When we think of differentiation, we think in terms of providing our students a variety of teaching styles so each and every student has an opportunity to learn. Typically it is hard for a teacher to break out of her teaching style and think about a variety of learning styles to deliver instruction to meet the needs of the individual learner. Differentiation may look differently in each teachers classroom and may even look differently from one year to the next depending on the students in each classroom.

It is important for the teacher to build relationships with each child so that she learns how each student learns best. Then she can plan accordingly to the varying learning styles in her classroom. Teachers who practice differentiation in the classroom may:

  • Design lessons based on students’ learning styles.
  • Group students by shared interest, topic or ability for assignments.
  • Assess students’ learning using formative assessment.
  • Manage the classroom to create a safe and supportive environment.
  • Continually assess and adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs.

While the teacher must meet grade level standards and specific objectives, delivery may look different based on eight styles of learning: visual, verbal, logical, auditory, social, intrapersonal, physical, naturalistic. One popular theory, the VARK model, identifies four primary types of learners: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. Each learning type responds best to a different method of teaching.

Carol Ann Tomlinson has been a leader in the area of differentiated learning and professor of educational leadership, foundations and policy at the University of Virginia. Tomlinson describes differentiated instruction as factoring students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan. Research on the effectiveness of differentiation shows this method benefits a wide range of students, from those with learning disabilities to those who are considered high ability.

When the teacher plans for a variety of learning styles in her classroom, she will likely help students be more successful rather than treating her students as “cookie cutter” learners with a one-size fits all lesson plan. Unfortunately, many teachers get overwhelmed when they hear the word differentiation. But educators should remember that when scheduling their day, every thing is NOT expected to be differentiated. Rather building a schedule that incorporates time for differentiation is indeed paramount to helping scaffold instruction and help meet the needs of individual learners.