10 ways to differentiate learning…

Once upon a time in the olden days, the teacher stood out front and taught the whole class the same material in the same way. Everyone was expected to do the same tasks, some passed and some failed and were labelled ever after. The focus was on teaching, not on learning. One size was supposed to fit all and if you learned in a different way, too bad for you.

Time passed and it turned out that everyone didn’t learn in the same way after all. The teacher realised that learners have different needs, interests and abilities. Differentiated instruction was invented. The teacher prepared different tasks for each group in her class and preparation now took a whole lot longer. The needs of the learner were being better catered for, but the teacher was up all night.

She needed to think about differentiation in a different way.

10 ways to differentiate learning…

1. Let go.

Give the students (at least some) ownership of their learning. Don’t always be the boss of the class, be part of the community of learners. Don’t make all the decisions. Allow choice. Encourage students to think about how they learn best. Have students decide how to demonstrate their learning.

2. Change your expectations.

One size does not fit all. Not everyone fits the traditional mould of school, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn. You might need to change what you do. Remember you teach people, not subjects.

3. Change the sequence.

Learners don’t need total mastery of all the skills before they can apply them. Provide meaningful, authentic learning opportunities for everyone. Turn Bloom’s taxonomy on its head. All students can solve real problems and write for a real audience.

4. Use technology creatively.

Blogging, film making, global interactions, social media, photography, gaming (and much more!) …all provide naturally differentiated opportunities for learners with varied levels of ability, different interests and special talents.

5. Care about what matters to them.

Encourage learners to follow their interests. Know their story. Make their learning relevant. Connect with their passions… or help them to discover what they might be.

6. Assess for learning.

It’s not about a test at the end. Record student thinking and track development over time. Create meaningful assessment tasks that allow transfer of learning to other contexts. Think of everything as an assessment. Every piece of work, every blog post, every interaction, every conversation can tell us where a learner is at and where they need to go.

7. Embrace inquiry as a stance.

Create a culture of thinking, questioning, wondering and exploring. Start your questions with ‘What do you think?’ so that all responses are acceptable. Find ways to provoke learners’ curiosity and a desire to find out for themselves.

8. Don’t be the only teacher.

Students can learn from their peers, other teachers, parents, their on-line contacts, the world. Help them build their own personal learning network with and from whom they can learn.

9. Focus on learning, not work.

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Don’t give ‘busy work’. Don’t start by planning activities, start with the ‘why‘ and then develop learning experiences which will support independent learning.

10. Encourage goal setting and reflection.

Help students to define goals for their learning. Provide opportunities for ongoing self-evaluation and reflection. Provide constructive, specific feedback. Student blogs are great tools for reflecting on learning and responding to their peers.

If you’re the teacher in the story above, take a look at this chart, highlighting the differences between differentiated instruction and personalised learning. Personalization vs Differentiation vs Individualization by Barbara Bray.

70 thoughts on “10 ways to differentiate learning…

  1. Thanks for sharing your 10 ideas! They provide a nice framework for why we should differentiate instruction. In my work with teachers I find they need some modeling or coaching on how to do this well. How to deconstruct and thenredesign a lesson to be more differentiated for the diverse group of learners. I have seen Carol Ann Tomlinson on this topic a number of times and she provides the tools and framework for how to do it. Your 10 tips give the push. Diffentiating the assessment is equally as important as differentiating the instruction. Thanks!


    1. Or rather… not de-constructing the lesson, but constructing one to begin with that doesn’t have the teacher in control so much, that allows differentiated learning to occur naturally…


  2. Differentiation is so critical. In the right environment, students can be self-motivated – especially if they are working on projects they enjoy. I especially like what you said about projects, technology, and reflection. I can’t imagine teaching without those!

    Janet | expateducator.com


  3. Great practical reminders! I really liked that slide by Barbara Bray. I didn’t realize I was moving more towards personalization than differentiation.

    I also love #7, embracing inquiry as a stance, not just a lesson plan.


  4. Would differentiation be needed if kids got to pursue those interests that are uppermost in their minds? If school was a place where kids got to pursue their passions, would you need to focus on manipulating them to learn stuff they don’t care about? What if the choices adults gave kids in the class were real choices? What if kids had real power and control over their learning? Would you need to differentiate?


