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    Tier 1 - Core Instruction

    When I was a teacher, I would sometimes compare teaching to hosting a dinner party.  And as the host, I always want to cook the easiest meal so that when my guests are at my home, I can engage with them. 

    However, my easy-peasy, one-stop-shop solution often had many hurdles. I have a lovely group of friends, and some have dietary restrictions—like being vegetarian or gluten-free—or have particular likes and dislikes.

    An “easy meal” isn’t going to meet the variety of needs of my dinner guests. My very simple meal just became six different meals that I was making for each guest. It was exhausting and left very little time for me to socialize. 

    I began to have dinner party burnout and vowed to never host another dinner party. Teachers, sound familiar yet?

    Like at my dinner parties, I knew I couldn’t make one lesson that met twenty students' needs. Making twenty different lessons for my lovely students in my classroom every day would be far too exhausting. When I would try, I would feel overwhelmed by chaos and underwhelmed by the results

    Effective teachers adjust their instruction to meet their students' shared and individual needs. They use strong, differentiated core instruction to meet those needs at the Tier 1 level of MTSS. Does this mean that differentiation is just good practice? Differentiation is more than applying a best-practice approach here and there and relies on teachers effectively planning when, how, and to whom instruction is delivered. To have a healthy and effective core or Tier 1 instruction, it must be differentiated.

    We’re going to take some time to unpack differentiation, define what it is, call out some misconceptions, provide some clear examples of differentiation in action, and help you get started planning differentiated instructional opportunities for your students next school year.

    Navigate this article:

    What Is Differentiation in Education?

    Differentiation instruction in education is not new. Simply put, differentiation includes tailoring instruction for ALL students' readiness levels, interests, strengths, and learning preferences based on current data from assessments

    While we can spout off three ways to differentiate (content, product, and process), it can be challenging to articulate with clarity and confidence what this means. Providing examples of how to do this in practice can be even more challenging. Why is this the case? Why is something that we talk about almost every day so ambiguous? 

    During my time in education, I have encountered a slew of misconceptions regarding differentiation. While it can be easy to define differentiation, actually breaking it down becomes difficult. Sometimes, explaining something can be better portrayed by explaining what it is not. 

    Misconceptions Around Differentiation

    Misconception #1: Differentiation Is a Set of Good Teaching Strategies and Teaching Tools Used Every Day During Every Lesson.

    Reality: Differentiation is not one strategy or a set of strategies at all. It is a philosophy or way of thinking about applying strategies that allow learners to engage in learning in different ways. Teachers may utilize great teaching strategies daily but still not differentiate their instruction. It’s important to note that not every lesson requires the need for a differentiated approach. When and how you differentiate depends on your students’ patterns of needs. 

    Misconception #2: Differentiation is only used to support students who cannot meet traditional standards-based instruction.

    Reality: Differentiation encourages all students to meet and exceed grade-level learning expectations in unique ways. Differentiation promotes respectful tasks for all students and encourages teachers to find ways for students to apply their individual strengths during learning. Standards are never altered, changed, or lowered for students. Differentiation creates a classroom culture of high achievement. 

    Misconception #3: Differentiation requires teachers to eliminate whole group instruction.

    Reality: Differentiation means incorporating various learning modalities into your lessons as well. This means you don’t ALWAYS have to have students in small collaborative groups. Some students won’t benefit from this experience without also having some anchor time with the whole class. It’s important to consistently provide varied opportunities, including whole group instruction and anchor lessons when appropriate.


    Fundamentals of Differentiation

    Two principle strategies support the philosophy of differentiation: ongoing assessment and flexible grouping. Teachers that employ these strategies: 

    1. Identify patterns in student needs

    2. Have readily accessible time for learners to engage in varied learning opportunities and activities

    Ongoing Assessment

    A variety of assessments can be used to gather information about learners. From quick formative assessments to interest surveys to quizzes, assessments provide teachers with valuable information about how learners progress toward their learning goals. With this insight, teachers can identify patterns in student needs and make instructional adjustments to respond to those patterns. 

    To learn more about interpreting student assessment data, check out this webinar ⬇️


    Flexible Grouping

    Teachers that employ flexible grouping have a much easier time differentiating instruction when it’s appropriate. Flexible grouping and small groups are not synonymous. 

    Flexible grouping allows learners to collaborate at different times for different reasons; for example, for one lesson, learners may be grouped by shared interest, and for the next lesson, they may be grouped by preferred learning modality. 

    These flexible groups change from day to day, lesson to lesson, for what’s best for the learners and the standards-driven content. This is vastly different than setting up reading ability groups at the beginning of the semester and tracking the students in those groups during daily rotations.

    Once you have reigned in a solid understanding of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping, you’re ready to begin planning your anchor lessons and menu of differentiated learning opportunities and activities.

    Planning Differentiated Instruction

    Planning differentiated instruction or differentiated lessons involves the same steps as planning one quality lesson; lessons include clearly stated learning goals, quality questions, formative assessment, and classroom management. Within a differentiated lesson, the caveat is that students will work toward their learning goals in different ways at some point during the lesson or unit.

    The first step toward creating differentiated lessons is understanding your students’ needs, strengths, learning styles, and motivations. You can use your formative and summative assessment data to determine student readiness, interest, and learning profile patterns.




    Learning Profile

    What is it?

