Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Theory and Practice of Differentiation at Wolf Creek Public Schools: A Guide for New Teachers

Differentiated instruction is a hallmark of good teaching. It involves a deep understanding of students coupled with a backwards-design approach during the planning stage. A teacher who differentiates is able to meet the varied needs of their classroom because they are cognizant of these needs and actively seek to support their learners throughout the learning process. Tomlinson (2001) explains that, “In a differentiated classroom, the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs” (p. 7). Tomlinson further describes differentiation as proactive, qualitative, rooted in assessment, student-centred, and organic.  At Wolf Creek Public Schools, differentiation is built into the policies and procedures of the school division. The WCPS Excellent Learning Environments model (Figure 1.) supports differentiation by providing teachers with a concrete framework for learning. It emphasizes proactive pre-planning based on clearly defined outcomes.  It mandates pre-assessment to understand student readiness for, experience with, and interest towards these outcomes or individualized goals. It divides learning into three stages: introduction of new knowledge, developing new knowledge, and deepening understanding of new knowledge. Finally, it promotes ongoing formative assessment, achievement tracking, and additional supports before summative assessment. This paper will highlight the key theories which supplement Tomlinson’s vision of differentiation and synthesize these concepts with Wolf Creek School Division’s educational policies and administrative procedures. This will provide new teachers with a better understanding of differentiation in practice such that they might fully integrate with WCPS instructional guidelines. 

Why Differentiate?

Tomlinson et. al (2003) identified four key reasons that the classroom teacher should differentiate instruction. First, many schools have deemphasized special needs tracking  “to promote equity for students who might be placed in low-expectation classrooms” thereby “mainstreaming students with special needs” (p. 120). This means that the focus has shifted from coding students and placing them in special needs rooms to providing them with differentiated instruction within regular classroom environments. Wolf Creek Public School has eliminated the use of pull-out classrooms in most of our schools. Logically, this also involves “reducing segregation for poor readers” (p. 120).  Increasing immigration to Canada, especially in Alberta, means that classrooms have more students who are learning English as a second language. When combined with a reduction in gifted programs, these changes present a clear problem for teachers: How can we teach such a diverse composition of students? Differentiation provides the key to success in this new educational context. In a study that compared differentiated instructional practices with typical middle-level non tiered instruction, Richards and Omdal (2007) found that, “the lower background learners as a group achieved as well as the midrange background learners within the tiered instruction and better than the control group’s median learners” (p. 449). This type of dramatic difference provides some evidence supporting differentiation. While Richards and Omdal did not find a similar bonus for high achieving students, these students performed equally as well as the high achievers in the control group. As such, differentiating instruction should provide teachers with a tool to reach the lowest achieving learners in their increasingly diverse classrooms. 

What to Differentiate?

Once a teacher has accepted that differentiation is the appropriate instructional strategy for our modern classrooms, they will need to understand the key elements that can be differentiated. Bush (2006) and many others have refined Tomlinson’s vision by providing more detail regarding the three key areas which a teacher might differentiate: content, process, and product. According to Bush, content refers to the curriculum of study, specifically the “knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values” (p. 44). She further explains that the teacher can differentiate these elements by adjusting the level of difficulty, learning requirements, and information sources. In practice, this might mean providing students with multiple texts or readings at varying reading levels. In the Wolf Creek context, teachers meet in collaborative teams to identify the essential outcomes within each curriculum. Afterwards, teachers can increase or decrease the learning load for students by deciding to what extent the student will be exposed to the non-essential outcomes. As such, the curriculum is presented as a spectrum of outcomes with some students learning only the most critical pieces and others extending their learning to secondary or tertiary outcomes. 

Learning Process

Bush (2006) also discussed the “activities and strategies” which are most effective in enabling learners to understand the chosen curriculum (p. 44). Bush categorizes this as ‘process’ and states that it can be differentiated using “learning logs, graphic organizers, journals, literature circles, jigsaw, [and] mind-mapping” (p. 44). In practice, the flow of instruction in a differentiated classroom would involve a “repeated rhythm of whole-class preparation, review, and sharing, followed by opportunity for individual or small-group exploration, sense-making, extension, and production” (Tomlinson, 2001 p. 6). Much of the decision-making process would be based on the learning needs of the students and the preferred teaching style of the teachers. Wolf Creek teachers engage in significant pre-assessment before instruction so that new knowledge is presented in a manner which matches the readiness, interests, and learning profiles of the students. Differentiation is not a departure from whole-class instruction. Instead, it complements whole-class instruction with targeted differentiated learning suited to the specific groups of learners. 


