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This document has been archived because some of the information it contains may be out of date. (Effective June 2009)

Teaching to Diversity in an Age of Standards

By Robi Kronberg, Donna Walker, and Judy Zimmerman

Differentiated instruction is a way of teaching that compels a teacher to pro-actively respond to a range of diverse learner characteristics. Differentiated instruction embodies a belief system as well as a skillful repertoire of teaching practices. At the core of differentiated instruction is the recognition that every learner has a unique way in which he or she learns best. A teacher who strives to achieve the art and the practice of differentiated instruction embraces the belief that every student comes to school with varying interests, learning styles, experiences, strengths, and needs. With that belief comes a parallel commitment to designing instructional approaches that are respectful of and responsive to students’ diversity. As classrooms increase in heterogeneity, the importance and the urgency for differentiation are great.

Juxtaposed with today’s diverse students and the need for flexibility to effectively teach all students is the simultaneous need for teachers to apply a common set of standards to all students. Differentiated instruction, when done thoughtfully and with clarity of purpose, is complex. It involves an intricate dance between holding standards steady for all students while creating multiple pathways for students to achieve those common standards. It changes the roles of both teachers and students.

In differentiated classrooms, teachers and students work together to create meaningful learning opportunities. Teachers, while maintaining clarity of the ultimate learning goals, invite students to participate in deciding how best to progress towards the goals. In such learning environments, students are taught skills of self-directedness and assume a shared responsibility for learning. Differentiated classrooms are often unpredictable, active, joyful, and vibrant. Teachers become facilitators of learning, skillful at implementing ongoing assessment that guides instruction. Those who differentiate their teaching engage in ongoing inquiry, planning, persistence, flexibility, and reflection.

Student Response to Differentiated Instruction

The feedback from students is clear. In focus groups designed to probe student response to differentiated teaching and learning, students articulated a strong preference for differing strategies to assist in their learning. As voiced by a third grader, “It’s better to have different activities and not always the same ones because if they were the same you just keep learning the same thing over and over again.” A first grader, in reflecting on a recently completed differentiated unit on weather, responded, “We are all different and we like to do different activities at the stations.” When sixth graders were asked about their preferences between a unit in which students were involved in a variety of learning activities versus a unit in which the students primarily read and participated in discussions about the topic, all students voiced a strong preference for differentiated learning pathways. Comments included the following:

Designing Differentiated Lessons: A Third Grade Example

When designing a differentiated lesson or unit, a teacher is attentive to four areas (Tomlinson, 2001):

The following example describes how a third grade teacher creates varied pathways of learning in order to assist a diverse group of students in mastering an identified standard in math. The third grade classroom is inclusive and has students with differing strengths, needs, interests, and experiences. In this third grade class, the teacher must hold the math standard constant for all of her third graders. Students make decisions about how to approach the problem and communicate their ideas (Indiana State Board of Education, 2000). In initial unit planning, the teacher identifies the “big idea” as being the use of mathematical problem solving in everyday life. Assuming that the students will demonstrate differing levels of understanding relative to mathematical problem solving, the teacher designs several pre-assessments to obtain additional information. She utilizes performance information from prior math units as well as current student performance on several different problem-solving tasks to guide instructional planning. Throughout the unit she will use daily assignments and informal observation to assess how well students are grasping the concepts and skills. The information from the pre-assessments indicates that some of the students struggle with both the problem solving as well as the communication of their ideas, while other students far exceed the third grade standard. In order to challenge all of the students at an appropriate level, the teacher will utilize several key strategies to differentiate content. She is mindful that while the overall content of the unit is the same for all students (mathematical problem solving), the goal is to create appropriate breadth and depth of the content as well as accessibility to the content for all students. Knowing the learning profiles of the students, the teacher knows that some students access the content through reading and discussing, others through talking and working with peers, and others through technology. Given the range of student understandings, she designs the unit around a set of tiered activities (Tomlinson, 2001).

In designing the three tiers, the teacher develops problem-solving activities that are differentiated across four dimensions: complexity of the skills needed to solve the mathematical problems, familiarity of the problems to be solved, level of support needed to complete the activities, and the types of text material and resources that students will utilize to assist them in the activities. Across all three tiers, students are involved in small group and independent activities. To build skills in self-directedness, she provides students with a contract that identifies their tasks for the week, resources to use, and group expectations. For a few students the teacher also includes a step-by-step task checklist which she and the student initial at the end of each math period.

Throughout the unit, the teacher is cognizant of providing a variety of ways in which students work to make sense of the content. In addition to the tiered activities, she has students keep a math journal. On some days she varies the journal prompts, designating certain questions for certain students in order to achieve clarity of thought or to push some students to a greater depth of thinking. On other days, students respond to the same prompt. One student keeps an audio journal because writing is a difficult motor skill. Some students are encouraged to use manipulatives to assist in their understanding. Other students find the use of a graphic organizer helpful as it allows them to see connections between the steps of the problem. A few students learn better if they can act out their problem-solving task or make models representing their math problem. As the unit progresses, the teacher continually monitors student learning. When necessary, she might facilitate a whole class lesson on a particular skill. More often, the teacher works with small groups and individual students.

In planning for differentiated products, this teacher utilizes the eight multiple intelligences to guide her choice of product options (Lazear, 1999). So as to not overwhelm students with too many choices and also to allow students sufficient time to understand expectations for quality products, she provides four options. Students can integrate what they have learned by a) writing and illustrating a book of four ways a third grader uses mathematical problem solving in his or her life, b) creating a flowchart that displays a step-by-step process for solving a mathematical problem, c) making a board game that explains how to approach and solve a math problem and communicate the solution or d) creating a math rap or rhyme about problem solving. Additionally, all students submit a portfolio of work examples from the math unit.

In addition to the formative assessment that the teacher uses to inform the instruction plans throughout the unit, she also utilizes summative assessment at the end of the math unit. This assessment focuses on students’ abilities to accurately use problem-solving skills to solve mathematical problems and resembles the types of problems that students will encounter in the district assessment. The completed projects provide an authentic demonstration of student learning. Regardless of the product selected, all students are assessed using specific criteria on a rubric. The indicators on the rubric are designed to assess how well students utilize problem solving skills as well as how accurately the students are able to communicate how they solved their math problems.


The classroom described previously typifies how teachers are responding to the diverse needs of students while simultaneously holding a common set of standards. The journey of differentiation is a challenging one. Teachers face daily demands on their minds and their hearts as they strive to meet the needs of each learner. It is challenging to create “working with” learning environments in which both students and teachers have a voice and everyone is a teacher as well as a learner. It is time-consuming to proactively plan instructional units that are responsive to the needs, interests, and experiences of a classroom of students. It is frustrating to cope with external pressures pushing towards greater standardization when students cry out to be known as unique individuals. It is essential to do our collective best to provide a differentiated learning experience for the many students like this fifth grader who said, “You know that a teacher really cares about you when they know you well enough to know how you learn and then they try to teach you that way.”


Indiana State Board of Education (2000). Indiana’s academic standards: Mathematics. Indianapolis, IN: Author.

Lazear, D. (1999). Eight ways of knowing: Teaching for multiple intelligences. Palatine, IL: IRI/Skylight Publishing Co.

Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Development

Robi Kronberg is an educational consultant living in Littleton, Colorado. She may be reached at 303/741-3426 or Donna Walker is Special Education Supervisor with the Indianapolis Public Schools, Indianapolis, Indiana. She may be reached at 317/226-4740 or Judy Zimmerman is Professional Development Liaison to Special Education with the Indianapolis Public Schools. She may be reached at 317/226-3818 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


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