Teaching Chat

Exploring Differentiated Instruction

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leading authority on differentiated instruction, discussed the core principles of the practice and take your questions on using it in the classroom and as a strategy for whole-school improvement.

Exploring Differentiated Instruction

Friday, May 15, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., Eastern time

With student diversity growing dramatically and schools facing mounting pressure to boost achievement, differentiated instruction—the craft of accommodating and building on students’ individual learning needs—has gained increased attention in recent years. But it can be difficult to implement effectively, and interpretations of what it means for instruction can vary. In this chat, Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leading authority on differentiated instruction, discussed the core principles of the practice and take your questions on using it in the classroom and as a strategy for whole-school improvement.


• Carol Ann Tomlinson is the William Clay Parrish Jr. professor in education and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy at the University of Virginia. She is the author of many books, including The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.

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Making a Difference

Exploring Differentiated Instruction(05/15/2009)


2:29 EdWeek Producer: Jennifer: This chat, Exploring Differentiated Instruction, is now open for questions, so please start submitting them now. The chat itself will begin at 3 p.m.

2:39 CarolTomlinson: test

2:54 EdWeek Producer: Jennifer: Thanks to everyone who has submitted questions so far. If you had previously submitted questions in the comment field on the page below this window, we will try to answer those as well, but if you can, please submit them again within the chat window itself. The chat will begin in a few minutes.

3:02 Anthony Rebora: Hi everyone. I’m Anthony Rebora, editor of teachermagazine.org and the Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook. Welcome to our chat on differentiated instruction. We are honored to have Carol Tomlinson with us. As many of you know, Professor Tomlinson is one the key authorities on differentiated instruction. She’s written and presented widely on the topic--and, as a former teacher, implemented it in her own classrooms. She’s also very generous with her time and knowledge. (I know from experience as a reporter.) Welcome, Professor Tomlinson.

3:03 CarolTomlinson: Thanks. I’m glad to be with you. I appreciate the questions you’ve already posted and look forward to answering as many questions as possible.

3:03 [Comment From Guest]
What first steps do you recomend for getting teachers involved in DI?

3:03 Anthony Rebora: Let’s get right to some of them.


CarolTomlinson: I think a good first step is to think about the logic of differentiation in your own class. Where do you want students to end up at the end of a unit (or at the end of today). How can you use formative assessment to monitor where they are relative to those goals. And once you have a sense of where students are, ask yourself how you can adapt the classroom to help move small groups of students and individuals as effectively as possible to those goals.

You can start anywhere. You might try to deliver information in more ways that unsual, or give students two options for exploring an idea, or develop assessments that provide different ways for students to show what they’ve learned. Teaching in small groups is a great first step--and really powerful.

Read some about differentiation, too--so you have a sense as you grow of what solid differentiation looks like. And find some colleagues who will learn along with you.

3:07 [Comment From Leslie]
Dr. Tomlinson: My teachers struggle with the idea of how to plan for differentiation on a daily basis. They feel overwhelmed at the prospect of attending to all learners’ needs each day. What advice do you have on first steps teachers can take in incorporating differentiation into their lesson/unit planning?


CarolTomlinson: I’d think about looking at needs of small groups of students--vs. trying to address the needs of 30 separate students--in the beginning. Are there students who are struggling with the content, or students who are ahead, or five students who may be stuck on one skill. Planning for two tasks or two small groups is way easier than planning 30 lesson plans. Differentiation is not the same as individualization in that it doesn’t suggest IEPs for each student. It suggests there are patterns of need in a classroom and that if we look for those patterns, we can develop approaches that open up the classroom a bit.

It’s also probably good in the beginning for teachers to concentrate on one subject or on two or three strategies. Trying to do everything all at once is likely to result in more frustration than success.

3:11 [Comment From Donna]
What recommendations do you have for administrators who want to successfully implement differentiated instruction in their school, but have not been successful across all grade levels or with all staff members?


CarolTomlinson: Toni’s Question--

Professional development for differentiation is really critical. It shouldn’t ever be thought of as one-shot or a couple of workshops. Learning to differentiate is like learning math or a new language. It takes place step by step over a long period of time--and needs to be tailored to the teacher’s readiness, interests, and ways of learning. Follow-up should be a given--and should happen for a long, long time into the future.

3:14 Anthony Rebora: sorry. Small communication glitch. The question responded to above is here:

3:14 [Comment From Toni Reed]
How do you follow up professional learning for implementation. You stated that there must be follow-up, what does this look like for a successfull implementation?

3:15 [Comment From Susan Stengel]
How is differentiating instruction different from the old ways of grouping for ability? How can we avoid the stigma of being in the “low” group? If we are changing groups all the time, how do we keep track of that?


Do you try to use differentiated instruction in your classroom?
( 93% )

( 7% )


CarolTomlinson: I think it’s critical for an administrator to have a clear vision for why differentiation matters, who it will benefit, and what it should look like in the classroom. It’s important to make those things clear and consistently visible to teachers--and to have discussions as a faculty that allow folks to share varied perspectives.

