Debunk myths that make differentiation seem impractical and impossible. Differentiation is more than strategies and more practical than a pedagogical ideal. Here is a companion post to my presentation for the ASCD Conference. This article and the list of referenced articles at the end debunk myths about Differentiation with solutions that offer success to diverse learners under challenging conditions. My book addresses these challenges and more: So ALL Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation.

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Be empowered to make real change through differentiation.

Is Differentiation just too difficult?

One of the biggest illusions is that Differentiation can’t be done under the conditions that many teachers find themselves with various challenges, such as class size, shorten time, and curriculum constraints—just to name a few. Yet the reality is that differentiation happens all the time.

Differentiation occurs during lessons when a teacher answers questions from individual students to help them understand the content and skills, provide different choices for how work can be done, or change instruction in the middle of the lesson because too many learners are either not understanding, or already know the content. In-the-moment support is Intuitive differentiation.

Like a practitioner of a martial arts school or an RPG gamer, Differentiation has many levels of complexity and skills. Intuitive practice is the beginning level. The next levels of growth relates to Intentional Differentiation, which is where pre-planning occurs. Teachers analyze students’ needs based on assessment data, and craft learning experiences that meet their needs.

What research supports Differentiation?

When looking a wide body of research about Differentiation, it’s best to focus on systems and structures that collect and use data to inform how best to meet the needs of learners. Some include

  1. Response to Intervention
  2. Guided Reading
  3. Assessment For Learning

Another place to look are researched strategies that have an impact on improving learning. Consider the 9 Strategies from Classroom Strategies that Work. Each of the 9 strategies can be differentiated based on the needs of learner groups and individuals.

  1. Identifying Similarities and Differences
    Use charts to compare and classify, i.e. Venn Diagram & Comparison Matrix, or create metaphors.
  2. Summarizing and Note Taking
    • Use oral or written summaries, or a combination via Think-Pair-Write. Craft images or diagrams (nonlinguistic representations) that capture the key ideas.
    • Teach 3 forms of note taking, and allow students to choose the one they prefer.
  3. Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
    • Maintain learning portfolios that students use to reflect on their growth based on academic criteria.
    • Use Growth Mindset language to encourage students via their achievements and growth.
  4. Homework and Practice
    Provide purposeful practice as homework that addresses specific needs of students for academic growth. Homework is leveled to each student’s skill level needs.
  5. Nonlinguistic Representations
    Use a combination of images and words, such as with Frayer Model and chunking videos with questions via and
  6. Cooperative Learning
    Create groups where everyone can contribute to the learning, i.e. Learning Profile Cards, Clock and Elbow Partners, Critique & Reflection, Fishbowl
  7. Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
    Need to Know activity, K-W-L, Student-led Feedback groups, Gallery Walks, “Be Specific, Constructive, & Kind”, “I like…, I wonder…, & What if…”
  8. Generating and Testing Hypotheses
    Work in cooperative or collaborative groups, explore labs, scenarios, and case studies that are tiered to different readiness groups of students.
  9. Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers
    Use a variety of advance organizers, or provide a advance organizer pre-filled to different levels based on the needs of students, coach students on the Question Formulation Technique, practice both “wait” time and “think” time.

Are Learning Preferences relevant for learning, if they even exist?

Sit in any classroom lesson or professional development. It becomes obvious that people have preferences for how they learn. Depending on the mode(s) of instruction used, watch for who is focused and engaged. Also notice who are not. People’s engagement can shift through the course of a lesson or activity.

How we provide experiences that incorporate ways of processing and understanding content and skills is crucial to meeting the goal of all students learning. How we include learners in the conversation and task formations acknowledges the preferences of our students.

There are many approaches and inventories to choose from. Cross-train by using at least two approaches for collecting data about learners—such as Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory and Meyrs & Briggs. This form of planning ensures that students are not identified as having only one learning preference, when the reality is far more diverse. Consider strategies like Learning Profile Cards as start to incorporating the Interests and preferences that students have about their learning.

Explore ways to provide learning experiences that address concepts in multiple ways based on learning preferences. For example, Frayer Model, Thinkdots, Task Cards, and Learning Menus.

There is no time to Differentiate?

Time is an interesting challenge. Most educators who raise the issue of time also express strong agreement that differentiation is important for learning. If all students should learn and grow is a a priority, but is lost in the feeling that there is not time to implement, then how is time used? One answer is teacher-led instruction where the educator ensures that curriculum is covered within the limited time. We all feel that conflict of getting across content inside a time frame that feels too short. Yet, just because something is “taught” or covered, does not mean that the students learned.

Stephen Covey’s habit of Put 1st Things 1st represents the need to identify what is important and then prioritize it. This is best illustrated in the jar of rocks analogy.


Short term investment, which may take more up front time, can pay long lasting dividends in the deeper learning that the students experience. If we agree that Differentiation should become a real priority that is implemented, then there are ways to begin the process.

  • Use frequently “wait” time and “think” time so that students have needed time to process understanding.
  • Implement learning stations both physical structures for movement and virtual experiences for more accesses to resources.
  • Use learning profile cards for thoughtful grouping of students around tasks.

Who should control learning?

The answer is obvious: Student. The means to enabling students to be in “full” control relies on teachers willingly giving up control. This is a difficult move when teachers are held accountable for student achievement. Consider the previous statement. Teachers can not take the student assessments for which they may be evaluated by. My nature of students taking those assessments places the teacher’s fate into the learner’s hands. Why not give students overt control of their learning by including them in how they process, explore, and demonstrate what they understand and do not understand? In sports, effective coaches build a team’s confidence to run the game plans on the field. Successful teams understand how to adapt and change as needed to counter the moves of their opponents. The coach can call time outs and offer suggestions, but it’s the players who execute. The same can be said of students.

Teachers design the sandboxes, and can let students create their own inner spaces. Standards and curriculum are the frames that teachers use to structure learning so that students feel supported to participate. Include students in determining how some activities will take shape. Having them participate in authentic learning experiences for deeper engagement as the work becomes real world and purposeful. In some learning centers, the students help create their own sandbox or design an entire beach.

There are other myths about Differentiation

The best way to face them is to remember that assessments tell what students know and do not know; also the shed light on what students need. Once it’s known what students need to grow, then how we choose to act in meeting those needs requires differentiation.

Consider these articles for extended exploration of making Differentiation Real: