Differentiation: tailoring teaching to learners

Posted August 23, 2017 in Parenting Tips & Advice By Community Relations

Guest Blogger, Candice Clynk, Dean of Curriculum (PK-6)

‘Differentiation’ is an education term at the heart of good teaching, although many outside the profession won’t be familiar with it. Renowned expert Carol Ann Tomlinson (2000) defines it simply as ‘tailoring instruction to meet individual needs.’ At its most basic level, differentiation is when teachers respond to a variety of needs among the learners in their classes. It is about personalising learning for each student. When a teacher changes his or her teaching to suit individuals or small groups for the best experience and outcome, they are differentiating.

Teachers can differentiate based on student readiness, interest, or style of learning. Differentiation is not only used for students requiring support or those requiring academic extension. It is for all children in the classroom. It is applied to curriculum content, teaching process and the learning environment itself. The foundation principles for successful differentiation include flexibility and instruction that stems from effective ongoing assessment. Flexible grouping ensures students access a wide variety of opportunities and that they become collaborators with their teachers in learning (Allan, 2006).

In our classrooms at Wesley College we specialise in providing flexible spaces and innovative environments. We make sure there are places to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration. Some learners prefer to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly. Some tasks benefit from noisy collaboration, while others require uninterrupted contemplation. The new Science Centre, Languages Centre, Year 5/6 wing, Nature Play Spaces in the Junior School and every major building and refurbishment work in the last decade have been purposefully designed to maximise the opportunities for the teacher to cater to the diverse needs of their students, and to give students voice and choice in their own learning.

Differentiating learning experiences, processes or products is an effective teaching practice. Across the College, students may be given multiple options of how to express required learning, and teachers use rubrics that match and extend students’ varied skill levels. Tasks or projects that ask students to rehearse, apply, transfer or extend what they have learned can be approached in a variety of ways. Sometimes teachers use tiered or scaffolded activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity.

In Junior School, educators provide interest stations and provocations that encourage students to explore topics of particular interest to them. In Middle School, teachers develop personal contracts with students (task lists written by the teacher and containing both common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners). In Senior School and in co-curricular clubs, students are guided by their teachers to take ownership over their learning, or to take up learning opportunities best suited to their needs.  Across the College we can see examples of varying the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for those requiring it or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.

Differentiation of curriculum content is a requirement in the delivery of the Western Australian Curriculum and is reflected in school practice and policy around student needs and access to curriculum. At Wesley we do this in a variety of ways by using reading materials at varying readability levels, putting information in audio or visual form, and using spelling or vocabulary lists at readiness levels of students. It includes options such as meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for learners requiring support, or to extend the thinking or skills of those requiring enrichment. Documented plans articulate individual goals for students and a customised program to suit diverse needs and these include aspects of modified curriculum.

How do we work out to what extent a student requires something differentiated? That is not so complex to explain. It is relationships. Knowing each child, the whole child and how they learn helps the teacher (in partnership with parents) to effectively cater for the needs of the student. Data is collected regularly and reviewed and this informs changes to our teaching practice, programming and resource needs.

We are fortunate to have been invited to share what is happening at Wesley as leaders in this space, for a number of expert early childhood educators who visited the College. The IPSHA (Independent Primary School Heads Association) event saw visitors from schools all over the metro area visit our classrooms to see how we are approaching the notion of differentiation and included an address from our external consultant, Kylie Bice from Growing up Greatness. Kylie has been working with PK-6 educators on differentiation, assessment and catering for Gifted and Talented students where we are focussing on catering for students every day and in every classroom and not just one or two periods a week in a withdrawal setting. It is about building the capacity and professional development of all staff and creating a consistent approach including the communication of a clearer message as to how we are catering for students, especially those more academically able.

Differentiated instruction is not a new trend. It is based on best practices in education. It puts students at the centre of teaching and learning and it lets their learning needs direct instructional planning.


Allan, S.D. & Tomlinson, C.A. (2006). Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms. USA: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2004). Sharing responsibility for differentiating instruction. Roeper Review, 26 (4), 188-120.

Tomlinson, C. A. (August, 2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

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