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September 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 1

What Differentiated Instruction Really Means

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Instructional Strategies
teacher and students in classroom wearing masks
When I wrote my article “Why We Need Differentiation Now More Than Ever” for an ASCD newsletter in May of last year (Westman, 2020), remote learning was new. It was just weeks after the initial school closures due to COVID-19, and everyone’s emotions were raw. As our school systems (and many of us) were in survival mode, remote learning had become our lifeline, but certainly not our lifestyle. At the time, one question I kept getting asked was, “How do I differentiate for students virtually?” My advice at that time was for teachers in all grade levels and content areas to make their essential question to students, “How do you feel?” and use their responses as a form of formative assessment for ­figuring out what they needed most.
Now, with a year under our belts of some combination of remote, hybrid, or in-person learning with social distancing restrictions—and (hopefully) a bit of time this summer to relax and restore—we are ready to take on the 2021–2022 school year. This time the question on everyone’s mind is, “What will our students need?” And, once again, the idea of differentiation is taking center stage.
Many are looking to differentiating instruction as a means to undo “learning loss.” In fact, a Google search of the terms “learning loss and differentiation” returns over 55 million results. Schools are grateful for additional funds to address learning loss, quickly amp up ­professional learning, focus on assessing where students are, and firm up differentiation practices and multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). But differentiating is not a new approach or program—in fact, MTSS and differentiation are hot topics almost every school year, whether we’re in a pandemic or not. Veteran educators have likely heard about this approach many times in their careers, though they might still be confused as to how to do it, and novice teachers have likely read about it in their studies but not had any practical experience implementing the approach successfully.
As a consultant who works with school systems internationally on differentiation, I frequently hear comments like, “Oh, we tried ­differentiation a few years ago. It didn’t work.” Or “I used to differentiate for my students, but I just don’t have time for that now.”
Sadly, this is the case for many educators. And even more disheartening is that fact that we often throw in the towel because we hold a flawed view of what differentiation is and what it is not. We assume that differentiation must have this or must have that, when really differentiation only needs to include one thing: a clear focus on students’ academic and social-emotional needs. When we are responsive to our students’ needs, any action we take to meet those needs is differentiation.
The tricky piece here is adequately answering the question, “What do our students really need?” Surely, each student will need different things. And teachers need effective and sustainable strategies to meet these needs. So, where do we start?

1. Focus on growth instead of loss

Educators have been anticipating “learning loss” for the past 18 months. But focusing on “loss” assumes something was “had” in the first place. If students “lost” their learning, did they ever really have it? Instead of focusing on “loss,” let’s focus on determining whether or not students have met learning targets. The way we do this is through instructional clarity: having clear goalposts of what learning looks like and centering your planning process around success criteria and formative assessment. Ensure that for every lesson and unit of study:
  • The focus standard is clearly ­identified.
  • Learning intentions are clearly defined (these are the discrete skills and/or concepts derived from the standard).
  • The success criteria are clearly identified (these are the indicators that the student has mastered the learning intention. Collectively they indicate proficiency in the learning intention).
  • For the success criterion, there are formative assessments. Evidence from these formative assessments is then regularly used to inform instruction. And with that data we. . . .

Shame Blocks Learning

When students feel shame, it renders them incapable of learning and may likely lead to other adverse behaviors. When we pull students from their classes (whether for remediation or extension), we run the high risk of inducing shame in them. Instead, we can structure our lessons to provide additional instruction and practice to students at their readiness level while
simultaneously exposing them to grade-level content and skills.

2. Offer empathy, not interventions

In the June 2021 issue of Psychology Today, the table of contents includes a teaser for the feature article in the “Treatment” section of the magazine. It says, “[pg.] 34—Addiction: Interventions Don’t Work. This might.” When you turn to page 34, you find an article by Peg O’Connor (2021) titled “Empathy over Ambush.”
While this article is about interventions for people struggling with an addiction and not struggling learners, the same premise holds for our schools.
This article especially caught my eye since my second book, Teaching with Empathy: How to Transform Your Practice by Understanding Your Learners (ASCD, 2021), takes a deep dive into what empathy is and how it can be implicitly missing from our instructional practices, even practices that are well-intentioned. Pull-out interventions is one of these practices.
The antithesis of empathizing with students is shaming them (inadvertently or not). When students feel shame, it renders them incapable of learning and may likely lead to other adverse behaviors. When we pull students from their classes (whether for remediation or extension), we run the high risk of inducing shame in them.
Instead, we can structure our lessons to provide additional instruction and practice to students at their readiness level while ­simultaneously exposing them to grade-level content and skills if we. . . .

