Professional Voice 14.3.1

Carol Ann Tomlinson on Differentiated Instruction and meeting the needs of all students

Interview by John Graham

CT Thanks for the opportunity to respond to questions you posed on differentiation. It is a topic that has been central in my 20+ years as a public school teacher (including high school, pre-school, and middle school teaching) and 30 additional years as a university professor (teaching undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students). The ideas, ideals, and aspirations that are core to differentiation have, without a doubt, made me a better teacher. I believe they have made me a kinder and wiser person as well. Here are a few thoughts before I take a stab at the questions.

I believe that the individual is, or ought to be, of paramount concern in our work as educators. My sense is that our mission as teachers is to contribute significantly to the growth and development of young people who come to understand that learning is key to their own development, the development of others with whom they share the world, and to the nature of the world itself. We fall short of that mission when we work from the assumption that we cannot know, pay attention to, or teach responsively to individual students in our care. It is also, true, of course, that we can never know a student as fully as we would wish, to provide the kind of one-on-one time that would be ideal or teach as responsively as we might aspire to teach. In between “I can’t do anything” and “I can’t do everything” is a wide expanse of possibility. My hope has always been that my work on differentiation can help educators find that expanse, take initial steps into it, and look into themselves for the will to continue the journey.

Change is challenging for most of us humans. We understand the need for it. We see the benefits in our own lives. Still, few of us want to change—want to be the change. Change is arguably more challenging for teachers than for those in other professions. We enact our profession in front of groups of young people that can range in number from fewer than five to 90 or more at a time. We have to make hundreds of decisions a day and act on them with scant reflection time. The content we teach, as exists in the world, changes at warp speed and the idea that we should keep up with that evolution evokes anxiety and guilt. We are seldom accorded the kind of professional freedoms that physicians, lawyers, architects, engineers, and other professionals see as a given (although all professions have—and should have—constraints on the degrees and kinds of freedoms within which they practice).

Teachers have, for decades, submitted to the soul-consuming mandates of test-driven curriculum and instruction. They have done heroic teaching in largely unexplored contexts during a pandemic that threatened the stability of the world. They are now grappling in many places with being at the center of political controversy in which they have little voice. The idea of asking teachers to make significant change right now seems irrational.

And yet, indicators of a need for transformational changes in school surround us. Too many of our students perform poorly in school relative to the number who perform quite well. The percentage of students of all ages who have identifiable emotional disorders is rising yearly—and the evidence is clear that schools contribute to that rise. Many of us feel ill-prepared to teach students who are learning the language of the classroom, students who have attention issues, reading disorders, and even students who know more than they should in the grade or subjects we teach. Students who are most marginalized in society tend to be the most marginalized in schools as well. Critics, commentators, and experts who point out that we teach 21st century students using 20th century curriculum, in 19th century schools seem to understand how we do school with reasonable accuracy.

Each of us who commits and contributes to making schools the places of opportunity and possibility that they can and should be will better our profession, the places in which we work every day, the prospects of our students, and our own professionalism. Whether we choose to commit and contribute rests on one element—our will to try.

Because we find change uncomfortable, we are prone to explain vociferously why we cannot change the ways we teach. We can tell that change is afoot in our schools and classrooms when our conversations shift from, “Yes, but” to “What if we try this?” I hope many educators who read this journal are firmly in that second camp. The solutions to the “yes, buts” are inside us once we risk looking there.

JG At a meeting we had recently the differences between primary and secondary schools were discussed. In primary a teacher has the same 25 students for the full teaching week. In secondary a teacher may have 5 classes of 25 students for 4x50 minute periods each per week. Secondary teachers point out that managing differentiated instruction is more difficult at their level and has significant workload implications. How do teachers with 120 to 150 students per week increase differentiation without finding themselves faced with an unsustainable workload?

CT Having taught at virtually all levels in education, I can’t recall any of those experiences that required less than a human has to give. It is probably the case that secondary teachers who work with 150 students a day in 5 sections feel elementary teachers have a much easier job because those teachers have the same students with them all day. I believe the elementary teacher would invite their secondary colleagues to try teaching five or six subjects a day, many of which, unlike the secondary experience, are not topics for which they prepared at the university and are not areas of strength or significant personal interest. Sometimes, that includes teaching not only the core content areas but also serving as stand-ins for music, art, and/or physical education as well. There may well be no professional experience on earth that is more draining than working with kindergarteners for six-plus hours a day.

