Dispelling Myths About Differentiation

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Dispelling Myths About DifferentiationI’ve spent several years consulting with schools all over the world, and differentiation is a frequent topic requested by many of my clients. Some teachers I have worked with seem to have preconceived notions that differentiation doesn’t work or is too hard to do. While there is some truth to both of those claims, let’s look at ways we can make differentiation doable.

Claim: There is no evidence that differentiation works!
Technically, this is correct. No one has done a comprehensive study on differentiation as a singular strategy. That’s because it isn’t one! Differentiation is a philosophy of instructional effectiveness. By knowing enough about each of your students, you can adjust and modify curricular and instructional practices to move all students toward success. This requires doing formative and summative assessments to identify where your students are now and where they need to go; how prepared they are for what’s coming; their ability and skill development levels; what learning orientations they possess; what their interests are; how to get them interested in the learning; and any other information about them, such as giftedness, learning differences, ADHD, special needs, and so on.

Thoroughly knowing your students can help you alter instructional practices, change and scaffold learning activities, adjust curricular materials, or design different projects to move all students to the same learning targets. This does not mean dumbing down content, simplifying activities, or making things too hard for students. It means that we provide different avenues for students to travel to the same destination (the standards and goals). This is the hard work of differentiation.

The acts of differentiation are performed after formative and summative assessment data has been collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Our duty is to be fully aware of what each and every student knows, is able to do, and understands before, during, and after every single lesson. With this knowledge, we then can adjust and modify curricular and instructional practices to move every child to success.

Claim: Differentiation is just too hard and takes too much time!
Yes, differentiation is hard, and it takes time! However, no one said that teaching students was meant to be easy. We are in a very different world than we were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Our students are different, what is expected of them is more demanding, and the world they are entering is significantly more complex than ever before.

In the past, if you wanted to learn something, you went to school to learn it: That’s where the texts and the teachers who possessed the knowledge resided. With the advances of technology and the Internet, this is no longer the case. You can find on the Web an answer to just about any question you have—whether the question be factual (what, where, when) or procedural (how). But it’s more difficult to find the answer to conceptual/reasoning (why) questions online—this is the powerful teaching of this century.

As famed anthropologist Margaret Mead stated, our job is to teach kids how to think, not what to think. This requires us to help students approach complex problems in various ways. Some students will need more supports, structure, directions, and examples; others will need fewer steps and more open-ended outcomes.

The difficulty with differentiation is knowing where to begin. My suggestion is to begin with a thorough knowledge of what you want your students to learn. When you are completely aware of what you want them to know, be able to do, and understand after each lesson, you can work toward a complete awareness of each of your students.

Use formative assessment techniques such as pre-quizzes and pre-tests, “fist to five” (hold up zero to five fingers for how much students think they know about the topic), or a KWL (know, want to know, learned) chart to find out where each student is in the learning process at the beginning of a lesson. This information can help you adjust future lessons: scaffold activities for those who lack background knowledge or enrich activities for advanced-level learners.

Next, get familiar with your students’ interests, levels of preparedness (readiness), and learning orientations. Interest surveys can give you information about your students. There are many available on the Internet—simply adjust them for your students. Knowing how prepared your students are for each lesson is critical. Again, use what you find out to help guide you in preparing various options for students.

Learning orientation is how students prefer to approach learning. Remember the term “learning styles”? Learning orientations are a more comprehensive way to address students’ foci toward gaining new information or avenues to assist them when they are challenged. Many different learning orientations and learning style profiles are available. Choose one you feel comfortable with and are willing to use to make changes to curricular and instructional practices. Words of advice: Don’t pigeonhole students into boxes or categories of a perceived orientation or style. Help students broaden their approaches to learning by having them work in a domain outside their strength area. Use information about their strength domains to support them when they struggle.

Numerous resources are available to help you plan and implement differentiation in your classroom. Everything from lesson ideas to varied activities to curricular adjustments can be found either through a Web search or in texts written by differentiation experts.

Motivation Strategies Based on Student Learning PreferencesAlways keep this in mind: Start small—but start somewhere!

I’d love to hear your ideas on how you are managing the complexities of differentiation in your classroom, school building, or district. Comment on this blog so others can learn from your adventures.

Bonus! Download Motivation Strategies Based on Student Learning Preferences, a free printable form from Advancing Differentiation. Use these activities to engage and stretch students in both their preferred and nonpreferred domains of learning.


Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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2 Responses to Dispelling Myths About Differentiation

  1. CS-Cart.com says:

    Thank you for a great article, your advice will be very helpful for me.

  2. Debbie Roby says:

    As the Supervisor of gifted education, I believe differentiation is the right thing to do for all students, but imperative for gifted students to grow each year. We’ve embraced Kaplan’s depth and complexity strategies, but not just the icons. We talk about the content imperatives and icon pathways as well. Currently, we are working with content curriculum writers to use these strategies to write curriculum extensions for GT students clustered into regular classrooms.

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