An definition of differentiation and an explanation of why it is vital in modern classroom practice.
What is differentiation?
Differentiation is the process by which teachers adjust the activities occurring in their learning environment according to the personal and individual differences of their learners. Tomlinson (1999) asserts that effective differentiation is both organised and flexible, as it should be planned for but can also be enacted spontaneously, and that consideration of individual needs and learning styles results in maximum growth for the learner. These differences can take numerous different forms which many theorists have attempted to quantify – for example, Gardner (1983) posited a theory of ‘multiple intelligences’, stating that a person could display any of the following intelligences: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Each kind of ‘intelligence’ would require a different style of teaching to complement it and get the best out of learners. An effectively differentiated session would attempt to cater for as many different types of learners as possible by alternating activities and assessment methods, ensuring every learner has an opportunity to utilise their personal skills. While the concept of differentiation has its critics – for example, Geake (2008) stated that ‘the evidence consistently shows that modifying a teaching approach to cater for differences in learning styles does not result in any improvement in learning outcomes’ (p. 130) – it is considered current best practice to ensure the best outcomes for learners.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Geake, J. (2008). ‘Neuromythologies in Education’. Educational Research 50.2: pp. 123-133.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. (2nd ed). New Jersey: Pearson Education.