Differentiate This! Part One: Why?

A post about classroom management here on the blog recently evolved into a conversation about differentiation, a subject which I’ve written about before…on this blog and as part of my graduate studies but it’s time to revisit the subject.

Why Heterogenously Group Students?

This is an unintentionally misleading question that presumes that there are groups of students who exist in this world who are exactly the same. Even if you had a group of students who were identified as gifted or identified as english language development (ELD) level 2, for example, and grouped them together in one classroom you would find that those students each have different talents, different learning styles, and unique strengths and weaknesses.

Whether classes are intentionally designed or chosen randomly there will never be a classroom in which a teacher doesn’t have to differentiate to the individual needs of those students.

Teachers who complain about having students of different levels haven’t realized this yet. Your students will always be of different levels; that’s teaching. You will always have to reteach to some or all and present lessons in different ways to appeal to different learners.

The reason for including students who are identified as gifted as well as those who are identified for special education in the same classroom is that in the world, those same people will not be separated but will have to work together.

Universities and the workplace themselves are set up heterogenously. It’s presumptuous to assume that it is only the gifted student who has something to offer a classroom full of students. If a team is built in a classroom then all students support each other in their learning, both academic and social. In a classroom where there is discussion and collaboration, learning is no longer a solitary activity but one which involves problem solving, collaboration, and communication. Students identified as gifted can be challenged in such an environment at the same time that students of lower levels can be included in class activities on their own level.

While parents have the option of sending students to magnet schools, charter schools, public schools, private schools, or homeschooling and can make their own decisions for their children, there are great advantages for students and schools in heterogenous classrooms.

As for teachers, let’s agree that we will always have to differentiate our instruction for the diverse learners we have in our classrooms. It’s not an option.

Please post your ideas and concerns below. Why isn’t differentiation happening?  How can we ensure that it does?

continue with Differentiate This! Part Two: How?

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16 Responses to “Differentiate This! Part One: Why?”

  1. Joh Says:

    I totally agree with your post. I find the ‘grouping’ of students based on perceived strengths and/or weaknesses to be ineffective and I would even go so far as to say damaging in some cases. How can a person truly use their gifts if they need a special environment of ‘like’ people to work in? It can be challenging to have a really needy student in your class (whether that need is due to ‘giftedness’ or ‘disability’), but all in all I believe the benefits of having diverse range of ability outweigh then negatives and keep classrooms real and enjoyable.

  2. Joel Zehring Says:

    I’m digging your posts.

    Is “the real world” really heterogeneous? Maybe very specific people end up as doctors, and other people land in retail management. I’m one of two male teachers in a staff of 30-40 at our school. Not very heterogeneous at all.

    Which is all to say that heterogeneous grouping has it’s benefits, educational and social. Real world preparation may not be one of those benefits.

  3. Mathew Needleman Says:

    As a student of magnet schools which each had very diverse student bodies, I certainly agree that having the opportunity to learn to work with different types of people contributed to my education as much as whatever the teacher taught.

    I think most male elementary teachers do find themselves in the minority at work. However, even if you took all the male teachers out of my school, there is great diversity in terms of skills talents, and personalities in the female staff. Just because they’re all women doesn’t mean that they’re homogenous.

  4. Ken Pendergrass Says:


    You’ve done it again! Got me thinking and changing my practice for the better. I have a differentiated lesson to offer for music teachers over on my site using Garageband: http://mystro2b.edublogs.org. I hope it’s not too detailed…

  5. Creating Lifelong Learners » Blog Archive » Differentiate This! Part Two: How? Says:

    […] Creating Lifelong Learners teaching digital literacy, closing the digital divide « Differentiate This! Part One: Why? […]

  6. Jane Says:

    “The reason for including students who are identified as gifted as well as those who are identified for special education in the same classroom is that in the world, those same people will not be separated but will have to work together”

    I am not certain this is entirely true. At my workplace, the majority of my colleagues have at least a masters degree in a science or math related field. While we may have significant diversity in professional interests (eg. geology, computer science, economics, hydrology, engineering) and political beliefs I believe the ability level is at least sufficiently high that everyone can work together productively.

    My children do not have the same experience at their workplace (e.g. school). My children are and have been in classroom with students who do not speak English, who have not mastered their letters by second grade, with children who have not mastered single digit addition by third grade.

    I do not pretend that my children are easy to teach. I understand that having a second grader who walks in to class in August ready to talk about Harry Potter does not make the teacher’s life easier. It is not easy to have a kindergarten ready to talk about multiplication. Especially when she thinks that if she talk loudly enough when the class counts to 30 that they can move on to more interesting work.

    I just expect that they get their equal share of the teacher’s time and that they learn EVERY day.