How teachers at any level learn to differentiate instruction without sinking under an unsustainable load is to move forward in learning about differentiation and translating that learning into the classroom is to do that one step at a time. That’s the way we ask our students to learn. It’s the way humans have learned to be worthy musicians, capable athletes, cutting-edge physicians, electricians, cooks and then chefs, and admirable parents throughout history. There are lots of entry paths into responsive teaching. Choose one that makes most sense for you and your students. As you begin to master new approaches to teaching and learning, stop doing the work required by the old ways. A colleague of mine reminded folks who excused themselves from change by citing their workloads, “If you want to lose weight, you don’t eat all the ’old‘ food that created the problem and then eat the healthier, more nutritious food. You replace what you used to eat with something better.”

If we begin with the assumption that our job description won’t allow us to change in significant ways, we won’t. We won’t develop as we might—and neither will our students.

JG The range of learning needs of students in schools has substantially expanded over the past few decades with the positive inclusion of students with a broad spectrum of disabilities/special needs into mainstream classrooms. What is your advice about how schools and teachers should meet the needs of all students in these inclusive classrooms?


CT I don’t think the goal of differentiation is to assign every teacher a Noah’s ark every year with two of every kind of learner on the planet in the same room. Neither is it to track students based on our perceptions of learner capacity. (We’re pretty bad at that and the great many students whom we judge not to be capable of doing complex work frequently pay a heavy, lifetime cost for those decisions).

A foundational idea in differentiating instruction is to look for patterns in student performance across a class at a given moment and enable students with similar needs to work together on those needs for a time. It’s also helpful to create academic teams or student teams in which students with varied interests, strengths, and/or needs work together to accomplish goals. Teachers who differentiate use varied apps that provide reading materials at varied levels of complexity and also provide options for ways students can express learning. The goal is absolutely not to have a different lesson plan for each student, but rather to provide a variety supports, tools, and/or options for learning that are responsive to patterns of strength and need in a class.

The growing variety of learners and learner needs that we see in almost all schools is a signal that we need to learn to teach more flexibly, not that we need to double down on the more restrictive and exclusive ways we have often taught in the past.

JG While it is understood that differentiating the curriculum and working more closely with students is more likely to engage them in their education, there are many reasons for students to disengage which may result in challenging behaviour, some of which relates to trauma, poverty or social disadvantage. Some of the guidelines for differentiated student learning assume that the environment will be calm and ordered. This is not always the case. How should teachers address this challenge?

CT You are correct, of course, that many students come to school each day carrying weights that are too great for their teachers to imagine. Those needs impact their academic, emotional, and social growth. Some of those students implode or withdraw, some explode or act out. There are inevitable challenges for those students and their teachers. Differentiation doesn’t eliminate those needs. What it does do is reduce student frustration, anxiety, and anger so that behavior becomes less of a challenge for teachers and for the students who exhibit those behaviors. That is the case for at least three reasons. First, when what we ask students to do in our classes is well beyond their current capacity to succeed with it, that adds to student frustration, insecurity, and shame or well beneath their need for stimulation. It becomes a trigger for problematic behavior. Teachers who differentiate instruction are more likely to have students working in their “Zone of Proximal Development,” as Vygotsky described it, or at a level of “moderate challenge” as neuroscientists describe it. That allows for more student success which, in turn, improves a student’s sense of efficacy and confidence and reduces the impetus for acting out. Second, creating a learning environment that is deeply rooted in respect, empathy, and support for each learner (from both peers and the teacher) goes a long way in reducing student anxiety. For many students whose behavior can be challenging to them and to others, this sort of environment often provides the first time in their schooling that they have received a message that a teacher respects them, wants to be their partner in success, and invites the students to help create a classroom that works for everyone in it.

I often say that differentiation isn’t so much any set of strategies as it is a teacher’s “way of being” in a classroom. That way of being is a third reason that student misbehavior is generally less problematic in a differentiated classroom than in a one-size-fits-all setting. The teacher understands the need students have for positive regard (especially, but not at all limited to, students who have felt negative regard in most aspects of their lives). That teacher understands the need for flexibility and works to provide it. He or she also studies students to understand their needs (as well as their strengths) and takes those into account when thinking about room arrangement, the need for active learning, connecting learning to student experiences and interests, fostering an environment in which students learn to be a team of learners—to be effective collaborators, to support one another’s success. In these classes, teachers do a great deal to proactively address potential behavior issues. When those moments do occur, the teacher is prone to respond in ways that mitigate rather than inflame the problem. The teacher sees these times as opportunities to work with a student to understand his or her behavior and to take steps forward in managing that behavior more effectively. That doesn’t mean the teacher lets the behavior slide, of course. Rather it means the teacher sees the student as a young person in need of help—even in the face of punishment when that is called for. Punishment without empathy and support most often exacerbates the problem that caused the misbehavior in the first place.

