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Your views on differentiation for learning

What does 'differentiation' mean in your teaching context? To start the course we'd like you to establish what differentiation is, and what it is not.
[Chris]Learning is complex, and happens as the learner experiences and interacts with the world, resulting in them creating meaning and developing schema (mental models). [Dylan] Differentiated learning refers to the ways in which, in their day-to-day practice, teachers address the needs of all their individual students by identifying the specific learning needs, responding to these needs in their practice. And then monitoring the progress that students make. [Chris] In order to set up a sequence of activities in which you can differentiate, you need to be clear of your starting point. Soliciting ideas early on will help you understand where individuals and groups of students are in their learning.
We introduced several tools to help you with this in our Assessment for Learning online course, and these will be useful here. So using concept cartoons, or questions that prompt intentional dialogue, or KWL grids will be useful tools at the start of the topic. [Dylan] To enable differentiation to work, it is important you plan both the activities the students engage in, and how you will monitor how students are moving their learning forward. So differentiation involves both careful planning of the tasks students are engaged in and how they’re responding to those tasks. This insures that differentiation is on-going throughout the lesson.

Throughout the course we will look at some of the research which underpins ideas about differentiation, but first we would like you to think about your current view of differentiation: what, for you, it is and what it isn’t.

To help you to get started, take a look at the two infographics by Carol Ann Tomlinson: What Is (and Is Not) Differentiated Instruction? (tip: right-click or hold-tap to open links in a new tab). An accessible selection of the points from these graphics is listed below.

Differentiation is…

  • 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 heterogeneous settings.
  • 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’.
  • Bluebirds, buzzards and wombats (ability grouping within a classroom).
  • Dumbing down teaching for some students.
  • Mostly for students identified as gifted.
  • Mostly for students with identified learning challenges.
  • Individualised instruction.

Source: Tomlinson, C.A. (2015). Infographic supporting The Differentiated Classroom, 2nd Ed.


Reflecting on your own teaching experience so far, begin to formulate your own working definition of differentiation, both what you think it is and what it isn’t. You could use some of the ideas in the infographics if you choose, or perhaps you disagree with them?
In the comments below, define:
a. What differentiation is.
b. What differentiation is not.
Review some of the definitions by other learners on the course and ‘like’ or comment on any that particularly catch your eye, or that lead you to change your own definition.

A note about ‘learning styles’: Another common myth is that differentiation means teaching students in their preferred ‘learning style’. However, there is no evidence to suggest that teaching to match students’ visual, auditory or kinaesthetic preferences improves learning and the concept has been widely discredited (Coffield et al., 2004). Psychological research using controlled experiments has concluded that teaching student in their VAK learning styles is “wasted effort” (Kratzig and Arbuthnott, 2006).

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Differentiation for Learning

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