    I think that differentiation is less bad that putting together a heterogenous classroom and then teaching the same material to everyone, but it is a more difficult system to implement properly than ability grouping children.

    There is a substantial amount of research that shows that cluster grouping gifted children provides significant benefits to all kids. The gifted kids get to learn at their pace. The mid level kids realize that they can contribute and the lower level kids aren’t in a position where they know that they can’t keep up.

    What I have seen is that the heterogenous grouping system separates and isolates the bright kids. I have seen my older daughter become more convinced that she is not supposed to participate in class and that she is an irritant and a problem. My younger daughter comes home and says that her teacher won’t call on her. According to her, the teacher calls on the kids who don’t know what is going on.

    Finally, as you have shown above differentiation requires effort on the level of the teacher. Not all teachers are superstars. I think some teachers are great, some are terrible and the vast majority are ok. Abilty grouping requires less effort than differentiation and so will probably work better with an ok to mediocre teacher than differentiation.

    I know I can’t assume my kids will always get the really good teachers….I think it important to have a system in place that works with the ok to mediocre teachers.

  7. Linda F Says:

    I disagree. Although it’s true that no two children are alike, it simply easier AND more effective to prepare, teach, and remediate a lesson if the gap between the high level and low level in the class is not too great. Am I suggesting that we shuttle the low performers off to “dummyville”, there to wilt away in cut-and-pasteland?

    NO. What I am suggesting is that throwing together gifted and near-illiterate (or innumerate) students, and expecting that the teacher will, somehow, wave the “magic teacher wand” and sprinkle differentiation fairy-dust, and magically facilitate incredible levels of learning to be – frankly – dumb.

    The gifted deserve more than boredom, unpaid tutoring of their peers, and learning to hate school.

    The average deserve more than being ignored in favor of teacher trying to keep the gifted from driving her crazy, and the non-gifted from sitting there with a glazed look on their faces.

    The non-gifted deserve the chance to learn in a setting that allows them to achieve their best, not feel stupid, surrounded by other students who sigh loudly when they “don’t get it” when the rest of the class does.

    The current anti-tracking fad is driven by parents who can’t accept that their child isn’t up to the skills levels of the average student. The jamming of the gifted students in regular classrooms is driven by administrators who want to keep the costs down by eliminating gifted classes.

  8. Tracy W Says:

    Students identified as gifted can be challenged in such an environment at the same time that students of lower levels can be included in class activities on their own level.

    Perhaps they can. But surely the relevant question is – do gifted kids, special education kids, and average kids learn more in such an environment than they do in classrooms when the teacher can spend more time working with the whole class since the whole class is on a more equal learning?

    Universities and the workplace themselves are set up heterogenously.

    However training programmes are often set up separately. I have learnt subjects as an adult ranging from skiing to scuba-diving to foreign languages. Schools in those subjects do not attempt to educate everyone simultaneously, instead they split up students based on the students’ starting skill level, and give lessons to a more homogenous group.

    What you are missing here is the teacher’s time. Learning is not just about the kids, it’s also about the teacher, the expert. If the teacher is having to cope with 30 completely different lessons, they are less effective at passing on their knowledge than if they can work with groups at a more even level.

  9. Jane Says:

    I agree with Linda. Putting together a classroom with a large gap between the high and low kids is not just ineffective, it is also cruel.

  10. Mathew Says:

    @Tracy W,
    I’m not missing the element of the teacher’s time. See part 3: When?
    In regards to whether the teacher is most effective addressing everyone whole class vs. in smaller groups, I believe the answer is that smaller groups are always better and some recent research bares this out. So even if you had a class of all students identified as gifted, you’d still be more effective working with them in smaller groups for parts of your day.

    You have many choices as to where you place your child and if you find it cruel, then I would stop sending my child to that school. I don’t agree, having taught classrooms where we made movies, conducted science experiments, video conferenced with the outside world, conducting research, etc. The students identified as gifted students learned from the other and vice versa.

    What I think it cruel is that white students are disproportionately identified as gifted and given enrichment and access to technology while everyone else gets more of the same. What’s also cruel is that you could have a class of gifted students who are simply given worksheets to complete and that’s not enriching for them either.

    What I’m about is fundamentally changing the way we were teaching (though I suggest doing it in baby steps). It just so happens that things like technology and project based learning also lend themselves to differentiation more than one size fits all workbooks.

    I don’t subscribe to your paradigm of teachers as experts imparting knowledge that bores gifted students too. The classroom should be more about inquiry and teacher as facilitator.

    While parents have choices in where they place their children, teachers do not choose how they make up their classes. So some of your arguments are a moot point. Mixed ability groups are the norm where I work and rather than complaining about it, these are the things can make it work.

