Jan 08

Rebutting Misconceptions about Differentiated Instruction


How do I meet the needs of my students when their skill levels are across the board? Some variation of this question consistently comes up when I coach educators on curriculum implementation such as Project Based Learning or writing strategies. Educators want and need an answer that guides them to taking the first steps towards making a difference for their diverse learners. Lorna Earl explains it best when she wrote:

“Differentiation is making sure that the right students get the right learning tasks at the right time. Once you have a sense of what each student holds as ‘given’ or ‘known’ and what he or she needs in order to learn, differentiation is no longer an option; it is an obvious response.”

Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning, Lorna M. Earl, Corwin Press, Inc. 2003 – pp. 86-87

Every teacher recognizes that some students fall behind and need support, while other students surge forward and need challenge that is respectful to their higher level competencies. Using assessments to find where students are, diagnose the situation, and implement appropriate learning experiences is what we as educators are obligated to do. “[It] is an obvious response” (Lorna M. Earl).

So I saddened to read an article that inaccurately portrayed Differentiated Instruction as a failure, and appeared to be a misinformed attack on teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction (DI)–by someone who, based on his credentials, should know better. Dr. James R. DeLisle wrote the article, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work,” in Education Week. Dr. DeLisle argued that “Differentiation is a failure.” His basis for this argument is to cite three articles that on the surface appear to support his agenda, yet on closer review places in question his unwarrented attacks.

The first article, Michael J. Petrilli’s article “All Together Now?” is used by Dr. DeLisle to say that because Differentiated Instruction was ineffective because a researcher is quoted in the article saying, “We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.” This comment represents an issue of implementation system, which appears to have been ineffective. That does not translate to DI being a failure. When the rest of the article is read, Mr. Petrilli shares his investigation of his child’s elementary school who uses Differentiated Instruction as a lens for learning. Here’s an excerpt of what he learned from the principal:

‘“We are committed to diversity,” he started. “It’s a lens through which we see everything. We look at test scores. How are students overall? And how are different groups doing? It’s easy to see. Our white students are performing high. What can we do to keep pushing that performance up? For African American and Hispanic students, what can we do to make gains?”

Since Mr. G.’s arrival five years ago, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test is way up, from 55 to 91 percent. For Hispanic children, it’s up from 46 to 74 percent. It’s true that scores statewide have also risen, but not nearly to the same degree.

And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time. In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school.’

Read the article for yourself. What you’ll find is that Mr. Petrilli, while skeptical, believes there’s a place for Differentiated Instruction. He thinks there should be more homogenous grouping, which is a part of DI. Dr. DeLisle somehow missed this large part of the article.

The second article that Dr. DeLisle references is by Dr. Holly Hertberg-Davis’ article, Myth 7: Differentiation in the Regular Classroom Is Equivalent to Gifted Programs and Is Sufficient–Classroom Teachers Have the Time, the Skill, and the Will to Differentiate Adequately. he used a quote from her without explaining it to support his blanket claim regarding DI. But Dr. Hertberg-Davis was speaking of the challenges for differentiating for Gifted and regular ed due to a push of mandated testing. In fact, Dr. Hertberg-Davis notes in her article:

“Differentiation of instruction both within the regular classroom and within homogeneous settings is critical to addressing the needs of all high-ability learners, including twice-exceptional students, underachievers, students from underserved populations, and highly gifted students. But, like any approach to educating gifted students, it functions best as a critical component within a spectrum of services provided for high-ability learners.”

While concerns are raised, Dr. Hertberg-Davis is not saying that DI is a failure, as Dr. DeLisle seems to want readers to think.

The final article referenced is by Mike Schmoker who wrote an equally misguided article in 2010, “When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities.” In Mr. Schmoker’s article, his solution to eliminating DI undercuts the very argument he wrote:

“Thanks to the British educator Dylan Wiliam and others, we now know that the consistent delivery of lessons that include multiple checks for understanding may be the most powerful, cost-effective action we can take to ensure learning.”