3. Plan instruction that is equitable, not equal

While in college, I worked at a day camp. At the time, I had never heard of the term “differentiation,” but what I learned from how the camp ran their swimming program taught me so much about two differentiation mainstays: flexible grouping and student choice and voice. The camp had nine “swim levels,” each with very clear criteria. Once a student could meet the ­criteria, they switched groups to the next level.
However, in the first 15 minutes of swim time, all students were introduced to the day’s skill, for example, treading water. Even the students who had not yet demonstrated proficiency to go into the deep end were still exposed to the new skill and then given scaffolds (water wings or floaties) or the option to work on a deep-end skill in the shallow water for this “whole group” part of the lesson. Then, during small-group instruction time, the swimmers were given additional direct instruction and practice of the prerequisite skills they needed.

We assume that differentiation *must* have this or *must* have that when really differentiation only needs to include one thing: a clear focus on students’ academic and social-emotional needs.

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Pulling a small group to reteach prerequisite skills is an example of a “tier-two” intervention during tier-one instruction time. It allows all students to be exposed to “where they are going” and hone the skills they need to get there with targeted instruction.
This model works in the classroom, too. Pulling a small group to work on phonics skills necessary to decode text while other groups dive into comprehension questions for a text would be one example. How can students comprehend text if they can’t decode? During the whole-group portion of this lesson, the “floaties” might be listening to an audio recording of the text or reading a smaller passage of text to demonstrate a specific comprehension skill.
This leads me to another common misconception about differentiation. Often times, educators believe that you cannot have whole-group direct instruction as part of differentiation. You surely can—the differentiation can and should be embedded in this context. In addition, ­educators often believe they need to see all small groups of students every day for the same number of minutes. This is equality. Equity is when you see students in small groups based on needs (academic and social-emotional), so that students with the greatest needs are seen more frequently and/or for a greater number of minutes than students who have less needs. All students receive the amount of small-group instruction appropriate for them, with zero minutes being suitable for no one.

4. Assume positive intent

As educators, we are obliged to be responsive to the children and young adults in front of us. We have a choice to respond to students in punitive and judgmental ways or in compassionate ways that give them the benefit of the doubt.
Take cheating, for instance. Cheating was a hot topic of conversation during remote learning since teachers had less oversight and control over how students were completing work. Even strategies that allowed teachers greater oversight were doubted in the face of the freedom students had during remote learning.
For example, a teacher I worked with last year used Google Slides in a super creative way to mimic, in a virtual way, walking around the classroom and looking at your students’ work (you can see every student in real time when you view Slides in “grid” view). I loved this teacher’s idea so much that I shared it with another team of teachers. This team, however, was concerned that since the students could see each other’s answers, they would “cheat.”
I said, “Well, the great thing about this format is you can see if any of your students are looking at slides other than their own. If you see a student on another student’s slide, what would you do?”
One teacher said, “I would give them a zero.”
I countered: “What if you assume positive intent?” I went on to ask that teacher to assume the student isn’t looking at another student’s work to “cheat,” but instead because he or she is confused. Instead of failing the student, make a note of students who look at other students’ slides and use that as one piece of formative assessment evidence that those students may require additional instruction. Then pull those students as a small group and check their understanding. This mindset is critical to differentiated instruction and will be particularly helpful as students return to schools this year.
The same premise applies to our personal professional practice. There will be some strategies that we try that will work. There will be others that are lackluster. This is simply formative assessment evidence for us to reflect on and hone our practices. If you find yourself saying things like, “I tried it, it didn’t work,” think about extending empathy and assuming positive intent for yourself as well as your students. In the words of meditation teacher and author Jack Kornfield, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete” (Kornfield, 2018, p. 28.) When it comes to differentiation (and all instruction), please be compassionate to yourself, your students, and each other. Remember that both you and your students can always take something you learned today and refine it tomorrow—it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
As we adjust to teaching and learning in this post-pandemic world, a genuine understanding of what differentiation is (anything we do to meet the needs of our students so they continue to learn and grow academically and socially) will certainly redirect our focus from fear of the loss to ­celebration of the gains.

Reflect & Discuss

How can educators reframe the concept of “learning loss” to instead focus on growth?

Do you always assume positive intent in the classroom? How can you use these moments to more closely understand your students’ needs?

Do you agree that we need differentiation now more than ever?


Kornfield, J. (2018). Buddha’s little instruction book. New York: Bantam.

O’Connor, P. (June 2021). Empathy over ambush. Psychology Today, pp. 34–35.

Westman, L. (2020, May). Why we need differentiation now more than ever. Education Update, 62(5).

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