  11. Jane Says:


    We don’t live in a place like the Bay Area with its mulitude of schools and choices. We live in a rural area. There are five elementary schools in my entire county. Four of them are public and employ the heterogenous model. The other is private which we can’t afford.

    There is no computer labs, science experiments, video conferences with the outside world for anyone at these schools.

    In a poor area like ours, without the technology that I think you take for granted, the differentiation you describe simply does not take place.

    If all the kids have are worksheets to complete, then at least the worksheets should be at a high or low enough level so that they fit the child.

    Ideally, I think the parents should be able to choose. If we want our kids in heterogenous environment, depending on the teacher to differentiate, then there should be a classroom set up for that. If we want an ability grouped classroom, that should be available too.

    By the way, being a gifted kid does not always imply that your parents are rich.

  12. Mathew Says:


    I was not assuming that you rich though it is true that in urban areas there are several choices (like magnet schools and charter schools which cost nothing to attend) in addition to the neighborhood school.

    I have always taught in a one computer classroom so I would say there is no reason why science experiments (no computer required), writer’s workshop, research and inquiry (I assume they have libraries where you live), if there’s just one computer then that’s a bonus (it’s all you need to make movies, video conference, etc.). I strongly recommend a site like Donors Choose to get that one computer for the classroom if you don’t have that. A connection to the outside world can also be made via snail mail.

    I do think you have a right to ask questions about why any things aren’t being done no matter the ability of your child.

    In regards to worksheets, in our program worksheets are done whole group so that everyone completes them together and successfully. Independent practice is things like the writing and research not more fill in the blank material that generally doesn’t engage anybody.

  13. Jane Says:


    I have thought about our conversation, and I think we are approaching the issues from two very different perspectives.

    I think you are saying, here is is there great tool that significant upside potential. I think that you are enthusiastic, motivated and look at the great things that can be accomplished if teachers differentiate properly. I think that you also see limited upside potential with ability grouping.

    I am tired and short on options. I see the tremendous harm that happen if differentiation is done poorly. I think there is limited downside risk with ability grouping. At worst, the teacher has a smaller variation of skills and ability to teach to, and a tired teacher can/will manage that better than a large variety.

    So, is it better to try a strategy with limited risk/ reward or one with a great probabilty of both sucess and failure?

  14. Mathew Says:


    I guess I don’t see why we have to settle on mediocre teaching for all.

    I also don’t see how you ever get away from differentiation even in a “gifted cluster” where students come in with different skills. I think Nancy Bosch would agree that a gifted classroom is not a place for a “tired teacher” nor is a classroom of lower level students. Teaching well is hard; there’s no way around it.

  15. Rita Says:

    1. Yes, we differentiate all the time because all our little snowflakes are unique and special. That doesn’t negate the fact that if you have a very large gap in abilities, that your job starts to become exponentially more difficult. I don’t think you can assume a teaching corp of exceptional teachers. If we’re going to see systemic success, we have to find a solution that works for good teachers.

    2. I knew it was only a matter of time before differentiation became a race issue. We don’t like tracking because the black kids end up in the low classes and the white kids in the higher. I agree this is troubling, but putting black kids in over their heads isn’t the solution — I’ve rarely seen it work. I will note that I use FAR more technology, shared inquiry, cooperative learning, etc. with my remedial group (reading 3 – 5 years below grade level despite the best reading remediation money can buy since 1st grade) than I do with my Advanced Placement [TM] class.

    3. In my district, tracking of any sort isn’t implemented until high school. That would suggest to me that it isn’t really the problem behind achievement issues. If simply tossing the low achievers in with the high achievers were going to make a difference, I think it would have in the early years. I have great respect for my colleagues in those grades; they are a talented group of teachers — I’ve seen them work wonders with my own kiddo, who is gifted/ld.

    4. I am not a huge fan of differentiation (as you can read), but apparently I am so talented at it that I’ve been chosen to lead my district in it. It’s been re-christened responsive teaching, which is what I do, but which I’ve always thought of as backward planned data-driven instruction. Hard to keep these fads straight! I try to go for common sense and what works. Because I teach all levels of students, from lowest to highest, and classes that have it all, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what is workable. Differentiation is not a magic bullet.

  16. Jane Says:


    We have to settle for mediocre teaching, because there are mediocre teachers and they have tenure. I agree that “tired teachers” shouldn’t be in the classroom, but they are there, they have tenure and they aren’t going anywhere.

    The less work that these teachers have to do, the more likely it is to be done and the less harm that will be done to the kids who are further away from the mean, both gifted and not.

    As the gap between the high and low kids narrows, it takes less of a superteacher to be able to span the gap.

    For widespread success, you need a process that works with high, medium and low ability teachers, not just the high ones.

    I think differentiation requires too much from teachers to work over a wide range of schools. I see that it doesn’t work in my children’s school.

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