It’s also critically important, however, to make sure teachers have goals they need to reach in their classrooms. How teachers move toward differentiation will vary based on the teacher--but THAT they are making progress should be a non-negotiable.

Give grade-levels or departments responsibility for supporting one another’s growth. Visit teachers’ classrooms. Set goals with them. Provide professional development that’s rooted in their classrooms. In other words, establish expectations and provide support that enables them to meet the expectations.

See if you can establish teacher planning teams that end with teachers implementing some differentiation with others on the team observing and learning from what they do.

It’s important to have a vision, a plan, support, momentum, etc.--all moving together.

You might take a look at The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning.

3:18 [Comment From Linda]
Good afternoon. If you could share 5 or so “big look-fors” in evaluating the effectiveness of a differentiated classroom, what would they be? What are the best indicators for seeing differentiation happening in classes?


CarolTomlinson: Flexible grouping is very important in differentiation. Students respond and learn differently in different contexts--and come to see themselves and one another differently in different contexts.

Flexible grouping says we will certainly use some groups based on similar readiness (needs based on a specific goal--not ability-based groups)--but should also use mixed readiness groups, interest-based groups of both similar and varied interests, similar and mixed learning profile groups, random groups, student choice groups, and whole class groups.

Kids know whether they are strong or weak in a particular area at a given time. We look foolish if we don’t attend to that. However, if that’s the only kind of grouping we use, we pigeon-hole kids and end up with bluebirds and buzzards.

Flexible grouping has students change groups often enough that they are never quite sure what’s coming next--and they don’t feel identified with any one group of peers, one part of the classroom, etc.

3:23 Anthony Rebora: Ok, next let’s turn to Linda’s question (just above) on the 5 big “look fors.”


Have you seen learning gains as a result of using differentiated instruction?
( 59% )

( 4% )

Too early to say.
( 37% )


CarolTomlinson: My big look fors in a differentiated classroom would be:
1) A teacher who clearly values and relates to the kids as individuals and as a group--is attentive to individuals--tries consistently to connect with individuals and the group.

2) A class that functions like a team--has a sense of common goals, pulls together, helps one another out, celebrates successes, helps with smooth operation of the classroom

3) High quality curriculum designed to engage kids and to support their understanding of what they need to learn.

4) Use of pre-assessment and on-going assessment used by the teacher to inform instruction

5) Attention to student readiness, interest, and learning profile.

6) Respectful tasks for each student--equally engaging, equally focused on essential understandings, requiring high level thinking

7) Flexible grouping

8) Teaching up--a high ceiling of expectations in the classroom with the intent to differentiate to raise students to that ceiling and beyond.

These don’t all happen on day one, but they have to be our goal in order to benefit students--to represent quality instruction.

3:30 [Comment From GB]
I am a teacher educator. Do you have suggestions for ways to effectively teach differentiation to preservice teachers who are beginners at planning any lesson, let alone one which works for all students? Thank you.


CarolTomlinson: Programs we see that prepare teachers well for differentiation do several things.

1) Their professors model differentiation for them in their own classes.
2) They study differentiation as a subject
3) The expectation for and support to learn about differentiation is integrated into all of the classes they take--in other words, conversation is constant about student diversity, strategies for address those needs, reflective teaching, uses of assessment, learning environments that are inviting to virtually all students, managing a flexible classroom, etc.--and all lesson plans, teaching, etc. has to be differentiated.

When those things happen, new teachers leave their teacher education programs remarkably ready to work with academically diverse student populations

3:34 [Comment From KimM]
Can you talk about how you see differentiated assessment fitting in with differentiated instruction ?


CarolTomlinson: The aim of assessment is to provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate what they know, understand, and can do as the result of a segment of study. Some students can create an annotated diagram of a scientific process, but cannot write an essay about it. Differentiated assessment provides students with more than one way to demonstrate proficiency. The goals of the assessment (what the student should know, understand, do) doesn’t change--but formats, support systems, time, etc. can vary with the goal of maximizing the opportunity for each student to show what he/she has learned.

3:37 [Comment From Michael Ruscitti]
What are teh top three impediments that teachers have relayed to you about incorporating a differentiated philosophy into their classroom


CarolTomlinson: That varies a great deal across teachers--and in the early stages of implementation, it can be hard to tease out the “yes-buts” from other kinds of impediments. In general, teachers worry a lot about planning time. That’s a legitimate concern, of course. However, it can be addressed by encouraging teachers to grow their practice at a reasonable pace, by providing opportunities for teachers to work together, etc.

In our research, the four biggest impediments to differentiation in teh early stages are:

1) Lack of clarity about curriculum goals (what students should know, understand, do--not what they’re going to cover. That’s very important because that provides the platform for differentiation.)

