Getting a Foothold on Differentiated Instruction


Jeffrey Benson on academic success for all studentsBy Jeffrey Benson

Educators worldwide are seeking ways to promote differentiated instruction. There is a conclusion to be drawn: none of our educators currently have a reliable practice of teaching everyone’s children. Buried deep in the differentiated instruction campaign is the knowledge that providing every student with a path to academic success requires a revolution in what we do.

Certainly this is true in the United States. There was never a golden age of education, a period imagined wistfully as sometime before the 1960s when schools were organized, resourced, and funded to bring every child to graduation. In fact, nationwide graduation rates peaked in the 1960s at about 70 percent and have hovered there ever since. Today, we teach to an ever-expanding population of impoverished and disabled children. The work we do now in schools is remarkable, but it’s still not good enough.

It’s magical thinking to believe that we will reach the promised land where no child is left behind by demanding more of every teacher without vast changes in the organization of schools. Differentiated instruction is a great pedagogical tool, undoubtedly part of the equation, but we have to keep it in perspective: differentiated instruction is initially hard to do, as it requires a fair amount of upfront planning, more resources, and a rich understanding of how each child learns. Differentiated instruction also demands that class time—now used to funnel content into young minds to prepare them for high-stakes testing—must be devoted to help students learn to use new materials, work in groups, and transition from activity to activity.

So all administrators who seek a school flourishing with differentiated instruction (but who likely didn’t teach that way when they were in the classroom) need to account for teacher buy-in, because they are already working hard. Here are some strategies to help ease the transition:

  • Be honest that it will take effort to develop differentiated units and lessons.
  • Collect data on the time teachers devote to students who are not succeeding. Different documentable data include
    • Restating directions or reteaching skills,
    • Correcting poorly done classwork and homework,
    • Making referrals to child study teams,
    • Documenting when students fail or are at risk of failing,
    • Making referrals to special education,
    • Documenting special education procedures,
    • Meeting with struggling students during prep time and after school, and
    • Contacting concerned parents.

The prep time spent on differentiation will reduce (but not eliminate) a good portion of the above.

  • Set aside staff time specifically for developing differentiated units and lessons. If differentiation is crucial, commit the school’s most precious resource (staff time) to planning.
  • Dedicate training funds to the initiative, not only to a workshop (which may be crucial to provide a common language and approaches), but also to ongoing coaching because what sounds like basic content in a workshop can be more complicated in the classroom. Teachers will benefit from ongoing guidance to do what nobody has done before. Again, if differentiation is that important to your school, devote the resources that only an administrator can access.
  • Don’t ask that all lessons and tasks be differentiated immediately. Set a reasonable timeline: two lessons per week this semester, four per week next semester, the majority in a year.
  • Don’t expect that your most challenging students will fall in line because their lessons now offer options. Differentiation will be a huge support to many struggling students, who—for perhaps the first time in their school lives—will see a way to succeed. But there will be students for whom the mix of social, emotional, and learning issues prevents magical success.

The gap between many students and all students graduating will not disappear by more technical brilliance in the classroom. So let’s fully support our teachers to differentiate instruction, and don’t forget that the historical structure and funding of schools are the biggest impediments to student success.

Veteran educator Jeffrey Benson is the author of the forthcoming ASCD book, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (Jan 2014), which is available for pre-order though the ASCD Online Store. Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years of experience in education: as a teacher in elementary, middle, and high schools; as an instructor in undergraduate and graduate programs; and as an administrator in day and residential schools.