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Differentiating Instruction for Advanced Learners
in the Mixed-Ability
Middle School Classroom
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education
ERIC EC Digest E536
Author: Carol Ann Tomlinson
A particular challenge for middle school teachers is being able to differentiate or adapt
instruction to respond to the diverse student needs found in inclusive, mixed-ability
classrooms. This digest provides an overview of some key principles for differentiating
instruction, with an emphasis on the learning needs of academically advanced learners.
Why Differentiate Instruction?
A single seventh grade heterogeneous language arts class
is likely to include students who can read and comprehend as well as most college
who can barely decode words, comprehend meaning, or apply basic information; and
students who fall somewhere between these extremes. There are students whose
primary interests lie in science, sports, music, or a dozen other fields. There are
students who learn best by working alone and those who are most successful working
in groups. Further, the learning profiles of young adolescents often change rapidly as
they develop. There simply is no single learning template for the general middle school
class. If middle school students differ in readiness, interest, and learning profiles, and if
a good middle school attempts to meet each student where he or she is and foster
continual growth, a one-size-fits-all model of instruction makes little sense. Rather,
differentiated instruction seems a better solution for meeting the academic diversity that
typifies the middle school years.
What Differentiation Is--And Is Not
A differentiated classroom offers a variety of learning options designed to tap into
different readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles. In a differentiated class, the
teacher uses (1) a variety of ways for students to explore curriculum content, (2) a
variety of sense-making activities or processes through which students can come to
understand and "own" information and ideas, and (3) a variety of options through
which students can demonstrate or exhibit what they have learned.
A class is not differentiated when assignments are the same for all learners and the
adjustments consist of varying the level of difficulty of questions for certain students,
grading some students harder than others, or letting students who finish early play
games for enrichment. It is not appropriate to have more advanced learners do extra
math problems, extra book reports, or after completing their "regular" work be given
extension assignments. Asking students to do more of what they already know is
hollow. Asking them to do "the regular work, plus" inevitably seems punitive to them
Characteristics of a Differentiated Class
Four characteristics shape teaching and learning in an effective differentiated
classroom (Tomlinson, 1995a):
- Instruction is concept focused and principle driven. All students have the
opportunity to explore and apply the key concepts of the subject being studied. All
students come to understand the key principles on which the study is based. Such
instruction enables struggling learners to grasp and use powerful ideas and, at the
same time, encourages advanced learners to expand their understanding and
application of the key concepts and principles. Such instruction stresses
understanding or sense-making rather than retention and regurgitation of fragmented
bits of information. Concept-based and principle-driven instruction invites teachers to
provide varied learning options. A "coverage-based" curriculum may cause a teacher
to feel compelled to see that all students do the same work. In the former, all students
have the opportunity to explore meaningful ideas through a variety of avenues and
- Ongoing assessment of student readiness and growth are built into the
curriculum. Teachers do not assume that all students need a given task or segment of
study, but continuously assess student readiness and interest, providing support when
students need additional instruction and guidance, and extending student exploration
when indications are that a student or group of students is ready to move ahead.
- Flexible grouping is consistently used. In a differentiated class, students work in
many patterns. Sometimes they work alone, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups.
Sometimes tasks are readiness-based, sometimes interest-based, sometimes
constructed to match learning style, and sometimes a combination of readiness,
interest, and learning style. In a differentiated classroom, whole-group instruction may
also be used for introducing new ideas, when planning, and for sharing learning
- Students are active explorers. Teachers guide the exploration. Because varied
activities often occur simultaneously in a differentiated classroom, the teacher works
more as a guide or facilitator of learning than as a dispenser of information. As in a
large family, students must learn to be responsible for their own work. Not only does
such student-centeredness give students more ownership of their learning, but it also
facilitates the important adolescent learning goal of growing independence in thought,
planning, and evaluation. Implicit in such instruction is (1) goal-setting shared by
teacher and student based on student readiness, interest, and learning profile, and (2)
assessment predicated on student growth and goal attainment.
How to Think About Differentiating Instruction
There are many ways to shake up the classroom to create a better fit for more
learners-including those who are advanced. In general, interest-based adjustments
allow students to have a voice in deciding whether they will apply key principles being
math-oriented, literature-based, hobby-related, science-oriented, or history-associated
areas. For example, in studying the American Revolution, one student might opt to
write a short story about the life of a teenager during the Revolutionary period. Another
might elect to apply key ideas about the American Revolution to an investigation of
heroes then and now. Yet another might prefer to study ways in which the Revolution
affected the development of science.
Adjustments based on learning profile encourage students to understand
their own learning preferences. For example, some students need a longer period to
reflect on ideas before beginning to apply them, while others prefer quick action.
Some students need to talk with others as they learn, while others need a quiet work
space. Some students learn best as they tell stories about ideas being explored,
others as they create mind maps, and still others as they construct three-dimensional
representations. Some students may learn best through a practical application of
ideas, others through a more analytical approach.
Readiness-based adjustments can be created by teachers offering students a
range of learning tasks developed along one or more of the following continua:
- Concrete to abstract. Learners advanced in a subject often benefit from tasks
that involve more abstract materials,
representations, ideas, or applications than less advanced peers.
- Simple to complex. Learners advanced in a subject often benefit from tasks
that are more complex in resources, research, issues, problems, skills, or goals than
less advanced peers.
- Basic to transformational. Learners advanced in a subject often benefit from
tasks that require greater transformation or manipulation of information, ideas,
materials, or applications than less advanced peers.
- Fewer facets to multi-facets. Learners advanced in a subject often benefit
from tasks that have more facets or parts in their directions, connections within or
across subjects, or planning and execution than less advanced peers.
- Smaller leaps to greater leaps. Learners advanced in a subject often benefit
from tasks that require greater mental leaps in insight, application, or transfer than less
- More structured to more open. Learners advanced in a subject often benefit
from tasks that are more open in regard to solutions, decisions, and approaches than
less advanced peers.
- Less independence to greater independence. Learners advanced in a subject
often benefit from greater independence in planning, designing, and self-monitoring
than less advanced peers.
- Quicker to slower. Learners advanced in a subject will sometimes benefit
from rapid movement through prescribed materials and tasks. At other times, they
may require a greater amount of time with a given study than less advanced peers so
that they may explore the topic in greater depth and/or breadth.
Strategies for Managing a Differentiated Classroom
Among instructional strategies that can help teachers manage differentiation and help
students find a good learning "fit" are the following:
* use of multiple texts and supplementary materials;
* use of computer programs;
* interest centers;
* learning contracts;
* tiered sense-making activities and tiered products;
* tasks and
products designed with a multiple intelligence orientation;
* independent learning contracts;
* complex instruction;
* group investigation;
* product criteria negotiated jointly by student and teacher;
* graduated task- and product-rubrics.
Teachers moving toward differentiated instruction in an inclusive, integrated middle
school classroom find greater success if they (1) have a clear rationale for
differentiation, (2) prepare students and parents for a differentiated classroom, (3)
attend to issues of classroom structure and management as they move toward more
student-centered learning, (4) move toward differentiation at a pace comfortable to both
teacher and learners, and (5) plan with team members and other colleagues interested
in differentiation (Tomlinson, 1995b).
Tomlinson, C. (1995a). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Tomlinson, C. (1995b). Deciding to differentiate instruction in middle school: One
school's journey. Gifted Child Quarterly, 39, 77-87.
A companion digest, Gifted Learners and the Middle School: Problem or Promise
(E535) is available.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is Assistant Professor, Curry School of
Education, the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely
disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with
funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, under contract no. RR93002005. The opinions expressed in this report do
not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department
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