Edutopia is a great resource for ideas and professional collaboration. In a discussion thread, New at the “Game” of Differentiated Teaching, I was asked to contribute to supporting a fellow educator. In a profession that is based on supporting others, I had to join in.

Rawhide asked a question quite common for teachers who grapple with the challenges of helping learners succeed under difficult circumstances. The question asked was not a simple one. It contained the challenges of large class sizes and limited resources. Where does one start to meet the diverse needs under such conditions? The first part of the answer is, “We must.” Or as the great teacher, Yoda says: “No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try” (Star Wars: A New Hope, episode IV). See video at the end of this post. Here is the post as left on Edutopia’s discussion. May it serve your needs for 3 steps towards differentiating for all learners. 

Let’s begin…

Hi Rawaida, Thanks for sharing this concern and important need to support your students. Sometimes the challenges such as large class size and limited resources pile up until the focus of student-engaged learning and achievement is, at best, obscured. I can layout a lot of options, and perhaps that might be an eventual need for you. For now, I’d like to share 3 steps to get you moving in a direction that taps your own wealth of education experience.

Step One: You already differentiate

Teachers differentiate all the time. They plan a lesson for the day, and like all such plans, it runs smoothly until we implement. When students get stuck, struggle, or disconnect, good teachers make a adjustments to the plan “in the moment.” This is called Intuitive or Reactive differentiation. It can serve well for teachers when in the midst of instruction, but it can feel stressful and not fully hitting the target need. This form of instructional implementation needs to be balanced with “Intentional” or “Proactive” Differentiation. This work is done during the planning, before instruction ever takes place. Please see my article: “Differentiation Is Just Too Difficult: Myth-Busting DI Part 3.” When you look ahead to the learning outcomes your teaching, you know which ones will b a struggle for groups of your students, and which ones will not be challenging for others. Use formative assessment to collect data that you can diagnose student needs. THEN plan the supports for all the students. The key is to reflect on how you’ve handled supports during previous “intuitive” or “reactive” experiences. Use those to revise and craft a support plan in the lesson “before” implementing the next time.

Step Two: All supports begin and end with assessments

High quality differentiation begins at the learning address of the students. We can not be effective with instruction, especially with large groups, unless we know where their skill level resides. Teachers are very good a collecting formative assessment data. The serious problem is that diagnosing the individual student’s needs is not often done, due to a feeling of limited time constraints or large class sizes. “There’s no time,” is often the outcry. Yet if we take the time to diagnose the reason for the learning disconnect, we can craft supports that are targeted. This leads to efficient use of time in the long term. When choosing not to take the time up front, the result is we do many trial and error ideas that end up taking more time, and never quite meet everyone’s needs. The result is frustration by everyone. A solution is to use some version of the Formative Assessment Cycle to diagnose student needs from the data and reflect on practices that could effect a positive change. In an upcoming Edutopia article I’ll share in more depth how to use formative assessment strategies to effectively differentiate instruction. In the mean time, here’s my Edutopia article for differentiating once you have clarity on the assessment data: “3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners: What Teachers Do.”

Step Three: If you organize the logistics (time and space), learners will follow

As the first 2 steps show, once we acknowledge our use of reactive differentiation, and start to pre-plan experiences based on a diagnosis of formative assessment data based on the Formative Assessment Cycle, we are well on our way to meeting needs of our learners. But what about large class sizes and limited resources? Grouping strategies is a powerful way to turn a large audience into smaller and manageable learning teams. If I place 64 students into teams of four, I now have 16 groups to manage. There is more to this concept than just grouping students. For example, using roles that students take on for work assignments—such as with Literacy Circles (here’s a Pinterest Resource), or teaching students how to work with difficult participants—such as using a Mediation Protocol, and using Learning Profile cards to intentionally form teams that caters to the strengths of each individual. There are assignment strategies that can be done with informal work groups that helps to manage and differentiate by skill level and/or interest, such as in “5 Good Tools to Differentiate Instruction” or “15+ Readiness Resources for Driving Student Success” or “50+ Tools for Differentiating Instruction Through Social Media.”

These three steps are just to start. Take your time with each one. They will take you a long way to the success you’re looking for with implementing Differentiated Instruction. Also, follow me on Twitter: @jmccarthyeds – and the Twitter chat on the topic: #DI4ALL The chat group meets every 1st and 3rd Mondays at 8 pm EST. You can find more articles on this topic at Please let me know if you have any other questions.