Establishing a differentiated classroom

The teacher must consider many important factors when establishing a differentiated classroom.

Establishing a differentiated classroom

Before establishing a differentiated classroom, teachers must reflect on, and be explicit about, the ways in which they can differentiate by asking themselves these questions:

  • Am I conscious of the efforts I need to make to meet the needs of all students?
  • Do I keep track of the ways I address individual learning styles and preferences?
  • Do I arrange my classroom and structure lessons to increase student motivation?
  • Do I provide students with options and choices regarding how they are going to learn and how they are going to show their learning whenever possible?
  • Do I vary the ways in which they assess student learning?
  • Do I use cooperative learning and grouping strategies to increase student participation?

Considerations and options

The teacher must consider many factors before establishing a differentiated classroom, and research shows that the higher the student's natural motivation, the greater their enthusiasm for learning.

  • choices - choices around content, process, product groups, resources and environment.
  • relevant content - ensure content is meaningful, connected to the learner, and can offer a deep understanding
  • engaging delivery - emotional, energetic, hands-on and encouraging student input.

  • set requirements with little flexibility: no student voice and restricted resources
  • irrelevant content and/or delivery: impersonal, out of context and material provided only to pass a test
  • passive environment: low interaction, lecture-style seating.

Choice is key to motivation

Choice is a motivator and requires students to be aware of their own readiness, interests and learning profiles. The teacher provides the choices that students can choose from, and the teacher remains responsible for crafting challenging opportunities for all students.

Use choice across the curriculum, for example, writing topics, content writing prompts, self-selected reading, contract menus, maths problems, spelling words, product and assessment options, seating and group arrangement.

Tier lessons

Introduce differentiation slowly, for example, allow choice during reading and writing, or grouping more flexibly, and increase differentiation strategies gradually. Tiering lessons is often a good way to start.

Tiering uses varied levels of tasks so students can explore ideas and use skills at a level that builds on what they know to encourage growth. While students work at varying degrees of difficulty on their tasks, they all explore the same essential ideas and work at different levels of thought.

  • challenge level: Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • complexity: the teacher addresses the needs of students at introductory levels and the needs of students ready for more advanced work
  • resources: for example selecting materials at various reading levels and complexity of content, and students using the same materials but arriving at varying end products
  • process: the end products are the same but the ways students arrive at those outcomes may vary
  • product: group by multiple intelligences or learning styles followed by assignments that fit those preferences.

  • different work, not simply more or less work
  • equally active
  • equally interesting and engaging
  • fair in terms of work expectations and time needed
  • requiring the use of key concepts, skills, or ideas.

Working with small groups of students

Before creating a fully differentiated classroom, establish classroom routines and procedures. Consider these 4 guidelines:

  1. Set up practice sessions: ensure that the students you are not working with know what to do while you are busy with other students, set up practice sessions where students work silently on a task (according to particular directions without a teacher-centred focus) and do this several times before meeting with small groups.
  2. Designate an ‘expert of the day’: the expert of the day can handle student questions and needs while you work with small groups. Designate one or more students who will go over directions, check work, help with skills and support students while you are working directly with a small group. Train students to learn from the beginning that you are ‘off limits’ while you are teaching small groups. All students can serve as experts in some way as the year progresses.
  3. Use ‘anchor activities’ for students who finish required work (or get stuck and can’t proceed) while you work with small groups.
  4. Be flexible when creating groups: ensure groups are flexibly (not predictably) formed and consider readiness, interests, random, pairs, groups of 6 or 8. Ensure you don't create predictable groups of eagles, emus and wombats.

Anchor activities

Anchor activities are ongoing assignments that students can work on independently throughout a lesson sequence or unit. Anchor activities should fit with the content and instruction and be used to:

  • provide meaningful work for students when they finish an assignment/project/task
  • settle students when they first enter the class or begin the lesson
  • continue productive work when they are ‘stumped’ and while waiting for teacher support
  • ‘free up’ the teacher to work with other groups of students or individuals.

To support group work, introduce and use anchor activities by:

  1. whole-class - teach the whole class to work independently and quietly on the anchor activity.
  2. divide the class into 2 parts - one half works on an anchor activity and the other half works on a different activity
  3. divide the class into 3 parts - one-third works on the anchor activity, one-third works on a different activity and one-third works with the teacher - direct instruction.

The characteristics of effective anchor activities are:

  • Important - related to key knowledge, understanding and skill
  • Interesting - appeal to student curiosity, interest and learning preference
  • Allow choice - students can select from a range of options
  • Clear routines and expectations - students know what they are to do and how to do it and record their learning
  • Seldom marked - teachers should examine the work as they move around the room. Students can hand in work for feedback, or get a grade/mark for working effectively, but seldom for the work itself. The motivation is interest and/or improved achievement.

Vary activities/ learning experiences

Readiness: A differentiated classroom does not mean teaching students one by one. In a differentiated classroom, the teacher attempts to provide enough variety so that learning is a better fit for more students. That is, on one day a teacher may assign one task to students who seem to be having difficulty with a particular idea or skill and another to students who don’t seem to be having difficulty

Interests: Think in terms of manageable ranges of options. A range of four interest-based options for students may not be a perfect match for everyone’s interests, but having four options is likely to engage more students than if there were no options at all.

Learning profiles: Students may prefer to work alone or with a partner; work in a quiet area for example. Give students a range of manageable options to complete work.

Scaffolding for readiness

Scaffolding or temporary support can be provided in four different ways. At different times it may be necessary to use different forms of scaffolding for students.

  • Scaffolding content: selecting and sequencing content to enable students to learn and be successful. Careful attention is given to the order in which content is presented.
  • Scaffolding tasks: the overall sequencing of tasks. The tasks gradually increase in difficulty.
  • Individual/group scaffolding: support being provided by another individual to link the learner/s with new information and tasks. This assistance is withdrawn gradually, passing responsibility to the individual.
  • Material scaffolding: providing structures and materials to support students as they learn and apply concepts, facts and strategies.

  • directions that give more structure - or less
  • tape recorders to help with reading or writing beyond the student’s grasp
  • icons to help interpret print
  • re-teaching/extending teaching
  • modelling
  • clear criteria for success
  • reading buddies (with appropriate directions)
  • double entry journals with appropriate challenge
  • teaching through multiple modes
  • use of ‘hands-on’ activities when needed
  • gearing reading materials to student reading level
  • use of study guides
  • use of organisers.


  • Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
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