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The one-room schoolhouse was a place where a single educator faced the daily challenge of teaching to meet the needs of all students. Learner characteristics like age, cultural background, cognitive ability, and physical challenges did not separate students into different spaces and different places. The teacher negotiated all of these variables within a single room.

Differentiation in the contemporary classroom

Today’s K-12 classroom population is significantly more diverse than that of the one-room schoolhouse. Sure, both reflect a range of student abilities, backgrounds, and ages, but the similarities stop there. An even broader range of learner attributes characterizes the diversity of today’s classroom. For example, North Carolina has experienced an incredible growth in immigrant populations. Such growth is apparent in the cultural and linguistic diversity of almost all classrooms of students.

On another level, early access to educational materials, increased understanding of early literacy strategies, and the ability to learn online at one’s own pace accelerate learning for some learners. Consequently, some classrooms may include younger learners who are academically on grade level with their classmates, but may be behind them with respect to their social skills. Finally, research in the area of inclusion coupled with policy changes regarding equity of access bring students with special cognitive needs and students with physical needs into the mainstream classroom.

Societal changes like these place great demands on the skills, knowledge, and dispositions of teachers. Effective instruction goes beyond strong knowledge of content, excellent classroom management skills, and a solid foundation in content pedagogical knowledge. It requires a teacher who can provide age-appropriate, culturally relevant, learning-style appropriate, cognitively challenging, linguistically comprehensible input for each student in an environment that respects a range of physical abilities. It requires the ability to provide meaningful learning opportunities for every student, taking into consideration what makes them unique. Unlike the one-room schoolhouse, it means doing so for a classroom with an even broader range of learner attributes. Effective instruction has come to mean different instruction for what has become historically the most heterogeneous of learner populations, all within the same classroom.

Four critical areas

Contemporary definitions of differentiated instruction typically reference three areas where differentiation can occur:

  • Process: The combination of activities and input from the teacher that engage the learner in the content
  • Content: The information that must be learned
  • Product: The outcomes of student learning that demonstrate understanding or mastery

While any teacher would do well to differentiate instruction across these areas on a regular basis, there remains yet another area where differentiation can occur: environment. If we believe that differentiation creates equitable learning situations for all learners, and we know that physical environment — including the “climate” of the classroom — affects learners in different ways, then we should recognize that differentiation can also occur through the environment.

This series addresses all four areas where differentiation occurs. Some articles focus specifically on particular populations like gifted or autistic learners, while others explore techniques or pedagogy applicable to teaching all learners. Similarly, some of the articles address multiple areas of differentiation, while others focus on one specific area.

Series overview

The first article in this series, “Tiering to Avoid Tears: Developing Assignments that Address All Learners’ Needs,” presents the concept of differentiating instruction based on three distinct levels of learners in any given classroom. Author Linda Robinson questions our traditional ideas of the teacher’s role during instruction while offering concrete steps for creating a tiered environment. She concludes with a discussion of fairness as it pertains to equity of student workload and expectations.

The tiering article is followed Dr. David Martin’s “Deaf Learners and Successful Cognitive Achievement,” which offers suggestions for creating an environment where deaf learners can be successful. Dr. Martin gives a historical perspective of how educators have underestimated the cognitive abilities of deaf learners. He offers suggestions of cognitive interventions in the areas of instruction and assessment, and discusses the role of family and conditions for creating a more equitable learning environment for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

The third article takes a look at how we manage behavior in inclusive environments. In his article, “Managing and Improving Behavior in Inclusive Educational Environments,” Dr. Ed Sabornie explores how teachers across grade levels and subject areas can improve their classroom management skills with methods that have been proven effective for all students. Dr. Sabornie reviews concepts like spatial arrangement, classroom rules, classroom climate, positive reinforcement, and decreasing inappropriate behavior in the classroom.

From there, we continue with a look at academically gifted learners. In her second article in the series, “Who Cares?: Using Real-World Perspectives to Engage Academically Gifted Learners,” Linda Robinson addresses the need to challenge these learners who are often bored with middle-of-the-road assignments that do not seem relevant to them. Providing authentic, real-world problems is critical to help engage gifted students — and is effective for all learners. Linda guides us through the steps for constructing learning around real-world perspectives.

Susan Flynn offers essential modifications for working with autistic students in the mainstream classroom in her article, “Inclusion Strategies for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” She begins with an overview of the various disorders on the autism spectrum. The article continues with an exploration of general teaching strategies, with a look at the concepts of reinforcement, modifications, socialization, and communication strategies, and concluding with an emphasis on the importance of collaboration.

We continue the series with a focus on the affordances of technology toward differentiation in the article “Inclusion in the 21st-Century Classroom: Differentiation Through Technology.” Here, Dr. Lauren Ormsby and Dr. Bobby Hobgood explore the role of technology in creating opportunities for all learners. The article makes a strong case for differentiating instruction, and offers examples of how technology can help teachers overcome barriers to differentiation.

Next, we’ll go inside the minds of our students to understand the effectiveness of a variety of differentiation strategies in “Using Knowledge of Student Cognition to Differentiate Instruction.” Dr. Robert Gable and Dr. Silvana Watson examine the relationship between student learning and the cognitive processes involved in acquiring new knowledge with a specific focus on working memory and attention. The article concludes with research-based, practical strategies for differentiating instruction.

In the final article, “The Power of Nonfiction: Using Informational Text to Support Literacy in Special Populations,” Dr. Joan Barnatt emphasizes a variety of reasons that nonfiction can be more effective than fiction in helping students develop literacy skills — particularly for at-risk students, English language learners, and students with learning disabilities. The article explores the form and function of informational text, and its role in inquiry-based learning.

Themes to notice

We hope that you will read all of these articles and view the archived web conferences associated with each one. As you read, pay attention to the following themes that appear repeatedly throughout the series:

  • Explicit strategy instruction
  • Equity
  • Alternative assessment
  • The role of family
  • Socialization
  • Conditions for learning
  • Real-world or authentic learning
  • Reinforcement
  • Collaboration and collegial support

You might consider the following questions related to these themes:

  • How are they expressed across different populations of learners?
  • What are the benefits to mainstream students when teachers attend to these themes?
  • Which are influenced by student background and home life?
  • Which can be easily addressed through changes in teacher behavior versus those that are influenced by outside factors?
  • Why do these particular themes figure prominently in this series?

This series does not promise to address all aspects of differentiated instruction. You’ll notice, for example, that English language learners are not addressed in a dedicated article — partially because of the wealth of information about English language learners already on the LEARN NC website.

The series does, however, offer the reader the opportunity to reflect on current practice and to consider instructional changes to improve practice. Consider this an invitation to engage in self-directed professional development. And keep in mind that ultimately, focusing attention on instructional strategies for students who learn differently can result in a general improvement in teacher effectiveness. Simply stated, differentiated instruction is just good teaching.