October 1, 2015

By Jan Bryan

Differentiation has been an education buzzword for some time, and yet, in a January 2015 Education Week commentary, James R. Delisle writes that “differentiation doesn’t work.” His commentary was met with a swift response from Carol Ann Tomlinson, a recognized expert in differentiated instruction. With a close reading of Delisle’s original article, you find that he supports differentiation in theory; however, with the depth and complexity found in this approach, teachers are either not doing it or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as it needs to be done. As a result, “differentiation is a promise unfulfilled” (Delisle, 2015). But rather than conclude that differentiated learning in the classroom has failed, we should ask: How do we close the gaps between the theory of differentiation and its successful application in the classroom? twitter icon

On the Edges of Learning

We live in a “middle earth” (apologies to Tolkien). Our focus on “the middle” is evident in everyday conversation. We pursue common ground, keep middle of the road, and seek our center of gravity. In education, we learn the measures of central tendency, set goals at the 50th percentile, and strive to understand regression to the mean. In philosophy we study Aristotle’s golden mean—where anything taken too far from the middle unravels the concept. For example, courage is a virtue, but too much courage yields recklessness; too little yields cowardice. Living in a middle earth may make differentiation seem beyond our grasp—unless you ask a teacher.

Powerful educators do not teach to the middle; rather they teach from the middle to reach those students on the edges of learning—those who form concepts with ease and those who form them with determination. Perhaps unknowingly, Delisle described what is required to live in a middle earth and teach on the edge. It begins with understanding what students know.

A Balancing Act

There are multiple ways to assess what a student knows. The challenge is balancing assessment time and impact. Adapting Aristotle, too much assessment unravels instructional time; too little unravels impact on learning. In a differentiated model, teachers must determine what students know as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Assessments, administered at key checkpoints through the year, should ideally identify exactly where each student is in the progression of learning to read, calculate, and solve problems. For example, learning progressions within the STAR assessments serve as a blueprint for the test; each STAR score places the student on the learning progression, pinpointing what they know and what they are ready to learn. Using assessments like STAR that report student performance on a research-based learning progression takes care of the first two components Delisle listed—what student know and what they are ready to learn. If the tests are also efficient enough to be used to regularly inform instruction, this approach to differentiated instruction is also feasible.

The Final Lap

The next key is to quickly identify varied resources for instruction that help students develop mastery and move up in the progression of skills. Again, in the case of STAR, the same score that places the student in the learning progression also yields varied resources to uncover the content and master the objectives. Teachers should have access to worked examples and teaching activities for whole group, explicit instruction.

Not So Fast

Indeed, closing the gap between differentiation as theory and differentiation as instructional practice requires understanding what students know, pinpointing what they are ready to learn, and identifying appropriate resources; however to fulfill the promise, it seems we need to know more about the learner. Ongoing research on motivation and response to feedback offers another way to think about differentiation.

  • Motivation is multidimensional and requires a differentiated approach.
  • John Hattie’s work (2011) on what leads to academic achievement lists feedback as one of the strongest influencers on achievement; yet, feedback too must be differentiated.

Differentiating motivation begins by recognizing that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have different effects. In reading, for example, Wingfield and Guthrie (1997) found that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play a role in getting students to read; however, intrinsic motivation played the far greater role and predicated breadth and strength of reading more strongly than extrinsic motivation. Xiang, et al., (2005) found that extrinsic reward played a small role in learning a skill; however, interest in the skill and interest in the activities used to gain skill proved a key motivator and was associated with a prolonged effect on learning.

When it comes to differentiating feedback, gender is one factor to consider. Dweck (2007) found slight gender differences in feedback in that boys may feel more accountable for their academic achievement, whereas girls may take greater ownership in their academic challenges. While Dweck takes great care to point out that these differences are slight and represent trends rather than absolutes, effective educators understand that feedback—like content delivery and resources—should be differentiated.

Findings from a 2005 Dutch study imply that feedback should also be differentiated by age. The researchers noted response to positive and negative feedback during efforts to learn new skills. Using fMRI, a process that measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood oxygenation and flow, researchers found that chronological age appears to be a factor in the brain’s response to feedback related to achievement. In 8–9 year olds, the brain responded to positive feedback and gained skill. When negative feedback was offered, there was little measureable response, and increases in skill were not noted. In 11–12 year olds and adults the opposite was found to be true—negative feedback provided a more powerful response in the brain, which led to increased ability with the skill.

Keep the Conversation Going

Without a doubt, concepts about differentiated learning are evolving and unfolding. They will continue to be explored, understood, and implemented. What we know so far is that differentiation requires knowing precisely where students are and what they are ready to learn, followed by identifying multiple pathways to guide the way, and that the challenges here are increasingly helped by efficient, robust classroom assessments. We are also learning this: Differentiation requires more than multiple instructional approaches and varied resources. It also requires a knowledge of motivation and responses to feedback.

What are your experiences with differentiated motivation or feedback? Share in the comments below.


Delisle, J (2015). Differentiation doesn’t work. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/01/07/differentiation-doesnt-work.html

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses related to achievement. NRoutledge.

Leiden University (2005). From 12 years on you learn differently. Psychology & Sociology. Retrieved from http://esciencenews.com/articles/2008/09/25/from.12.years.onward.you.learn.differently

Tomlinson, C (2015). Differentiation does, in fact, work. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/01/28/differentiation-does-in-fact-work.html

Wingfield, A. & Guthie, J. (1997). Relations of children’s motivation for reading to the amount and breadth of their reading. Journal of Educational Psychology (83)3, pp. 420–432.

Xiang, P., Chen, A., & Bruene, A. (2005). Interactive impact of intrinsic motivators and extrinsic rewards on behavior and motivation outcomes. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 24, 127–197. Retrieved from http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/A_Chen_Interactive_2005.pdf

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