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12.4: Components and features

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    Identifying Components/Features

    While Tomlinson and most recognize there is no magic or recipe for making a classroom differentiated, they have identified guiding principles, considered the “Pillars that Support Effective Differentiation”: Philosophy, Principles, and Practices. The premise of each is as follows:

    The Philosophy of differentiation is based on the following tenets:

    1. recognizing diversity is normal and valuable,
    2. understanding every student has the capacity to learn,
    3. taking responsibility to guide and structure student success,
    4. championing every student entering the learning environment and assuring equity of access

    The Principles identified that shape differentiation include

    1. creating an environment conducive to learning
    2. identifying a quality foundational curriculum
    3. informing teaching and learning with assessments
    4. designing instruction based on assessments collected
    5. creating and maintaining a flexible classroom

    The Practices are also essential to differentiation, highlighted as

    1. proactive planning to address student profiles
    2. modifying instructional approaches to meet student needs
    3. teaching up (students should be working just above their individual comfort levels)
    4. assigning respectful tasks responsive to student needs—challenging, engaging, purposeful
    5. applying flexible grouping strategies (e.g., stations, interest groups, orbital studies)


    • Several elements and materials are used to support instructional content. These include acts, concepts, generalizations or principles, attitudes, and skills. The variation seen in a differentiated classroom is most frequently in the manner in which students gain access to important learning. Access to content is seen as key.
    • Align tasks and objectives to learning goals. Designers of differentiated instruction view the alignment of tasks with instructional goals and objectives as essential. Goals are most frequently assessed by many state-level, high-stakes tests and frequently administered standardized measures. Objectives are frequently written in incremental steps resulting in a continuum of skills-building tasks. An objectives-driven menu makes it easier to find the next instructional step for learners entering at varying levels.
    • Instruction is concept-focused and principle-driven. Instructional concepts should be broad-based, not focused on minute details or unlimited facts. Teachers must focus on the concepts, principles, and skills that students should learn. The content of instruction should address the same concepts with all students, but the degree of complexity should be adjusted to suit diverse learners.
    • Clarify key concepts and generalizations. Ensure that all learners gain powerful understandings that can serve as the foundation for future learning. Teachers are encouraged to identify essential concepts and instructional foci to ensure that all learners comprehend.


    • Flexible grouping is consistently used. Strategies for flexible grouping are essential. Learners are expected to interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content. Teachers may conduct whole-class introductory discussions of content big ideas followed by small group or paired work. Student groups may be coached from within or by the teacher to support completion of assigned tasks. Grouping of students is not fixed. As one of the foundations of differentiated instruction, grouping and regrouping must be a dynamic process, changing with the content, project, and on-going evaluations.
    • Classroom management benefits students and teachers. To effectively operate a classroom using differentiated instruction, teachers must carefully select organization and instructional delivery strategies. In her text, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2001), Carol Tomlinson identifies 17 key strategies for teachers to successfully meet the challenge of designing and managing differentiated instruction.
    • Emphasize critical and creative thinking as a goal in lesson design. The tasks, activities, and procedures for students should require that they understand and apply meaning. Instruction may require supports, additional motivation; and varied tasks, materials, or equipment for different students in the classroom.


    • Initial and on-going assessment of student readiness and growth are essential. Meaningful pre-assessment naturally leads to functional and successful differentiation. Incorporating pre- and on-going assessment informs teachers so that they can better provide a menu of approaches, choices, and scaffolds for the varying needs, interests, and abilities that exist in classrooms of diverse students. Assessments may be formal or informal, including interviews, surveys, performance assessments, and more formal evaluation procedures.
    • Use assessment as a teaching tool to extend rather than merely measure instruction. Assessment should occur before, during, and following the instructional episode; and it should be used to help pose questions regarding student needs and optimal learning.
    • Students are active and responsible explorers. Teachers respect that each task put before the learner will be interesting, engaging, and accessible to essential understanding and skills. Each child should feel challenged most of the time.
    • Vary expectations and requirements for student responses. Items to which students respond may be differentiated so that different students are able to demonstrate or express their knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways. A well-designed student product allows varied means of expression and alternative procedures and offers varying degrees of difficulty, types of evaluation, and scoring.


    • Developing a learning environment. Establish classroom conditions that set the tone and expectations for learning. Provide tasks that are challenging, interesting, and worthwhile to students.
    • Engaging all learners is essential. Teachers are encouraged to strive for the development of lessons that are engaging and motivating for a diverse class of students. Vary tasks within instruction as well as across students. In other words, an entire session for students should not consist of all lecture, discussion, practice, or any single structure or activity.
    • Provide a balance between teacher-assigned and student-selected tasks. A balanced working structure is optimal in a differentiated classroom. Based on pre-assessment information, the balance will vary from class-to-class as well as lesson-to-lesson. Teachers should ensure that students have choices in their learning.

    The following instructional approach to teaching mathematics patterns has several UDL features (see Table 2). Through the use of clearly stated goals and the implementation of flexible working groups with varying levels of challenge, this lesson helps to break down instructional barriers. We have identified additional ways to reduce barriers in this lesson even further by employing the principles of UDL teaching methods and differentiated instruction. We provide recommendations of employing teaching methods of UDL to support this lesson in Table 3. Please note that we are not making generalized recommendations for making this lesson more UDL, but instead are focusing on ways that differentiated instruction, specifically, can help achieve this goal.

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\): . UDL Elements in a Differentiated Instruction Mathematics Lesson


    UDL Guideline/Checkpoint Differentiated Instruction Features
    Provide multiple examples. The teacher provides multiple examples throughout the lesson with multiple models, practice activities, and additional math problems.
    Highlight critical features. The teacher highlights critical features of the mathematics by stopping and calculating, checking in with students, and modeling behavior.
    Provide multiple media and formats. The teacher supports understanding by identifying patterns not only in text but also in the environment of the classroom, school, etc.
    Support background context. Teachers analyze or pre-test students for key pre-skills and background knowledge.
    Provide ongoing, relevant feedback. In cooperative groups, students may receive feedback from the teacher and from peers.
    Offer choices of content and tools. Students are assigned to one of three groups tiered by difficulty; all students are working on the same task but with varying supports.
    Offer adjustable levels of challenge. Varied supports in the working groups alter the level of independence and difficulty in solving the task.
    Table \(\PageIndex{4}\): . UDL Strategies to Further Minimize Lesson Barriers in a Differentiated Instruction Lesson Plan for Mathematics.
    Barrier UDL Strategy
    Deducting/constructing numeric functions. Provide different demonstrations or models
    of how to use the tools employed in the lesson. Provide scaffolds and prompt students in use of number patterns.
    Students write rules for mathematical patterns. Provide alternative formats for students to express their interpretation of visual and representational patterns and the mathematical implications. For example, speaking, creating a diagram, numerical representations.
    Creating number patterns. Consider background knowledge for students entering this mathematical problem. What range of supports could be made available to provide the informational knowledge so that students can focus on the problem-solving component?

    (Hall, Vue, Meyer, 2004)

    12.4: Components and features is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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