A simple guide to differentiated teaching
Differentiated teaching is more than just a buzzword—it’s a high impact teaching strategy (HITS) that packs a real punch when it comes to delivering learning outcomes.
While all teachers would be familiar with the term, there is so much information out there about how, where and when to differentiate that even educational research is sometimes confused (Gibbs & Mckay, 2021).
In this article, we break down what differentiated teaching is and how you can easily and consistently implement this pedagogical approach in your everyday practice.
What is differentiated teaching?
Put simply, differentiation is about tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. It aims to improve both the skills and understanding of every student, despite their initial understanding (Victorian Government, 2022). That means helping students at every point on the learning spectrum—from high achievers to those who need some extra encouragement. This way, all students grow.
Of course, creating individualised curriculums for each of your students isn’t viable (or necessarily beneficial). Instead, differentiation focuses on adapting different classroom elements to create a more personalised learning experience. To do this, teachers can adjust the content, process, product and learning environment.
This approach is based on Carol Ann Tomlinson’s framework of differentiated teaching, who is an internationally acknowledged whiz on the subject (Tomlinson, 1999; Gibbs & Mckay, 2021).
Four elements of differentiated teaching
Content refers to the knowledge and skills students are required to learn. This includes the learning goals that you establish for learners, as well as any resources used to access that content (Mavidou & Kakana, 2019).
How to differentiate by content
Simple ways to differentiate content include offering students a variety of question and task types based on Bloom's Taxonomy, something we typically do in most lessons.
More complex and individualised methods include teaching different content to different students. This could look like making careful explanations to small groups of students who may be struggling, but allowing more able students to continue ahead of their peers, or changing the content entirely based on their interest and ability.
Digital tools like Atomi allow you to quickly and easily assign revision material to students who need more development before moving on. Alternatively, you can choose to assign more difficult content to students who are finding the work easier.
My personal favourite for doing this is to allow students to choose passion projects. These projects can be worked on once students have completed set work and are specific to students' interests and abilities.
Some examples include writing a persuasive essay as to why school uniforms should be banned or completing a scientific investigation.
Simply put, the process can be related to the learning experiences students engage with to digest and use the content (NSW Government, 2021).
Here, the same content is used but the methods that encourage students to understand the content can be varied based on readiness, interest and students' learning profiles (Mavidou & Kakana, 2019).
How to differentiate by process
This can be achieved by providing students with different learning material, such as textbooks, online research, or Atomi videos, and allowing them the choice to work independently or in small groups.
If teachers have more time, the inclusion of choice grids or tiered activities can also be used. This encourages students to select activities based on their ability and interests, while still achieving the same learning outcome.
Products are an opportunity for students to show off what they have learnt. By allowing students to choose how they want to demonstrate their knowledge educators can receive a far more accurate understanding of their ability, while also increasing their engagement (Mavidou & Kakana, 2019).
How to differentiate by product
To easily differentiate products, allow students the choice of how they present their understanding, such as paragraphs, diagrams, presentations or by simply verbalising it to you. In addition, allow learners to choose how they work, either on their own, in groups or with your support.
The learning environment is a powerful tool as it can support, or hinder student learning and all teachers aim to make their classroom a respectful and empowering place. Differentiating the learning environment encompasses everything from class rules to furniture arrangements (NSW Government, 2021).
How to differentiate the learning environment
To differentiate the learning environment, educators could create space in the classroom for quiet independent work with headphones to cancel noise, as well as collaborative spaces students can move in and out of. In addition, setting up clear routines and expectations for students can help implement different types of differentiation strategies with ease.
To get the best outcomes from differentiated instruction, it should be considered consistently throughout the school year. To do this, educators should start small and look for opportunities to make significant change, without too much added administrative work. Implementing some of these tips is a great place to start, and find what works for you and your students.
Keen to implement high impact strategies in your classroom? But not sure where to start?
Discover the ultimate guide to HITS—an exploration of ten high impact teaching strategies, condensed into short chapters and paired with practical tips, tricks and templates to embed into your teaching instruction.
Sarah-Eleni Zaferis (Bachelor of Education and Science) writes on all things pedagogy, teaching strategies, student and teacher wellbeing. As a high-school educator herself, she is passionate about exploring the ways that educators can put time back in their day while boosting student engagement, motivation, and academic achievement.
- Department of Education, 2021, What to differentiate, NSW Government
- Gibbs, K & McKay, L, 2021, Differentiated teaching practices of Australian mainstream classroom teachers: A systematic review and thematic analysis, Griffith University
- Mavidou & Kakana, 2019, Differentiated Instruction in Practice: Curriculum Adjustments in Kindergarten, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
- The Department of Education and Training, 2022, High impact teaching strategies (HITS), Victorian Government Tomlinson, C. A, 1999, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development