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Steps for Teachers & Site Leaders to Apply Differentiated Instruction

Written by
July 13th, 2017

Classrooms consist of a broad array of diverse learners. Each student comes to school with diverse learning needs, and teachers are being asked to satisfy those needs based on various factors: a student’s home language and culture, student prerequisite skills and knowledge, and learning styles.

To support teachers in delivering a high-quality instructional program that meets the needs of all learners, educators are turning to differentiated instruction.

At its core, differentiated instruction blends research-based practices and strategies of learning theory, higher-order thinking, and traditional methods of teaching and learning. Developed and put into practice by Dr. Virgil Ward, differentiated instruction was originally conceived to accommodate proper levels of rigor and instruction for students in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) and Special Education.

His research indicates that student growth is best supported by having a broader understanding of a student’s academic standing and delivering the appropriate level of instruction for a student to reach his or her highest potential (Ward, 1961).

At the time, Dr. Ward’s research was considered a break from traditional teaching and learning—teachers were asked to simultaneously focus on the learner and the delivery of curriculum. This research further emphasizes the need for educators to blend the practice of curriculum, instructional delivery, and assessments to provide a more holistic understanding of student needs.

According to Damian Gordon, Lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology: “The reality is that all children are unique and teachers are now expected to meet the needs of diverse learners within their classrooms. We cannot continue to teach in the same ways we did in the past and expect to meet the diverse needs of our learners.”

Suggested Steps for Educators

If you are wondering how to apply differentiated instruction in the classroom, below are suggested steps to guide the process for both teachers and district/site leaders. These steps will help all educators understand what students really need to know and be able to do.

For Teachers:

1. Be Committed to Getting to Know Your Students

Teachers should use surveys to understand student interest, learning styles, and ambitions. Gathering this information allows teachers to be able to informally connect to students in a non-academic environment; it could also lend greater insight into how students define their beliefs towards education, data which could be used to motivate student engagement.

2. Use a Data Platform to Track Student Progress

Teachers should also have a comprehensive student data platform that longitudinally displays student academic records. The platform should feature or include non-cognitive social-emotional learning factors such as suspensions and absenteeism to ensure teachers have multiple measures to educate the whole child.

3. Create a Professional Learning Plan with Various Strategies

Working with district and site leaders, teachers should develop a rich professional learning plan that is equipped with various instructional strategies for all types of learners to truly implement a differentiated classroom. With this broad array of instructional strategies, teachers can determine how to apply the proper strategy for each specific student. (This may require using multiple strategies during a single lesson like direct instruction, small group instruction, inquired-based learning, and cooperative learning.)

4. Put an Emphasis on Delivering the Right Assessments

Teachers must ensure that assessments
 play a pivotal role in their approach to differentiating instruction. Along with a data platform, a robust assessment system that allows for the administration of all types of assessments should also be considered. Ideally, it should include the ability to deliver: technology enhanced items (TEI), authentic assessment-like portfolios, student-based rubric evaluations, and performance-based assessments. Granted, student assessment is not a new concept, but progress monitoring must be prioritized in order to maximize the results of a differentiated approach.

For Site Leaders:

1. Develop a Fuller, More Complete Knowledge of the Topic

Tomlinson (1999) examined school-level
 and district-level implementation of differentiated instruction and identified ways that education leaders can best support this change in practice. She recommends that leaders first develop a solid understanding of differentiated instruction so that they can present it coherently to teachers and provide committed school-level leadership. Leaders should also nurture different teaching models; encourage teachers to apply differentiation with flexibility, creativity, and choice; and provide teachers with high-quality professional development as well as time to collaborate, plan, and implement differentiation.

2. Ensure that Classroom Instruction is Truly Differentiated

Some classrooms may proceed with a misguided belief they are differentiating instruction, when in reality the focus is diluted to encapsulating all children (or as many as possible) instead of each student. This is particularly problematic as it invites educators to concentrate their efforts on the group—and thus, the content taught—rather than on the needs of individual learners. The principles of equity necessitate that each student be central to the learning process and educated in ways that appropriately address his or her needs and abilities.

If you’d like to read more about differentiated instruction, check out our latest whitepaper “Meeting the Needs of All Learners with Differentiated Instruction.”


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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