  5. I love reading your posts. I’ve shifted grades from Kindergarten to Year 6 this year and have been challenged in so many ways. I am researching more than ever to be ‘up to speed’ with my class. I’ve really enjoyed learning from the students and benefited from peer to peer coaching. I read a paper by John Hattie today. He talked about a study led by Ian Wilkinson and says they are ‘surprised by the under utilisation of peers as co-teachers in classrooms, and the dominance of the adult in the room to the diminution of the power of the peer.’ I feel encouraged that it is a good thing to use students to take leadership over the learning at times. We have just completed a study on Australian Government and after dividing the students into research groups they came back to the class to present their findings in “expert sessions.” The students reflected that these session were most helpful to their projects and it was a great opportunity for them to isten to another voice other than mine.
    The Hattie paper was found here:http://www.acer.edu.au/documents/RC2003_Hattie_TeachersMakeADifference.pdf


    1. Wow, Clare K to 6 is a huge shift in thinking and practice!
      So many teachers can’t shake the idea that all learning has to go through them.
      Thanks for the Hattie paper, I’ll take a look.


  6. I believe these are excellent guidelines to increase long term learning retention and higher order thinking skills necessary for our students to be successful in their future. The more opportunites that children have to be creative and take ownership of their learning makes that learning long lasting. I have seen my own children successful when they have opportunities to make power points, glosters and other technology based learning. I really love the piece on “everything as an assessment”. I believe when children can reproduce their learning in a venue they enjoy they can show you what they truely know.


  7. Very well-said. I’m forwarding this to some of my colleagues who are always asking for ideas of how to differentiate for their kiddos and of course, taking some ideas to use in my class!


  8. Love the 10 ways to differentiate learning post!! Inviting you to check out a tool that I created for the teacher toolbox. http://www.bubbabrain.com – play the demo game on the homepage to better understand how the game works. My students like using it to review past material. This is a FREE resource for teachers and students!


  9. Ms. Sackson, I am a student in an education class, EDM 310, at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, Alabama, USA.
    Several weeks ago, I was assigned to read and comment on a couple of the posts on your blog and really enjoyed reading them. To my surprise, I have been assigned the “WhatEdSaid” blog again. Thank you Dr. Strange!

    I absolutely love this post! It should be a mandatory read for all new, or aspiring, teachers. I will definitely be bookmarking it for future re-reads.
    I especially liked #6. “Assess for learning. It’s not about a test at the end.” This is so true. I think, at least here in America, the education system is way to “test centered”. The way the tests are handled is ridiculous. It is just cram, cram, regurgitate, and repeat.
    “Create meaningful assessment tasks that allow transfer of learning to other contexts.”
    I don’t think it could be stated any better.

    I love your ideas, love your blog, and look forward to the next post.
    Thank you!


  10. Thanks for the great list. It strikes me that some of the points really speak to differentiation and some speak to just good teaching for all students. Points 8,9 and 10, for example are hopefully techniques that would apply to all students regardless of whether they were a highly homogenous or heterogenous group. I have tried to demonstrate in my teaching and book (The Falconer) that, as you say, by turning Bloom upside down and expecting all students to be able to increase their skills by those measures, all students to increase their skills!

    Thanks for sharing.


  11. Thanks for sharing! For me number two is the most important point and the biggest hurdle to get over personally. Without this understanding of the need to change expectations frustration can be directed at the student when often it’s really the teacher that needs to improve their practice.


  12. I am a PGCE student and my reams of ‘handouts’, printed powerpoint presentations and text books could be substituted by this one website. THANK YOU!


  13. Great post! Very helpful. I find that the first on is the most difficult for some teachers and the most important for students. Thanks for sharing your thinking.


  14. Hi there! Thank you for this great list of ways to differentiate the learning of our future generations! I have shared this great post and its valuable content on my Kids are Leaders Facebook page. With gratitude, Diane Uzunovska 🙂


  15. Great material in differentiated learning.In incorporating these ,teachers can make children learn effectively.

    Khyam Nath Timsina


  16. I just used your ’10 ways to differentiate learning’ in my ‘reflective journal’ for my PGCE teacher training course – thank you!


  17. I liked the point you made for #6: Assess for learning. I definitely agree that assessments should be taking place all throughout and not just on a final test. When assessing throughout, educators will get an idea of what their students know throughout the unit.


  18. I tend not to leave a response, but after browsing some of the responses here. I do have a couple of questions for you if you do not mind. Could it be just me or do some of these comments come across like they are written by brain dead visitors? 😛 And, if you are writing on additional places, I would like to follow you. Could you post a list of all of your public sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?


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