What Differentiation Is (And Is Not)

What is differentiated learning, anyway? Is it synonymous with personalized learning? Or personal learning? The recently released second edition of the book “The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners” describes differentiated learning as addressing many students of “various backgrounds, readiness and skill levels, and interests”. Sounds pretty similar to personalized learning to me, though I’m sure there is quite a bit of nuance involved to -ahem- differentiate the two.

Luckily, the handy infographic below  details what differentiation is, and is not. You can take the top part of the graphic as the ‘dos’ and the bottom as the ‘don’ts’ of teaching to a classroom with any type of diversity in it (ie, all of them).  What else would you add to the lists of what is and is not differentiation? Weigh in by leaving a comment below, mentioning @Edudemic on Twitter or leaving your thoughts on our Facebook page.

Differentiation IS…

  • An idea as old as effective teaching
  • Lessons designed around patterns of student need
  • Use of whole group, small group, and individual tasks based on content and student needs
  • Necessary for success with standards for a broad range of learners
  • Valuing and planning for diversity in heterogenous settings
  • Purposeful use of flexible learning
  • At the core of quality teaching
  • Teaching up
  • A student focused way of thinking about teaching and learning
  • Designed to address learning and affective needs that all students have

Differentiation IS NOT…

  • Tracking or grouping students into classes by ‘ability’
  • Incompatible with standards
  • Ability grouping within a classroom
  • Dumbing down your teaching for some students
  • Something extra on top of good teaching
  • A set of instructional strategies
  • Mostly for students identified as gifted
  • Mostly for students identified as having learning challenges
  • IEPs for all
  • Individualized instruction
  • A synonym for group work



  1. Bonita HS

    August 14, 2014 at 10:58 am

    What distinguishes Differentiation from UDL?

  2. Norah Colvin

    August 14, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    The infographics are great. The differentiation between some items which appear similar on both lists needs to be made clearer e.g grouping. It is the intent, the pedagogical purpose, rather than management strategy which makes the difference.

  3. Deborah Alford

    August 15, 2014 at 9:46 am

    We are confused about what is really differentiated and what is not….We thought that individualizing the instruction for students with different learning styles was differentiated instruction.

  4. Tom McDonald

    August 18, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    This is a step in the right direction, but an oversimplification.

    Differentiated learning is truly personalized learning…One teacher to one student, individual student, personalized, with ongoing, spacing, pacing and reinforcement

    It follows the research on how individuals learn deeply (mastery, competence, adaptive learning skills)

    To make the process affordable and scalable, truly personalized, instructor facilitated, adaptive learning technology must be part of the solution.

    The traditional, ineffective and inefficient educational paradigm must change from one size fits all to a differentiated model to empower students to be successful

    After all student success is the primary objective of education.