When effective teachers conduct multiple checks for understanding, and uncover that one or more students have not achieved the learning outcomes, they draw from a variety of instructional tools to address the needs. This might be small group mini-lessons, one on one coaching, spiraled instruction, centers, or other options that are practices of Differentiated Instruction.

chess by a girl

Dr. DeLisle, I presume, knows this because of his work in Gifted education both at the university and secondary level, including middle and high school. His extensive work over 30 years includes the insightful approach of spending time teaching in a middle school at least once a week so as to stay in touch with instruction prior to post-secondary classrooms. He’s written many books and articles in the field, including a potent article Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement in Gifted Child Today of January 2012. This article brings forth the voices of Gifted students. Their insights on what they need makes a strong argument of differentiating for their needs. Several student interviews identify qualities of effective teachers: empathetic, engaging, and knowledgeable on how to provide learning experiences that respected students’ intelectual capacity. While Dr. DeLisle’s intent is to promote the needs of Gifted–which is effectively done in the Gifted Child Today article–the students’ words express needs that are shared by all students, and should be considered by all educators.

Yet it brings into question his statement, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students” (Differentiation Doesn’t Work).

Dr. DeLisle makes this over the top statement about DI, yet he also provides consultations to teachers on how to effectively differentiated instruction in the classroom through his relationship with Creative Learning Consultants via Pieces of Learning, an organization that specifically specialize in Differentiated Instruction since 1989. They have an interesting resources page. One has to ask, what is Dr. DeLisle true motive for attempting to discredit Differentiated Instruction given these facts.

Based on his article, Differentiation Doesn’t Work, one has to ask, does Dr. DeLisle either:

  1. lack understanding about the uses of DI?
  2. believes that teachers are incapable of differentiating effectively (which he implies with several references)?
  3. has a hidden agenda for which he’s attempting to bring down DI in order to achieve another aim?

Is there lack of understanding about the uses of DI?

Dr. DeLisle states “that we’re not exactly sure what it is we are differentiating: Is it the curriculum or the instructional methods used to deliver it? Or both?” By acknowledging his own lack of understanding of Differentiated Instruction he undercuts credibility to oppose it, or he’s failed to transfer his expertise of Gifted Education to that of General Education, or in Special Education, which he’s stated having degrees in. It’s ironic that Differentiated Instruction roots come from the world of GIFTED and Special Education, two areas that Dr. DeLisle has training yet by his own words is “not exatly sure what it is we are differentiating.” Even in Gifted classes there is diversity of understanding, skills, interests, and approaches to learning. Dr. DeLisle should know this.

Are teachers incapable of differentiating effectively?

No is the short answer. Teachers are trained professionals whose job is to provide instruction so that all students achieve. Yes, having students at different levels of skills is challenging. Yes, larger class size makes instruction in general more difficult, but also means differentiation is even more crucial for educators to accomplish their job, in the face of the challenges. Teachers know how to conduct assessments. When the assessments are fog-free, effective teachers analyze the data to determine what students understand and what are their needs–a point made in Dr. DeLisle’s earlier article, Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement. So if Dr. DeLisle were to follow this logic regarding using assessment data to it’s conclusion, the supports and enrichments that are provided will be meaningful if based on data analysis. Recall the quote my Lorna Earl at the begining of this article. This would mean that teachers are VERY capable of differentiating effectively.


Is there a hidden agenda?

The real agenda of Dr. DeLisle is to advocate for Gifted Students to be placed in wholly gifted classrooms. He believes that heterogeneous classrooms hurt the growth of gifted students, which he makes some compelling arguments for this issue in Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement. Personally, I see viable arguments for Dr DeLisle’s advocacy for this, having taught honors classes that were comprised of Gifted students. I also see how in some instances the right teacher can provide for Gifted students who are mixed in with other students. There is value to providing Gifted Students instructional time among their academic level peers, just as is done for other students via Guided Reading. Dr. DeLisle just needs to be honest about his true purpose.

To be clear, it’s important to have people advocating for Gifted Students, just as we need advocates for other populations of students. Critiquing education, even how best to help teachers and students differentiate instruction, is valuable so long as the purpose is to improve conditions, and not, pardon the apt cliche, throw out the baby with the bath water.