JG Some students, particularly in secondary, resent being assigned differentiated work. Those who are being challenged may perceive this as being given more work, those whose work is scaffolded may feel patronised. What is your advice regarding this dilemma?

CT I think working productively with students on this topic depends on a teacher’s understanding of the student’s concerns, the realities of how people learn, and how to bring those two perspectives together. Most students have had ample experiences in settings where someone expected too little of them—treated them like they were less mature, less able, less responsible than they were. Most have also had ample experience with being asked to do things that made them feel taller, more respected because those things assumed they could do big things. My students readily shared those experiences with the class and I shared some of my experiences with them. I talked with them about a learner’s need for a balance of effort and success in order to learn—about the discouragement we encounter if we are working well above our reach much of the time and the sense of monotony and lethargy we experience when we have to keep doing what we already know how to do. I showed them a little bit of work on the Zone of Proximal Development and they talked about times when they had experienced things that were a little too hard for them and got over the “speed bump” with help from friends, teachers, or other adults.

All of this was in the context of a discussion I started with my students on the first or second day of school by doing some sort of activity in which people were having a non-school experience that didn’t fit their needs in some way. After the scenario, I’d ask them what they thought the activity had to do with school. It was always clear to a number of them that it was a metaphor, a stand-in for school. The jacket was way too big or way too small. The doctor’s prescription made no sense for the patient’s symptoms, the food was placed on a table but didn’t seem to be prepared in a way that was appetizing, etc. Someone would always say something like, “That thing we just did is like school is a lot of the time—the pace is too fast for some of us and too slow for others,” or “We feel foolish, out of synch when the work we have to do swallows us up like that big jacket did.”

The question that began to shape our year together followed those experiences. Do you think we could work together to create a classroom that is designed to work well for each of us and all of us? The students generally found that idea to be intriguing. We talked about what such a classroom might look like, how it might differ from some other classes they had taken, what their roles in making that kind of class happen would be and what mine would be. We developed classroom agreements that could support the vision of a class that works for each person in it. We developed classroom routines that supported both whole group work and individual/small group work. I talked with them about many ways in which I would ask them to work together so that they all worked with many of their classmates over a relatively short period of time and how I would get their input on what seemed to be working for them in the class as well as advice for re-thinking approaches that weren’t working. We also talked about the importance of their input on whether assignments seemed challenging and supported to them so that I was hearing from the people who are at the center of learning.

Long answer, but a shared vision that we built together throughout the year meant that students understood the reasons for the decisions I made and the ones we made together—or if they didn’t, they felt comfortable asking. In time, they shared examples of how golf handicaps reflected some of our class processes, how good coaches ask each player to build on their strengths and do drills that they needed in order to be more successful more often than they held practices in which every player did all the same drills for the whole session. They understood that taking responsibility for their own growth was more fruitful than comparing themselves to others.

The short version of this long response is that when I learned to share my thinking with students and asked them to share theirs with me and with all of us, an important shift happened. They saw that I was doing things with them rather than to them. Their sense of agency and partnership/ownership their learning was transformational and virtually every aspect of our work was smoother and more effective.

Were there ever questions, malfunctions, false starts? Of course. We were all human beings, therefore fallible. The majority of us were young adolescents, twelve through fourteen, experiencing one of life’s most complex developmental stages. But we were a team. We trusted that we’d figure things out. And we nearly always did.

JG A longstanding debate about the relative merits of explicit teaching versus inquiry-based learning has flared up again in the Australian media. The minority who are in favour of explicit teaching are arguing that inquiry-based learning is a key reason why the performance of Australian students has declined in international testing programs such as PISA. What’s your view about this debate and how it relates to what happens in classrooms based on differentiated instruction?

CT I wrote a book during the first year of the pandemic in which I explored what our current best understanding of both the art and science of education tell us about the nature of quality, student-centered practices. With the world shut down, it seemed a good time to stop and think about what we would do in our profession if we dedicated ourselves to implementing the best insights our profession has to offer. I used examples of teacher practice throughout the book from early-years through high school and even one significant illustration from college professors.

