Is Differentiation Just The Latest ‘Buzzword’?


Is Differentiation Just The Latest ‘Buzzword’?

I was recently asked this question at one of our workshops, and while we all know that in education there are buzzwords and most of us have been plagued by principals or exec with SOS (Shiny Object Syndrome), differentiation is not in that category. Differentiation is what good teachers have always done. It is giving students a variety of options for accessing information, making sense of ideas, and demonstrating what they learn.

Differentiation means recognising that you cannot have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching and learning.


“It means teachers proactively plan varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they will show what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can, as efficiently as possible.” – Carol Anne Tomlinson, 2013

To simplify your planning, it helps to consider differentiation in these four categories:


1. CONTENT: The information the students will encounter to meet the learning outcomes.

You can differentiate by:

  • Scaling the amount of content
  • Gauging the level or depth of the material
  • Determining and building on prior knowledge
  • Relating the material to students’ backgrounds
  • Identifying student strengths and interests to make the content relevant
  • Scaffolding tasks in meaningful ways
  • Tailoring content to student experience and current knowledge
  • Setting tasks that are challenging and achievable
  • Using pre-assessment and formative assessment to guide teaching decisions


2. PROCESS: How students access the information and interact with the content.

The teacher accepts of responsibility for student success and if the student does not learn the way they teach, then they change!

Students need to interact with content at least 3 times in different ways before it is authentic learning.

Teach using a variety of pedagogical approaches:

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Discussion,
  • Peer Tutoring
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Lecture Style
  • Reading
  • Researching
  • Maps, Pictures
  • Enquiry Learning
  • Project Based Learning
  • Whole Group Instruction
  • Small Group Work
  • Independent Tasks
  • Paired Work



3. PRODUCT: How students demonstrate what they know, understand and what they can do.

If your learning and assessment tasks are all literacy based, then you are not catering for the students who may understand the concepts but have poor literacy skills. Give students choice about how they respond to the learning, how they explain their understandings and how they apply what they have learnt.

Allow students to display their knowledge in a variety of ways:

  • Teaching peers
  • Speech
  • Diagram
  • Mind maps
  • PowerPoint presentation
  • Art work
  • Dance
  • Song
  • Dramatic work


4. LEARNING ENVIRONMENT: The climate or tone of the classroom.

‘Teachers discover that they need to develop and maintain personal relationships with the students they teach — because for most students, meaningful interaction with a teacher is a precursor to academic learning.” – Michael Fullan

The learning environment must be a place where:

  • Growth mindset is developed and encouraged
  • Flexible
  • Adaptable
  • Students feel safe physically, emotionally and psychologically so that students can take risks and where mistakes are accepted and expected
  • Supportive relationships are developed between students
  • Where process is valued over product
  • Thinking is valued over talking
  • Students talk more and ask more questions than the teacher
  • High expectations are combined with high levels of support for all students (We believe in you and intend you to succeed)
  • Teachers model life-long learning and producing quality work