Education leaders  have an ethical and moral responsibility to use their position of influence and prestige for communicating with honesty and clarity of intent. Readers of Education Week deserve information that is not misleading.

There are advocates, like myself, for Differentiated Instruction used in effective ways, who are willing to have a constructive dialog about how to do right by all students. Those with genuine intentions can  have a thoughtful conversation. The result may likely be that Dr. DeLisle and others who struggle with DI will find the answers they need to better help students. Perhaps participate in the Twitter chat group #DI4ALL that meets every 1st and 3rd Monday of each month at 8 p.m. EST. All are welcome to contact me @jmccarthyeds, including Dr. DeLisle. I invite everyone to join this dialog, post questions, concerns, ideas and stories for our constructive growth.

The bottom line is that students in a classroom tend to be a different levels of skill. One single instructional approach does not work for all students. Assessments tell us what students know and don’t know. To do nothing would be professional malpractice.

Here are resources on applications for Differentiated Instruction:




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  1. Terry Marselle

    I am also a life-long classroom teacher – 43 years and still trucking. Your rebuttal of Delisle is extremely well written and point-by-point, you take him to task. But at the end of the day, you lose. For the sake of argument, let’s assume everything you said in your response is 100% true. That is, how Delisle contorts the facts and the intent of the authors of each of the three articles he cites. And let’s assume that there is no loftiness or breezy-ness in YOUR response. You still lose. Why?

    Because of the raw logistics of differentiated learning. In the military, they have a saying: “from tooth to tail.” That is, it’s not only the operation going on up in the front lines, but it’s the supplies of ammunition for the troops and the food it takes for them to fight, etc, etc. I love the way Delisle very accurately describes the facts on the ground for a typical classroom teacher.

    That is, the students who are struggling, a smattering of gifted kids, some English-language learners, and a large group of average students…all of them expecting one single teacher to do his or her best to differentiate. Delisle describes this situation so beautifully. I would only add one more analogy. What Delisle describes as trying to juggle with one hand tied behind one’s back, I would equate with being an air traffic controller at JFK Airport in New York City.

    Add to the mix, various skill levels, learning styles – if there is such a thing – (see Hal Pashler and Dan Willingham) and intellectual levels and most people get the point. And the point is, DI logistically cannot be done.

    Further, Mr. McCarthy, can you cite solid and well-grounded science that clearly documents that DI actually works? By that, I do not mean one professor in her or his ivory tower doing one “study” or even two studies. I want to see the preponderance of well-settled academic peer reviewed educational science. Studies, that is, which have control mechanisms. Contrarily, I do not want to hear anecdotal information from individual teachers saying “DI works in my classroom.”


    a teacher in West Hartford, CT

    1. John McCarthy

      Hi TM, teacher in West Hartford CT,

      Thanks for reading and responding to my article. As you say, and I, DeLisle’s references are misleading at best. Because he puts so much into it to lead his argument that DI is a failure, it puts into question the rest of the article. But let’s go to the middle of his article, and set aside the false references. Let’s go to what perhaps is the heart of your argument, which you are far clearer about than DeLisle’s attempt. Grant Wiggins shares similar concerns and offers some references: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/on-differentiation-a-reply-to-a-rant-and-a-posing-of-questions/

      Differentiated Instruction is challenging to implement when done it’s most formal and effective methods. Agreed. I’ve an Edutopia article on this topic coming out in February. Anything that’s new for teachers to consciously work at is challenging. That does not mean that it’s not “do-able” or something we should not try because it’s difficult and time consuming.

      Given the class make up that you referenced as an example:
      “the students who are struggling, a smattering of gifted kids, some English-language learners, and a large group of average students…all of them expecting one single teacher to do his or her best to differentiate.”

      With this mix of students in yours and other’s classroom, what approach should you take? If you believe that this mix of students range in their skill levels (struggling & gifted) and understanding (struggling, gifted, ELL) then is the solution one of the following?