Two of the Wolf Creek ELEs deal with assessing the learning of students (Figure 1). Bush (2006) stated that “in a DI model, assessment is ongoing to accommodate flexibility in guiding instruction” (p. 44). Based on the needs of the class, the teacher might provide a variety of different assessment options to students. In some Wolf Creek schools, teachers have developed alternative tests and exams which only focus on essential understandings. Other classrooms feature a variety of different assessments which the students might choose based on their learning profile. In all classrooms, teachers understand the difference between formative and summative assessment. In fact, WCPS administrative procedures clearly outline a differentiated approach to assessment and grading that is discussed in more depth later in this paper. 

How to Differentiate

Differentiation by Learner Profile

Armed with the knowledge that the avenues for differentiation are content, process, and product, the teacher must next choose how to differentiate these three elements. To do so, the teacher must look to their students. One characteristic which can guide differentiation is the students’ learner profiles. Both Gardner (1996) and Sternberg and Zhang (2005) provide useful models for understanding the ways that children learn.  Gardner promoted a theory of multiple intelligences where specific individuals might specialize in one or more domains: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic interpersonal-intrapersonal. In practice, the teacher should aim to provide students with various learning processes or assessments which would enable them to demonstrate their knowledge of the curriculum using their preferred intelligence. In contrast, Sternberg’s (2005) theory of mental self-government posits the existence of key learning preferences. This theory accounts for students who prefer to learn alone versus in groups, or in structured activities versus open-ended projects, among other learning styles. Sternberg’s study found that “students performed better and were more positively evaluated by teachers when their styles matched” (p. 250). As such, it is important that teacher consider the specific learning styles of their students in the planning stage. Whether teachers build choice into their lessons or merely ensure that a variety of learning preferences will be able to access the classroom content, teachers should differentiate. 

Differentiation by Interest

The concept of student choice provides another opportunity for differentiation. Teachers can also plan lessons geared to the interests of their students. This can be achieved via pre-assessment or through student choice, but in both cases it serves to increase student engagement and empowerment (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 52). Gifted students, in particular, can benefit from interest-based differentiation because they can often learn and process information eight to ten times faster than students with low intelligence scores, and two to three times faster than the average class pace (Kettler and Curliss, 2003). Wolf Creek has made a concerted effort to provide learning enrichments and learning interventions through carefully planned Response to Intervention (RTI). Each school is provided with one PD day each month where teachers identify students struggling with essential outcomes. Interventions vary across the division, but most schools have a dedicated intervention block embedded in their schedule where teachers can work with small groups of students. Students who don’t need an intervention have access to enrichment projects which they choose. This serves to increase engagement with the content from their courses without streaming, tracking, or permanent ability grouping.  

Differentiation by Readiness

As mentioned above, some students are placed in interventions because they were struggling with essential understandings. These students were not ready to learn. Readiness represents the most critical student characteristic for which a teacher might differentiate. Tomlinson (2003) correlated readiness with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and declared that, “students should work at a level of "moderate challenge" for learning to occur” (p. 126). Once again, the key to differentiating for readiness is pre-assessment. Teachers must know whether a student has the background knowledge or skills required to learn the content. Wolf Creek Public Schools have instituted STAR Math and STAR Reading assessments as universal benchmarks for reading and math skills. When combined with classroom assessments, these tests provide good background knowledge with which teachers can make informed decisions regarding the readiness of their students. One potential method for differentiating based on student readiness is tiering. Suarez (2007) recommends three levels of tasks: Green-level tasks which meet the standard for proficiency, blue-level tasks which extend familiar skills into more complex work, and black-level challenges which are the most complex and are appropriate for highly advanced and motivated students (p. 61). Suarez advocates for students choosing their tiers, but Richards and Omdal (2007) and Pierce and Adams (2004) prefer to place students within tiers based on the preassessment. The creation of differentiated tiers is an ongoing process in Wolf Creek schools. The structural elements are already in place. Teachers already have the organized essential outcome lists which Suarez advocated for. Collaborative teams meet regularly to develop common assessments and plan interventions and enrichments. In the future, these teams could be leveraged to create differentiated assessments and lessons. 