It was interesting to me, although not surprising, that the teachers whose work I spotlighted reflected a variety of approaches to teaching and learning, and yet all of them were exemplars of quality work. All incorporated the principles that offer most benefit to student learning (for example, creating a learning environment that feels invitational to each learner in the class; working from curriculum that builds around the most essential knowledge, ideas, and skills of the content area, that emphasizes student understanding, and that is planned for student engagement and transfer; formative assessment that helps teachers teach more effectively and helps students learn more effectively; instruction that is active, collaborative, that connects content with learner experiences, that responds to students’ readiness needs; strengths and interests, and provides varied options for learning and expressing learning; and creating classroom processes and procedures that balance the need for stability and flexibility in learning).

Here's a paragraph that appears at the end of the book. It’s as good an answer as I can provide around the direct instruction/inquiry debate.

quality learner-centered practices provide a reliable compass to guide the work of teachers within a broad array of approaches to and models for teaching, from direct instruction to inquiry from academic teams to product-based learning, from workshop-based to community-based learning. The success of any model or approach to teaching rests on the teacher’s will to apply and skill in applying our best knowledge of what constitutes quality practice within that model or approach.

In other words, I think both inquiry and direct instruction will benefit student learning when they consistently mirror quality practices—and both will fail students when they do not. It may well be that a classroom that balances direct instruction with opportunity for students to extend and apply what they are learning would offer a particularly rich set of learning opportunities—if both approaches reflect the indicators of quality teaching/learning practices. It is never the model or the strategy that will save us. Persistent application of quality teaching and learning practices get us where we need to go.

JG There has been a lot of discussion recently with the increased use of technology about the concept of personalised learning. This has tended to mean each student being provided with their own learning program facilitated by technology. What do you see as the relationship between differentiated instruction and this view of personalised learning?

 CT This question is a bit tricky to answer in the sense that there is still no commonly agreed upon definition of personalization in the literature of education. It means so many wildly different things that it’s hard to find its core intent. For some people, it means students have choice of what to learn, when to learn it, where to learn it, and how the learning should be assessed. For others, it means giving students voice in developing curriculum. For others, it means assigning significant school time to student pursuit of topics or skills in which they have a particular interest, perhaps through approaches such as Genius Hour or Maker-Spaces. There are a variety of other interpretations as well.

In terms of personalization and technology, it is common for teachers (and perhaps creators/publishers of some student learning platforms or programs) to envision personalization as your question frames it. “Here’s your solution to the varied needs of your students in math or in literacy. Plug them in and the program will do the rest.”

It’s a safe bet that quality across those programs/platforms is quite varied and quality always matters. But assume for the moment that your school has invested in a “quality” math or literacy program that offers personalization. Think about the teacher who is relieved to “plug students into” the program for all or most of her math instruction or for major components of literacy instruction. Then think about the teacher who may use some aspects of the program to enable students to practice key skills in fractions, for example—but who also engages her students in demonstrating their thinking about fractions to the class and who then guides the class in engaging discussions about ways in which fractions can be expressed, the number of different ways students in the class went about solving a problem, or who gives students variety of materials with which they can create visual representations of varied fractions. I have to believe that more students in the second classroom will come to understand fractions more broadly and deeply than students who plugged in for math. I can’t help but believe that more students in the second classroom will learn to love math and to see themselves as mathematical thinkers.

Technology is a tool not a solution. Tools are rarely useful when they are used for the wrong purposes or when we set out to build with them in the absence of understanding what we are trying to build. Technology offers us so many ways to increase student engagement in learning, to encourage students to express learning more fully, to match reading materials to student proficiency in reading or to a student’s home language, or to extend the reach of our communication., or to learn to evaluate the credibility of sources and ideas. Those opportunities don’t replace the need for teacher/student partnerships in learning, however. They are no substitute at all for quality peer collaboration and problem-solving.

In my understanding, personalization includes thoughtful use of technology, but that plug-in technology aspersonalization has strayed far afield from what we know about quality teaching and deep learning. Plug-in also runs counter to much if not most of what differentiation advocates in terms of teacher/student connections, student/student connections, teaching and learning for transfer, advocating performance assessments as powerful in student application and transfer of knowledge, student voice and choice, and a wide variety of other hallmarks of differentiation.

JG Because of school closures and a transition to remote learning during the COVID pandemic there is widespread concern about student wellbeing and mental health. These issues are becoming a particular focus as students return to face-to-face schooling. Do you have any thoughts in these circumstances about how teachers can get the pedagogical balance right between the need for academic catch-up (particularly for those students who, for a range of reasons, have found remote learning difficult) and student wellbeing needs?