      A) Teach them all the same, using as a benchmark either the average students (typical practice), struggling students, Gifted students, or the ELL. Whoever is the focus, then the rest suffer, either to fall further behind and/or learn little as they are bored each day. This option typically leads to knowingly allowing students to fail due to not making adjustments and addressing identified needs. Malpractice.

      B) In addition to the intuitive differentiation that does occur in classrooms, i.e. offering students choices, using a variety of medias to provide content, and provide coaching when you notice that students are struggling or bored, you also plan activities ahead of time to anticipate lessons that one can project that some students will succeed and others will flounder. Pre-planning is Intentional Differentiation. It does take time because if requires high dedication to using formative assessments and spending time to diagnose needs based on the data.

      C) If you agree that option A is something that quality teachers do not do, but disagree with option B because time is the element you take issue with–what then is your solution?

      How do you as a teacher address the challenges and demands of your students when a portion of them do not understand the lesson you’ve just taught or do poorly on an assessment you’ve just given them? Please share how you work towards all of your students achieving without doing any differentiation? I genuinely with an open heart want to know.

      I look forward to your thoughts.

      1. Terry Marselle

        Hi back John,

        What follows are the first few paragraphs of a piece that appeared in the Harvard Education Letter, June 2011. The link is below that. Actually, this is a very well-balanced piece and it’s long too. Here are those paragraphs now.


        “Last year, when Sherryl Hauser, a third-year math teacher, had to plan a project to develop her teaching, it was an easy choice: differentiated instruction. “One of the reasons I picked differentiating is that I kept trying it and it kept failing,” she says.

        It wasn’t as if she didn’t understand the concept. Hauser had coauthored an article, “Constructing Complexity for Differentiated Learning,” in the August 2009 issue of Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. But in going from pre-service grad student to full-time teacher at Sage Park Middle School in Windsor, Conn., Hauser saw a gap between theory and practice.

        Suddenly, “tiering”—or varying the difficulty of work for students based on readiness—had a twist: Kids didn’t like it when a classmate’s paper looked a lot different or had more problems on it. As she tried flexible grouping, students who seemed to need extra support actually “got it,” while those expected to glide would struggle. As Hauser put it in her write-up, “I quickly discovered that my assumptions were not always accurate.”

        and the link


        In another blog-post, a fellow named Jeff Bryant has a piece called:

        Is Differentiated Instruction a Useless Fad? (link is below)

        Despite its incendiary title, he has some pithy comments (especially in the section where he is responding to his readers. In one, he talks about “how DI is already in the DNA of so many great teachers that it doesn’t necessarily need to be singled out as a “best practice” all on its own. Again, the link is below.

        …which brings to mind a revisit to the top article. On page 2, in the last two paragraphs, a different teacher says, “Stainton views ideas from experts like Tomlinson (widely agreed to be the author of DI) as tools to draw on when she needs them, but not as recipes to be followed. She uses formative assessments to know where students are and offers students a variety of ways to interact with a topic, though not necessarily in each lesson.

        Still, she grapples with the concept. “What is differentiation—this word that is put to this idea?” she asks. “I wish they would get rid of the word.”

        Returning to the Jeff Bryant piece (sorry for the roller-coaster ride), Bryant says,

        “In a recent (2010) Education Week article, ASCD author Mike Schmoker took a bear claw swipe at the practice of using differentiated instruction in the classroom, calling it a “novelty” that unnecessarily complicates teachers’ work.

        He begins: (This is Bryant quoting Schmoker)

        “Several years ago, I had a courteous, if troubling, e-mail exchange with the architect of a hugely popular instructional innovation. She had heard that I had been criticizing this approach. (I had.) In a series of e-mails, I explained my reasons, starting with the fact that there was no research or strong evidence to support its widespread adoption. I asked, with increasing importunity, for any such evidence. Only after multiple requests did I finally receive an answer: There was no solid research or school evidence.”


        on a related but slightly different subject…

        With the exception of k-3 and perhaps up through the 4th grade as well as highly Gifted and Talented students, Direct Instruction works.

