Differentiated Instruction in Today’s Classrooms

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by the IRIS CenterIRIS Center log

The IRIS Center is a national center that provides high-quality resources about students with disabilities for college and university faculty and professional development trainers. Visit IRIS’ website to find free, online, interactive training enhancements that translate research about the education of students with disabilities into practice.


Now, more than ever, instructors and educators understand that achieving the best academic outcomes for the greatest number of students requires something other than a “one-size-fits-all” approach in the classroom. The way to achieve that goal, however, remains a subject of much debate, which leads to confusion and uncertainty. How does a teacher balance the needs of all students and optimize their learning?

Try Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is an approach that helps teachers adjust their curriculum and instruction to maximize the learning and learning opportunities for all students, regardless of their learning needs or ability level. Differentiated instruction, however, is not a single strategy but, rather, a framework that teachers can use to implement a variety of strategies, many of which are evidence-based. Some of these strategies include:

  • Using effective classroom management procedures
  • Grouping students for instruction
  • Assessing student readiness
  • Teaching to the student’s zone of proximal development—the point just beyond which a student can complete an instructional task independently

Let’s Get Concrete

But how might a teacher go about differentiating instruction in the first place? To help answer this question, the IRIS Center for Training Enhancements has created a new STAR Legacy Module, Differentiated Instruction: Maximizing the Learning of All Students. You can view the module by going to http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/di/chalcycle.htm

All IRIS STAR Legacy Modules are challenge-based. They open with a video depiction of a challenge, problem, or scenario, and are designed to address this challenge and lead module users to a fuller understanding of the larger topic under consideration.

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The Teacher’s Challenge

Differentiated Instruction: Maximizing the Learning of All Students tells the story of Mr. Shelton, a high school mathematics teacher who has recently encountered a new kind of problem. Here is Mr. Shelton’s story, as presented in the module:

Mr. Shelton has taught high school honors and Advanced Placement or AP mathematics courses for the last 23 years. He primarily has used whole-group instruction to present concepts and to model problem-solving processes on the board. His students seem to learn the information and have performed well on in-class tests and AP exams.

Two years ago Mr. Shelton began teaching Algebra I, a required course for all students. Although he is teaching the concepts in the same manner as before, many of his Algebra I students are not performing well. Some of them score poorly on in-class tests; others look bored or even fall asleep during class. Mr. Shelton has heard other teachers talk about things like this in the past but has never experienced them in his own classroom.

Seeking possible reasons for this difference in student performance, he speaks to several Algebra I teachers in his district whose students are performing well. They point out that Mr. Shelton’s Algebra I class probably has students with a wider range of ability levels than he is used to. They explain that they use an approach called differentiated instruction to achieve their results.

Mr. Shelton is not sure what differentiated instruction is, so he sets out to learn more.

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Meeting the Challenge

Beginning with Mr. Shelton’s challenge, the module goes on to examine topics such as:

  • Differentiating content
  • Differentiating process
  • Differentiating product
  • Evaluating and grading student performance
  • Communicating with students and parents
  • Organizing the classroom
  • Employing effective behavior management

The module also includes hints and tips on how a teacher can get to know his or her students (e.g., in terms of readiness, interest, and learning profile), as well as information about various strategies for differentiating content and grading student performance. Expert insights and personal experiences are offered in audio interviews with:

  • Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Virginia;
  • Michelle Giddens, an assistant principal intern; and
  • Lorie Bowman, a second-grade teacher.

With the help of their expertise and experience, and with the module’s wealth of resources and information, Differentiated Instruction: Maximizing the Learning of All Students gives a comprehensive picture of what differentiated instruction might look like in a typical school.

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Tools to Meet Other Challenges

Visit the IRIS Center for Training Enhancements to find many great teacher resources and training modules for educators in English and in Spanish.

IRIS is a national center based at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and Claremont Graduate University; it’s supported through a federal grant from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). IRIS creates free and easily accessible materials and resources for college faculty preparing future education professionals and for professional development providers who conduct in-service trainings for current school personnel. These resources are available through the Center’s website at:

If you’d like to go directly to IRIS’ Differentiating Instruction module, you can find it at: http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/di/chalcycle.htm

Please do pay us a visit–and bookmark us for easy return trips in the future.

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