 CT I don’t believe there is a real distinction between meeting a student’s emotional, affective, or mental health needs and meeting their academic needs. The brain is structured in such a way that emotional or well-being needs take precedence over learning. When well-being is threatened, the oldest part of the brain whose primary job is to protect the owner takes control of the situation and literally cuts off access to the part of the brain in which cognition is located. In other words, when a student is feeling significantly afraid, anxious, angry, threatened, depressed, etc., learning is largely off the table. That’s a rough version of what neuroscience tells us. It points to the truth that lies in the admonition that makes the rounds in educational circles, “Maslow before Bloom.” Our safest way forward is to provide students with work that is interesting to them, relevant to their world and circumstances and to ask students to do it in the company of others so that they are regaining some sense of what it means to have friends in school, how to work cooperatively, how to exchange a little small talk along the way, how to laugh at giggle-worthy things, how to celebrate accomplishments together, and so on. We need to help young people regain a sense of normality first and foremost—to find themselves and one another again.

That calls for establishing and re-establishing connections with the teacher and classmates, remembering or discovering the classroom as a safe and positive place, experiencing shared joy—and doing worthwhile work in the company and in the partnership of others. Nel Noddings, a wise and thoughtful educator, wrote, “The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.” From my vantage point, that is a fundamental tenet of all teaching. It is certainly true right now. We need to refuse to see young people who have survived a pandemic and months upon months of isolation as broken learning vessels that need to be fixed and filled. We need instead to see them as remarkable examples of human endurance and resilience. We need to ensure that they feel understood, welcomed, valued, respected, and celebrated and that they experience joyful learning, not ramped up remediation and drill and practice on steroids.

The needs of students can be very diverse. They may understand the content of a topic and be able to talk about it but struggle with written literacy. They may equally have adequate literacy but find the content too difficult. They may have diagnosed learning difficulties or behavioral problems. How do teachers deal with so many levels of diversity in one classroom, especially if they have to document lesson plans?

I would begin by making sure I am clear on the essential knowledge, essential understandings, essential skills for the topic at hand. We tend to want to “cover” a vast expanse of knowledge and skill, often without stating understandings and building to those. Then, I would make sure my students know what those goals (which I call KUDs—K for knowledge, U for understandings, and D or Dos for skills) are.

I think about our time as a class in terms of highways and exit ramps. On the highways, we will all, for example, participate in the introduction to a unit, take part in mini-lectures or mini-lessons as the unit progresses, watch videos, look at artifacts, read and/or listen to related blogs, hear invited speakers. In other words, all of us will take part in the engaging, important elements of our time together. I’ll ask questions at different levels of complexity during class discussion, use student interests as analogies for an event or process or idea we are studying. I’ll stop often to give students a chance to work in pairs or triads to summarize what they are hearing or reading, to ask them to predict what will happen next in a story or moment in history. In those latter ways, I am differentiating even as we all work together.

During exit ramp time, students will work independently, in small groups, or with the teacher on skills, knowledge, insights that will help them move forward more securely in what we are learning about. Sometimes, a student will use exit ramp time to work with the teacher on a foundational skill they should have learned a few years back. Sometimes two or three students will work in tandem to review or revise a piece of work that’s due in a few days. At other times, a student may be investigating how an interest area (for example, music, agriculture, a particular author, how scientists figured out how to combat COVID) relates to something the class is studying.

If I have a student who struggles with reading, I will be sure to spend time with that student (or those students) during exit ramp time, but I will also help that student with some work-arounds that enable him or her to access information related to our study in ways other than reading the text, for example. I can also use strategies such as tiering, learning contracts, learning agendas, hyper-docs, RAFTs [Role Audience Format Topic], and similar tools to have students work with both in-common and differentiated elements. These tools also can invite students to work with interest areas as they relate to current content.

Lesson plans really aren’t so difficult—or shouldn’t be. I like using a two-column format on which I list the whole-class/highway activities step by step in the left column and the individual or small group assignments in the right-hand column starting on the line beneath the lines in the right column that list the whole class progression to that point.

Unless a student has an individual education plan that replaces the class learning targets with different ones, all of the students will work with and/or work toward the same KUDs over the course of the unit (though there will be some variability in when a student works with a particular goal during exit ramp times).

It’s wise to support students at any age in deciding which goals/which assignments will facilitate his/her growth most markedly. Learning to make those decisions thoughtfully helps students develop agency as learners and allows the teacher to focus less on generating student work than in observing how students are progressing with work they have chosen to do.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development and one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of differentiated instruction, being one of the earliest and most widely-published exponents of the concept.