The idea of differentiating instruction is an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for and attention to student differences in classrooms, in the context of high quality curriculums.
Differentiation is a tool for planning instruction. Like all tools, it can be applied elegantly or poorly. When used well, it benefits a very broad range of learners. When used less well, it is less effective. A key question, then, is how effective a school is in describing, monitoring and supporting quality implementation of differentiation. The question is as relevant to special services for advanced learners as it is for any other group. Is the primary goal a separate room for students with particular needs, or should our primary goal be high-quality learning experiences wherever a student is taught?
In EdSpeak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, and Jargon, Diane Ravitch defines differentiating instruction as a form of instruction that seeks to "maximize each student's growth by recognizing that students have different ways of learning, different interests, and different ways of responding to instruction.
It is also important to get to know your students informally. This can be done by an interest inventory, an interview/conference, or asking students to respond to an open-ended questionnaire with key questions about their learning preferences (depending on the age group).
It's about being flexible and open to change. It's also about taking risks and trying teaching and learning strategies that you would have otherwise ignored. It's about managing instructional time in a way that meets the standards and also provides motivating, challenging, and meaningful experiences for school age students
Teachers who differentiate instruction simply do what's fair and developmentally appropriate for students when the “regular” instruction doesn't meet their needs.
Unfortunately, students in nondifferentiated classes often view cultural and academic differences as signs of weakness and inferiority. Good students in these classes often try to protect their reputations as being the kids who always get the problems right or finish first. They rarely take chances and stretch themselves for fear of faltering in front of others. This approach to learning rarely leads to success in high school and beyond.
Educators of tweens need to make academic struggle virtuous. So we model asking difficult questions to which we don't know the answers, and we publicly demonstrate our journey to answer those questions.
Differentiation requires us to invite individual students to acquire, process, and demonstrate knowledge in ways different from the majority of the class if that's what they need to become proficient. When we embrace this approach, we give more than one example and suggest more than one strategy. We teach students eight different ways to take notes, not just one, and then help them decide when to use each technique.
It is when the students vary in knowledge and skill that the ability to differentiate instruction is important. Using a variety of teaching strategies and organizing classrooms in different ways can be beneficial when it optimizes the conditions for learning.
But that’s just the ideal. The truth is, too few schools establish the conditions for teachers to perfect these strategies. This is why practices like tracking are so durable; they simplify teachers' lives.
Truth is, few teachers have the extraordinary skill and stamina to constantly fine-tune instruction to the needs of 20- or 30-odd students, six hours a day, 180 days a year. What happens, instead, is that teachers tend to focus on the middle of the pack. Or, more typically of late, on the least proficient students.