ERIC Identifier: ED389141
Publication Date: 1995-10-00
Author: Tomlinson, Carol Ann
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
Differentiating Instruction for Advanced Learners in the
Mixed-Ability Middle School Classroom. ERIC Digest E536.
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 learners; students 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
WHAT DIFFERENTIATION IS--AND IS NOT
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
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 (Tomlinson, 1995a).
CHARACTERISTICS OF A DIFFERENTIATED CLASS
characteristics shape teaching and learning in an effective differentiated
classroom (Tomlinson, 1995a):
1. "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
2. "On-going 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.
3. "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 outcomes.
4. "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
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 studied to 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
"Readiness-based adjustments" can be created by teachers offering students a
range of learning tasks developed along one or more of the following continua:
1. "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.
2. "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.
3. "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.
4. "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
5. "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 advanced peers.
6. "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.
7. "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.
8. "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
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
* independent learning contracts;
* complex instruction;
* group investigation;
* product criteria negotiated jointly by student and
* 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.