Differentiated Instruction

The students populating U.S. classrooms today are a diverse lot. They come from differing cultures and have different learning styles. They arrive at school with differing levels of emotional and social maturity. Their interests differ greatly, both in topic and intensity. At any given time, they reflect differing levels of academic readiness in various subjects — and in various facets of a single subject. And to complicate things even further, readiness and interest can vary for a given student over time and depending on the subject matter.

Teachers in mixed-ability classrooms face multiple challenges, at every grade level. Each September, many 1st graders arrive already able to read 3rd grade books with comprehension, while their peers grapple for months with the idea of left-to-right print progression or the difference between short and long vowels. Some 3rd graders make an independent leap from multiplication to division before any explanation has been offered. Many of these same children, when they reach middle school, also make connections between themes in social studies and literature, or apply advanced mathematical tools to solving science problems before other students in their classes grasp the main idea of a chapter in the textbook. In high school, students who may have been previously identified as “slow” or “average” may surprise everyone when they’re able to develop a complex and articulate defense of a position related to scientific ethics or economic strategy. And some of their classmates who had, until now, found school a “cinch” must work hard to feel comfortable with applications at a more abstract level.

In life, kids can choose from a variety of clothing to fit their differing sizes, styles, and preferences. We understand, without explanation, that this makes them more comfortable and gives expression to their developing personalities. In school, modifying or differentiating instruction for students of differing readiness and interests is also more comfortable, engaging, and inviting. One-size-fits-all instruction will inevitably sag or pinch–exactly as single-size clothing would–students who differ in need, even if they are chronologically the same age.

Acknowledging that students learn at different speeds and that they differ widely in their ability to think abstractly or understand complex ideas is like acknowledging that students at any given age aren’t all the same height: It is not a statement of worth, but of reality. To accommodate this reality, teachers can create a “user-friendly” environment, one in which they flexibly adapt pacing, approaches to learning, and channels for expressing learning in response to their students’ differing needs.

While the goal for each student is challenge and substantial growth, teachers must often define challenge and growth differently in response to students’ varying interests and readiness levels.


Tomlinson, C. (2001). Introduction. In How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed., pp. Vii-viii). Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.