    How prepared the learner is to access new material. Not to be confused with ability. Readiness depends on the physical state, emotional state, background knowledge, and feelings toward learning.

    The student’s likes and dislikes, personal passions, and motivations.

    The student’s preferred approach to learning.


    A language learner may not be “ready” to tackle a novel in their non-native language, but that doesn’t mean they can’t.

    A student may be able to comprehend complex text during their technical plumbing course, but fail to demonstrate comprehension with the class-selected novel.

    While one student must engage in a hands-on activity, others dread those experiences and would much rather read or listen to a SME.

    Once you’ve identified needs, strengths, and patterns, you can begin to plan varied learning opportunities linked to your standards. The graphic below represents how you can change the learning opportunities to meet the standards. 

    Students may engage with different instructional content, instructional process or activities, or different ways of producing a product or displaying their knowledge within differentiated lessons.





    What is it?

    When content is differentiated, all students still learn the standards-driven content, but the curriculum used to teach a particular skill or concept may be different.

    When the process is differentiated, students are provided with different learning activities to make sense of or apply knowledge and skills.

    When the product is differentiated, students have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways.


    When teaching a 6th grade class about themes, the teacher selects three novels of various genres for students to select.

    In a 5th-grade science class, students utilize a choice menu to learn about geology. Some students engage in an experiment, while others annotate a video. 

    In a 10th-grade social studies class, students utilize rubrics to showcase their learning. While some students create slideshow presentations, others write essays, and some even develop a video game simulation.

    I must stress to all teachers and principals that implementing a differentiated philosophy in a classroom does not happen overnight. In my early days, I started small by throwing a RAFT activity into my unit plans here and there. I was brand new to teaching and realized my limitations in finding alternate activities with very little planning time. I quickly realized that the RAFT activities (or any activity/strategy that incorporates choice) kept the learners engaged, leaving me less stressed and with more capacity to plan. I slowly added other high-impact strategies that encourage choice, like learning menus and interest centers.

    Within a few years, I had more than just choice menus at my fingertips. I had a bank of standards-aligned activities, content options, and whole group/small group learning opportunities for students to engage. I became a better subject matter expert, deeply understood my content standards, and could articulate the learning goals to my students more clearly. This made me more strategic with who and how I assigned various options. My students felt supported, stretched, and valued. My ability to differentiate instruction grew one lesson, one unit, one year at a time.

    ➡️ Related Resource: Top 10 Student Engagement Practices For Tier 1 in MTSS

    Why Is It Important To Differentiate in the Classroom?

    I have seen firsthand the important benefits of differentiation within the classroom for my students and myself.

    1. By differentiating instruction, I gave myself time back to relax and enjoy the party, I mean, learning.

      When I first started teaching, I was teaching day to day, lesson to lesson. I was the sage on the stage, because I assumed my students needed me to tell them everything they needed to know. I was constantly stressed and always behind. Where I was always teaching, there was very little learning happening. 

      When I began engaging in differentiated opportunities, I stopped thinking that one lesson could move every learner to the same outcome. Instead of running around and plugging holes after failed whole class direct instruction, I had time and space to listen to students individually and collaboratively, uncover new skills and knowledge, answer questions, and provide deeper probes. I was less overwhelmed, and when planning time came, I had a bank of formative data that helped me plan better for my next unit.

    2. Differentiation promotes real-world, problem-solving activity.

      I am always thinking about what preparation I give students to make it in the real world. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t take very many chapter tests these days. If I did and I failed, my director would provide me feedback, maybe a coach, and give me another opportunity. So, why do we feel that’s the way to assess our students’ knowledge? 

      Do you know what I do have to do in the real world?

      • Use guiding criteria (rubrics) to meet the requirements and expectations of my job.
      • I create portfolios to detail my progress over time toward company goals.
      • I am responsible for evaluating my work before I push it out to partners.
      • I am responsible for managing my time to complete tasks. 
      • If I need additional time, I am responsible for asking for help.
      • Not only does my achievement matter, but my directors have always reflected and recognized me for my efforts and my growth.

      When students engage in these respectful and meaningful tasks and assessments at an early age, we are preparing them for their future. We are providing them time and space to learn how to ask questions and seek clarity on expectations. We encourage initiative.

    3. Differentiation establishes clear behavioral expectations that lead to less disruption.

    In my early days, my expectations of my students may have been unclear and likely unrealistic. As I provided more opportunities for differentiated learning, I also had more time to teach behavioral expectations explicitly. For each type of common activity, whole group, collaborative work, or independent work, I set clear expectations for how my students asked for help, the volume level they should use, and how they should move around the classroom. 

    These set expectations for common activities and created an orderly classroom. Students knew my expectations, and I could clearly articulate if they were not meeting those expectations. I also had more time and space to address disruptions privately. This respectful approach helped my students to monitor their behavior and communicate their needs with me in appropriate ways.

    My ultimate educational goal would be to convince every teacher to dip their toes into differentiation or expand their current differentiated practices. It’s good for you, it’s good for your students. Take the first step. Organize one unit with differentiated opportunities and grow from there!


    Related Resources: 

    ➡️ Supporting our Tier 1 Students: Best Practices of Data Analysis and Differentiated Instruction for Educational Leadership
    ➡️ What is Tier 1 Enrichment and Support?
    ➡️ Best Practices at Tier 1 For the Secondary Level

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    June 14, 2022

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