According to Carol Ann Tomlinson (1999), we can recognize differentiated instruction by a variety of classroom characteristics:
- Teachers begin where the students are.
- Teachers engage students in instruction through different learning modalities.
- A student competes more against himself or herself than others.
- Teachers provide specific ways for each individual to learn.
- Teachers use classroom time flexibly.
- Teachers are diagnosticians, prescribing the best possible instruction for each student. (p. 2)
Why are many teachers unable to include these characteristics in their repertoire of instructional strategies? And how can teachers be helped to acquire these skills and implement them in their classrooms?
Problems with Preservice Training
Patricia Renick (1996) found that first-year educators experience many problems during the transition from student to teacher. Pedagogical issues, lack of administrative support, and the need for both materials and appropriate planning times are common concerns of most first-year teachers, whether they have been trained as regular or special-education teachers. Unique to special educators' first-year experiences, however, is the pedagogical demand for differentiated instruction for special learners. Renick found that regardless of how much university preparation regular educators received in differentiated instruction, their preparation was typically "washed out" by their student-teaching experiences. As a result, very little university preservice preparation actually reaches the classroom of the regular educator.
Brian McGarvey and his colleagues (1997) found that teachers were trying to apply the principles of differentiation in their classrooms. However, many teachers needed help incorporating a variety of different instructional skills. Teachers faced many obstacles, including difficulty in planning lessons and in adapting their teaching methods to allow for differentiation. In addition, many teachers failed to provide suitable instructional activities for a wide range of pupil attainment, especially those pupils at the extremes of attainment. Many teachers provided neither sufficient challenge for a range of pupil attainment nor flexibility to allow for slow and accelerated periods of learning. Further, McGarvey and his colleagues found that fewer than half the teachers made provisions in classwork for a wide range of student abilities.
Tony Manson (1999) conducted a study to determine the extent to which teacher-education programs prepared teachers to work with diverse groups of students. The study reported that many teachers admitted that there was "room for improvement" in their preparation to teach an increasingly diverse student population. For example, teachers discovered a mismatch between what they actually needed to teach students of different ethnic or racial groups and what skills their preservice programs offered them to do the job effectively.
Manson's concerns were echoed in Tomlinson's research (1999). Tomlinson discovered that teacher-education programs in general are not preparing tomorrow's teachers for the increasing diversity of students. She found that preservice teachers seldom, if ever, experience differentiated instruction in their teacher-preparation programs. Specifically, most teachers had only one survey course focused on exceptional children. The course was intended to help them understand the needs of academically diverse learners; however, preservice teachers reported that it dealt exclusively with learner traits, not with methods of teaching.
The teachers also reported that education professors, university supervisors, and master teachers rarely encouraged them to actively differentiate instruction. In fact, during preservice training, master teachers often discouraged preservice teachers from differentiation, recommending rather that they "keep everyone together." Finally, few of these teachers felt comfortable using what limited strategies they had learned to address students' diverse needs. Few, if any, possessed images of multitask classrooms to carry with them to their first teaching assignments.
Once in their own classrooms, the undertow for new teachers to "teach to the middle" is profound, both because of the complexity of teaching and because of peer pressure to conform to the "the way we do school here." The few novice teachers who had master teachers who differentiated instruction were far more likely to do this in their first teaching placement than their classmates. (p. 115)
She recommends that teacher-education programs and school districts
- Set clear expectations for the novice's growth in student-centered, responsive instruction.
- Provide clear models for differentiated curriculum and differentiated instruction in action.
- Provide mentoring that helps teachers reflect on student needs and appropriate responses.
- Ensure teachers' comfort in implementing a growing range of instructional strategies that invite differentiation and facilitate its management.
- Provide early partnerships with teachers who practice differentiation. (p. 115)
The Importance of Training and Support
The message is clear: To successfully implement differentiated instruction in our schools, two events must occur. First, universities must develop pre-service programs that provide prospective teachers a meaningful understanding of the elements of differentiated instruction. Second, school leaders must provide all teachers encouragement, support, and nurturing—all delivered through effective professional development that is founded on competent training and effective mentoring and that is conducted by experienced, skilled professionals.
Manson, T. J. (1999). Cross-ethnic, cross-racial dynamics of instruction: Implication for teacher education. (Report No. UD032861). Clarksville, TN: Austin Peay State University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 429 141)
McGarvey, B., Marriot, S., Morgan, V., & Abbott, L. (1997). Planning for differentiation. Curriculum Studies, 29 (3), 351–363.
Renick, P. R. (1996). Study of differentiated teaching methods used by first-year special educators. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Midwestern Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.
Tomlinson. C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
John H. Holloway is a consultant for the Licensure Development Group, Teaching and Learning Division, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Rd., Princeton, NJ 08541 (e-mail: