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.


  1. Differentiated instruction doesn’t mean that a group of 30-35 students can be composed of students ranging in abilities from the developmentally handicapped to gifted. This is an idea that seems to have escaped the department of education and legislators in my state. Nor will it lead to functionally illiterate students succeeding in AP classes which local school board members seem to think.

  2. After reading this article, I realize that my frustration with differentiated instruction is justified. I think the part that my school is missing is the time to get adjusted to the students in order to know how to differentiate the instruction. My administration requires that we use differentiated instruction everyday! I do not agree that every lesson qualifies for differentiated instruction. If the system wants something done then I agree that they should invest time and money demonstrating exactly what they want differentiated instruction to look like and sound like in the classroom. A common language is necessary so that teachers know exactly what administration wants when they come around.

    • It is my belief that differentiated instruction is a powerful tool for student success. However, if staff is not properly trained, then the execution of such a practice will not be effective. I agree that schools should invest some time and money in demonstrating what they expect from teachers so that everyone can be on the same page.

  3. Differentiated instruction is difficult. It takes time to be able to recognize student weaknesses as well as making determinations on what works well for those students. Then comes the task of deciding how to incorporate the differentiated instruction into a lesson. I think that it most definitely takes time to develop differentiated instruction skills and strategies and that educators should be given the opportunity to develop them. By giving educators time, down the road differentiation will become easier to incorporate, more efficient and effective.

  4. This is my seventh year teaching, and we began including differentiation in our lesson plans last year. I have noticed a dramatic change in how long it takes me to develop and type my lesson plans now that I include differentiation. I definitely feel that if they want teachers to do more and spend more time on things, we need a longer planning period or more in-service days to research ideas, create activities, and develop differentiated lessons. Furthermore, I feel that many teachers do not have the proper training. So, there is only so much differentiation you can do up to a certain point due to lack of time and understanding. More professional development is needed in this area.

    • I agree with all of the comments that have been left thus far. Differentiation is a difficult task but if done correctly, gets the desired results! I am in my sixth year of teaching and have come a long way since year one, but still have tremendous growth to make. In my first years of teaching, I taught to the entire class and expected them to be little learning robots that automatically learned everything I said, when I said it. Now, I differentiate at the start of the year based on the results of the baseline assessments that my district requires me to give (too many in my opinion). From there, I rarely change the groupings, as I progress through the first half of the year because it is a time consuming task that requires time and effort I don’t have at that point in the year. As we reach the months of March and April, I suddenly kick it into gear because I realize that the state tests are just around the corner. I wish that I could see effective differentiation strategies in practice so I can model my efforts after it. I think that I am doing a better job, but with training and practice I know I can do better! I wish there was time and money to make this happen.

  5. I am in my second year of teaching, and I feel that “differentiation” is a huge buzz word. Everyone is talking about it, but I don’t feel like there is nearly enough understanding or support from the district and state. I think that differentiation is important and will definitely help more students succeed, but it is a very time consuming and difficult process. I know that I need more training, and I’m sure others at my school feel the same. I also really like the comment about having ongoing coaching after initial workshops. The training on our reading curriculum made it sound like they included these nice differentiation pieces for reteaching, but when we actually got back to the classroom and dug into our books we realized that it included a template for making a review sheet, but you basically had to come up with everything that went into the template on your own. I want to be able to differentiate effectively to help my students, but I need more time and support!

  6. As a new teacher it has been very challenging to differentiate my lessons. This article was very helpful to me because I’ve been differentiating everything. I thought that’s how things were done. Even when I’ve talked to more experienced teachers for advice, no one mentioned to be more selective when I differentiate. I shouldn’t be surprised because they’ve received the same training that I have…virtually none.

    Speaking of training, I do not believe that I have the tools to differentiate for the students in my class. I have several academically low students, an emotionally challenged student and a special needs student that spends part of his day with me. Needless to say, I need help with effective differentiation.

  7. I am currently attending Walden University to earn my masters degree. I am on my thirteenth year of teaching and I am learning many new strategies that have helped me with differentiating my instruction. I am not saying that you need to earn a masters degree to learn new strategies but I will say that in order to become a more effective teacher we need to be willing to put the time into reading and learning more about best practices. Time is what we need and yet we do not get it. I can recall a year when our campus test ratings were at its highest and the contributing factor was that we had two confrence periods. Teachers were given one hour off to collaborate with other staff plus one hour confrence to themselves to plan accordingly. Those days are gone.


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