2) Lack of focus on individual students (we tend to think and talk about “the kids” as a whole rather than studying individuals. As long as we see them predominately as a group, we teach that way)

3) Lack of comfort with instructional strategies that invite us to differentiate--to reach out to kinds in different ways

4) Uncertainty about how to manage a classroom in which students are not all doing the same thing in the same way in the same time span.

3:43 Anthony Rebora: One theme that’s coming up in our questions is the issue of fairness in the differentiated setting. Here’s one good example:+

3:43 [Comment From Juanita Wilson]
I think the biggest obstacle that teachers I mentor have with DI is with the concept of fairness. It is difficult for them to see how relative fairness is with respect to giving grades and assessing students in general.

3:49 Anthony Rebora: While she’s working on this one, I’m going to put up a quick readers’ poll on the issue.


Do you think DI is unfair to some students--for example, advanced learners?
( 6% )

( 31% )

only if implemented poorly
( 63% )


CarolTomlinson: Differentiation would suggest that fairness happens not when we treat everyone as though they were the same, but rather than we are fair when we help each student get the support necessary to succeed.

Your question suggests that fairness and grades get tangled together.

Experts in grading (who by the way don’t think about differentiation--it’s not their area) tell us several things about what would constitute best practice grading. Most of those really support a differentiated classroom (things like not over-grading work, grading later rather than earlier in a grading cycle, grading against criteria rather than against one another, eliminating “grade fog"--practices that make grades less clear, for example taking off points because a student doesn’t put her name on the top right corner of the paper, etc.)

They also tell us that we should communicate three separate grades to stakeholers--NOT average them, but report them separately. Those three are:

1. A performance grade--given the criteria, where is this student

2. A grade for habits of mind and work--How do this student’s work habits reflect those of successful people

3. A grade for growth--Given where the student began, where is he now

We can do that (through comments, conferences, revised report cards, etc.)

Such a system does not suggest we grade a student harder because they are “smarter” or easier because they are struggling. It suggests that the criteria for the PERFORMANCE grade stay the same. In addition, however, the other two elements help kids and parents understand better what leads to success and it also reports growth (or lack of it).

The elements of best practice grading are exactly the ones we’d want to use to be fair to students, as I see it.

3:51 Anthony Rebora: And here’s a related question on the fairness issue:

3:51 [Comment From Sherryann Sylvestre]
What do you say to parents of high performing students who believe their children are being “slowed down” by the “average” kids?


CarolTomlinson: I’d want to examine really carefully whether there is merit to the parents’ argument.

If I had high challenge work for their students on a consistent basis and could show them what that work is, how I’m trying to match it to their students’ needs, when I meeting with their students as a small group to ensure that they know how to reach high, etc., then I’m probably going to be okay. I may need to do a better job of communicating to the parents how I’m addressing their students’ needs. And I can always listen to their suggestions and get better at extending challenge--but I at least know that I am vigorously attending to the needs of their students.

Often, we don’t have strong, consistent plans for our most advanced students--and it is often the case that the parents’ arguments have real merit. In those instances, there’s not a parent problem, but rather a need on our part to proactively address the needs of advanced learners.

3:57 [Comment From Jo Imlay]
What do you say to teachers who tell you that they don’t have the time to differentiate because they can’t possibly test everyone in a different format to determine what they know and don’t know?

3:59 CarolTomlinson: I think those folks have a misunderstanding about what differentiation is. I can’t imagine testing everyone in a different format. Differentiation (as well as most advice for good teaching in general) might suggest a couple of formats--and perhaps a little variation on time, etc.)--but I would never say it’s a goal of differentiation to test everyone in different format!!

4:00 Anthony Rebora: One last question. We’ve been getting a bunch on ELL students

4:00 [Comment From Ernest Zamora]
Please share some ideas about how you differentiate with English Lanuage Learners (ELL) having to function in an all-English classroom with non-ELL students.


CarolTomlinson: I’d want to do things like:

1. Identifying really essential knowledge, understanding and skill so I could focus most on what matters most

2. front-loading or pre-teaching essential vocabulary so the ELL students are primed for essential new words when they arise

3. Making sure the ELL students work with small groups so they have lots of opportunity to talk

4. Providing some reading in the students’ own language when possible so they have content to think about and work with

5. Meeting with students from the ELL group who need extra assistance with reading, spelling, etc. (and with other students in the class who have similar needs) to make sure they get extra attention to specific needs

6. Provide more than one way to express or explore ideas


Are you a special education teacher who uses DI?
( 14% )

( 86% )


Anthony Rebora: OK, that’s all the time we have now. Great discussion. Our thanks to Carol Tomlinson. And thanks for all the questions. I’m sorry that we just couldn’t get to all of them. For more on Tomlinson’s work and theories, you can check out my interview with her from a while back in the Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook.


Also a transcript of this chat will be avail on this page--and on teachermagazine.org--shortly after we are done here.


CarolTomlinson: Thanks for your time and interest!



Education Week's Spotlight on Differentiated   Instruction