Week, James Delisle boldly titled his article, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” He wrote, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke.”[1]

Whoops . . . the bathwater and the baby!

Delisle primarily critiques differentiation on two grounds: the difficulty for teachers (or as he notes, impossibility) of implementing differentiation practices, and a concern that heterogeneous student groupings (the structure on which differentiation is based) does a disservice to all students.

There is some merit to his first claim. Effective differentiation is hard, hard work. It is true that planning differentiated lessons and assignments is like preparing multiple lessons for each class, and I agree that it may be a near impossible task for a teacher operating alone. Co-teaching and teaming structures are an important way to make the task feasible.

Differentiation is made easier in a co-teaching model. Co-teachers are able to share the extra work that comes with differentiation, and differentiation practices maximize the benefits of co-teaching. Other forms of teaming can also lighten the differentiation burden through collaboration and the sharing of lessons and materials.

I find Delisle’s second claim more worrying as it touches on fairness and equity in education. The homogenous groupings he proposes are more commonly called “tracking.” In non-education parlance, this means grouping students of similar abilities together – often identified as “honors,” “grade-level,” and “remedial” tracks. This implies that the only measure of a student’s ability is an academic one, and that students benefit when they are surrounded by others most like them in terms of academic skill.

This is backward progress. Studies have established that students placed in lower-track programs do not perform as well as students in mixed-ability settings.[2] Neuroscience has proven that the brain is malleable, that high expectations yield high outcomes, and that knowledge is developed through repeated practice and challenging content. In light of this, it is particularly concerning that lower-track classes are disproportionately composed of students of color and low-income students, while higher-tracked classes tend to be made up of predominately white or Asian, middle-class students.[3] In this way, our educational system mirrors, and reinforces, the inequity seen in our society as a whole. As educators, we are fundamentally charged with helping to level the playing field for our students, not contributing to the uphill battle. If we know that tracked programming yields poor outcomes, and potentially serves to maintain the racially-linked economic disparity so prevalent in this country, we simply must not do it. First, do no harm.

But what about the accelerated students? The argument that differentiation disservices high-functioning students holds no water. When differentiation practices are fully implemented, they are used to expand the learning of these students in the same way that they support the learning of struggling students. Sometimes this means that homogenous groupings are used within a heterogeneous classroom to allow accelerated students to work together. Sometimes it means that extension work is assigned, or that the highest level of an assignment incorporates greater amounts of complexity, or that lesson content is compacted and taught separately to this group so they can move more quickly. There is no singular differentiation strategy, but the idea that it is only effective for low-level students is an erroneous one.

However, none of this gets to the real heart of the issue. Exposing our students on a daily basis to people who are different from themselves is perhaps the greatest society-changing influence we can have. Our biggest work is to guide our students into becoming noble citizens; we must provide them with constant opportunities to see all the gifts (not just the academic ones) that each individual possesses. When looking through the Gamble Moments books, it is remarkable how many of those powerful stories involve students interacting with others who have greater challenges. It is in these moments that we see the greatest growth in our students; not having these opportunities would be a tragic loss for all students – equally detrimental to our high-achieving students as to our struggling learners.

So if we reject tracking as an acceptable mode, and, after all, “separate but equal” was thrown out as an appropriate option in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, we are left with the conundrum of how to educate students with a disparate range of skills, abilities, and experiences within the same classroom. This is not something that is going to go away, and it is a reality in the vast majority of classrooms across the country. We must embrace differentiation as a strategy to meet the many needs of our students.

Differentiation is the means through which students with a broad-range of learning needs can benefit from a diverse classroom environment while simultaneously making academic gains. We have already established that it is not a panacea; however it is the best strategy teachers have for making instruction accessible to all.differentiation chartThere are many ways to differentiate, and, like all instructional practices, it takes time to develop expertise. Speaking from my personal experience, developing differentiation techniques was my number one professional aspiration for years. After three years of actively pushing myself in this area, I finally felt like I had achieved the goals I had set for myself in my initial vision, but, of course, by then, my goals had changed and evolved — the more work I did, the more work I saw that I had yet to do! As Carol Ann Tomlinson writes in “Differentiation Does, In Fact, Work,” “The pursuit of expertise in teaching is a career-long endeavor. They [Teachers] aren’t sprinters expecting quick success, so much as marathoners in the race for the long haul.[4]

Getting started, or doing more, with differentiation can feel like a daunting task. It is important to keep in mind that differentiation is not a goal in and of itself, rather meeting students’ needs is the goal, and differentiation is the vehicle. So begin with planning.

There are many ways to differentiate – differentiated expectations, differentiated instruction, differentiated assignments, and differentiated assessments. Add to this the ideas of differentiating based on complexity of task (vertical differentiation), and differentiation based on method of demonstrating proficiency, often called choice work or menus (horizontal differentiation), and suddenly, every lesson can begin to look like a Meyers-Briggs personality-type chart! But don’t despair – most lessons don’t require differentiation of every type, and some lessons don’t need to be differentiated at all. It’s important to start with planning.

The Planning Pyramid is a good place to begin – thinking about what components of the standard all students must learn, most students must learn, and some students must learn.planning pyramid

From there, you can design instruction and assessments that will help your students achieve the expectations you have established for them. Assessments are designed based on the expectations for each group.

Many teachers will decide that this type of vertical differentiation is the most important way to implement differentiation simply because meeting the needs of struggling and accelerated learners is such a challenging task.

However, horizontal differentiation can be equally enriching to differentiating with menusa classroom environment. We know that students perform best when they enjoy the task and when they are able to exert some autonomy over it. Choice work allows for creativity and self-selection in the classroom. There are many resources available to help teachers add these components to their classrooms.

There are as many ways to differentiate as there are classrooms. There is no single right way, and it may never be perfect, but in the absence of the elusive, perfect strategy, we must embrace differentiation as a technique that is right for students.

It is not something that we can implement all at once. Begin by taking the next step. Perhaps that means planning one lesson that includes differentiated assignments, or perhaps it means designing a long-range project which includes many of the components of differentiation.

Here are some examples of differentiation that I have incorporated into my own practice. They are each a work-in-progress, and each evolved through collaboration with my co-teachers.

In today’s classrooms, differentiation is not so much an instructional option, as it is an ethical responsibility. The vast majority of classrooms represent diverse communities of learners – this is a critical component to the growth and development of students as they become conscientious citizens of the world, and yet it creates unprecedented academic challenges.

So throw out the bathwater, but keep the baby. Differentiation is very hard work, and teachers need more help in order to be able to implement it more fully. We need more co-teaching pairs, more opportunities for teaming and collaboration, more teacher training, and more resources that have valuable differentiation options embedded within them. In addition, we must push back against the message that every student should cross the same bar at the sadifferentiation cartoonme time, and replace it with the idea that every student must be pushed forward in their individual learning.

You will get no argument from me about the challenges that differentiation entails, but meeting these challenges while respecting the dignity of each learner is, in my mind, a moral imperative. No one can tackle it all at once, but we each must find a place to begin or to grow. It’s no different from what we ask of our students.


[1] Delisle, James R. “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” Education Week 34.15 (2015): 28+. Print.

[2] Welner, Kevin. “The Bottom Line on Student Tracking.” The Washington Post(2013): n. pag. Print.

[3] Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. N.p., 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

[4] Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. p. 26, 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.