        Here’s a link to a major study which doesn’t mince words on this topic.



        here is a 30 minute interview with one of the authors of the above study. Scroll down to click on the podcast icon.



        another related but slightly different subject:

        Collaborative Learning only works only if everyone at the table is an expert to begin with. Otherwise, students just exchanging ignorance and floundering…treading water. In other words, collaborative learning does not work. Here is that link.

        EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 41 (2), 75-86
        Copyright ©2006, Lawrence Erlbaum, Associates, Inc.

        Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction
        Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching

        and here’s the link:


        or if you would rather have a shorter 6 page version of the same, here’s that link as well:



        Bottom line, students not only want / desire direct instruction from the teacher – with those exceptions I already mentioned – but the psychological / educational science is overwhelmingly irrefutable that they learn better from it. Please, by all means, read these studies.

        We adults think we know more than the kids, but we don’t. We get something stuck in our craw and we gallop away with it…seemingly no matter what. For example, we get all fired up about differentiated learning – clearly a construct of college professor Tomlinson – and it takes a REAL teacher…a teacher who is in the trenches every day, i.e., the Harvard Education Letter posting…and she’s the one who gives the reality check that the kids didn’t like the different lily pad approach of differentiated instruction. Talk about a cold glass of water in our educational faces!


        As far as your multiple choice test you have given me…I was not aware of the fact that I was being given one, but I will indulge you here one time. My choice is B.

        Terry M.

  2. John McCarthy

    Hi Terry,
    I’m glad that you would choose option B. Meeting the needs of all students is important. Using formative assessments to identify and diagnose what supports are needed is the foundation to differentiated instruction.

    Could you share from your 40+ years of teaching experience how you’ve approached addressing student needs? What do you teach or have taught? High School, middle school, elementary? Subjects? How have specific experiences in your career informed your approach to instruction?

    Looking forward to hearing from your experiences.

    1. Matthew J. Moore

      Mr. McCarthy,
      I am still a high school student, but I am a huge advocate of DI. I have done a great amount of research and am in the process of writing a thesis on it. As a student, I have a different perspective than many teachers. I believe DeLisle makes a valid point that DI is difficult for teachers to implement. In the school I go to, however, DI seems to be incorporated with relative ease. The teachers at my school work together, and share the difficulties.In traditional whole-group instruction, teachers don’t really have to work together very much. I believe that DI is difficult, but the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. I greatly respect you for taking a stand against those that think otherwise.

      1. John McCarthy

        Hello Mr. Matthew Moore,
        Thank you for your thoughts. Coming from a student, I take as the highest praise 🙂 Differentiation is very difficult to implement until a teacher changes their mindset and make students the center of their practice. Most teachers want to place students at the center, but adult issues such as time can interfere. There are some first steps that can liberate teachers to differentiate more than they currently do (all teachers differentiate to some degree, but they are not always aware of it): Use formative assessment data to determine what students need, reflect on one’s own practice, and “listen” to students. As someone who attends school, you know what good learning experiences look like and you have a wealth of interests and skills that teachers can use to personalize learning experiences that meet your needs. Student voice matters. Thank you for sharing yours here.

      2. John McCarthy

        Hi Matthew,
        Thanks for sharing your unique perspective. I will continue to stand against the “but” & “can’t” for differentiated instruction. Here is an insider note about how you as a student can help your teachers differentiate: Ask questions. Lots of them. If you don’t understand something they say, then ask them: “Could you explain that in a different way or from a different perspective?” This approach helps teachers stretch outside of their comfort zone, avoid repeating themselves, and present ideas from new points of view. The other way to help them differentiate is for you to make suggestions for how you might do the work in a different way. For example, instead of writing a science report, how about an article that connects the content to something happening today? Or offer to use different tools like Powtoons.com or pictochart.com to create the products. Sometimes, like students, teachers do not know what they do not know. Help them with your suggestions. If they try to work with you on any of these, they are differentiating 🙂

        There are more levels, like in a game, to differentiation. The higher the level of implementation the more complex is the work. How do you communicate to your teachers when you need support?

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