Differentiated Assessment

Wolf Creek’s assessment procedures were mentioned earlier in this paper. Administrative Procedure 362 (2009) identifies a variety of assessment and grading policies which align closely with Rick Wormeli’s (2006) vision for differentiated assessment. Most WCPS policies are standard fare for school divisions across Alberta. Students should be “assessed on the basis of the learner outcomes,” formative assessment should be assessed differently than summative assessment, and students should not be graded “in reference to how they are progressing relative to their peers” (WCPS, 2009, p. 1). In addition, there are several critical assessment policies of which a teacher new to Wolf Creek should be aware.
First, WCPS believes that “a student’s achievement relative to the learning outcome is the basis for grading; therefore it is not appropriate for work submitted late to be graded downward and then factored into the final grade” (p. 1). This aligns with Wormeli (2006) who believes that “we need to teach and grade in ways that garner hope for students” (p. 18) and “a grade is supposed to provide an accurate, undiluted indicator of a student’s mastery of learning standards (p. 19). Wormeli advocates for the exclusion of all behavioural elements from a grade because “If the grade is distorted by weaving in a student’s personal behavior, character, and work habits, it cannot be used to successfully provide feedback, document progress, or inform our instructional decisions regarding that student” (p. 19). Wormeli’s beliefs are duplicated in WCPS policy: “We believe that a student’s reported learning has to be in reference to the learning outcome; therefore it is not appropriate for ‘behaviour factors’ (effort, participation, etc) to have an impact on a grade reflecting academic achievement; unless they are specifically set out in the program of studies as a learning outcome” (p. 2). Thus WCPS policy aligns with Wormeli’s doctrine: grades should be indicators of academic performance - not signals of behavioural transgressions.

What if a student fails to hand in an assignment at all? In some school divisions, the teacher might assign a zero in an effort to teach the student responsibility. Wolf Creek School Division believes that, “the use of zeros is not appropriate given their ‘distorting’ ability relative to reporting the student’s mastery of the learning outcome” (p. 2). Wormeli (2006) confirms that, “the grade must remain accurate in order to be useful, and it’s not accurate when it is mixed with non-academic factors” (p. 22). This means that it would be inappropriate to assign a zero grade for an assignment simply because a student has not handed it in or completes it more slowly than their peers. The teacher is required to differentiate and accurately assess what the student actually knows. WCPS schools send parents a behavioural rubric to report on each student’s behavioural characteristics. Separating these two elements promotes a grading system which is more accurate and fair.


Teaching classes with increasingly varied student composition is not easy. Traditional whole-class approaches to instruction will not have the same success within academically, behaviourally, and culturally heterogeneous classrooms. To overcome differentiated classrooms, teachers will need differentiated instruction. Teachers will assess students before they begin learning to better understand each student’s learner profile, interests, and academic readiness. Then, teachers will adapt the content, process, and product within their classrooms based on the characteristics of the students whom they are teaching. This approach should not only improve the academic success of struggling students, but also provide motivation and engagement for all students. 



Bush, G. (2006). Key words in instruction: differentiated instruction. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 23(3), 43-45.

Gardner, H. (1996). Probing more deeply into the theory of multiple intelligences. NASSP Bulletin, 80(583), 1-7

Kettler, T., & Curliss, M. (2003). Mathematical acceleration in a mixed-ability classroom. Gifted Child Today, 26(1), 52.

Pierce, R. L., & Adams, C. A. (2004). Tiered lessons: one way to differentiate mathematics instruction. Gifted Child Today, 27(2), 58-65.

Richards, M. R. E., & Omdal, S. N. (2007). Effects of tiered instruction on academic performance in a secondary science course. Journal of Advanced Academics, 18(3), 424-453.

Sternberg, R. J., & Zhang, L. (2005). Styles of thinking as a basis of differentiated instruction. Theory Into Practice, 44(3), 245–253.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C. M., Moon, T. R., Brimijoin, K., Conover, L.A., & Reynolds T (2003). Differentiating instruction in response to student readiness, interest and learning profile in academically diverse classrooms: a review of literature. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 27(2/3), 119-145.

Wolf Creek Public Schools. (2009). Administrative procedure 362: student assessment, grading, and reporting guidelines. Administrative Procedures Manual. Retrieved from:

Wormeli, Rick. (2006). Accountability: teaching through assessment and feedback, not grading. American Secondary Education. 34 (3), 14-27.