Implementing Differentiated Instruction

In implementing a new program or curriculum, teachers encounter reluctance with a touch of fear as they are faced with the new information (Hopkins, 2005). This fear can immobilize teachers, keeping them from using their new knowledge or to give a new program a sufficient try. It is essential for teachers to participate in the implementation process from the beginning in addressing their fears and reluctance in tackling and using the new knowledge in their classrooms. “Districts and schools must engender faculty support of a program in order to ensure its success. It will be critical … to make sure that all stakeholders are fully committed before implementation takes place. The staff must have a well-founded confidence in the new technology vision and goals. One of the essentials for achieving this ‘well-founded confidence’ is to ensure that school staff has played a substantial role in its direction and implementation” (Anthony, 2012, para. 3).Implementing Differentiated Instruction

There are many ways in which the fear factor can be confronted and overcome. Research has shown that people feel more at ease with new information and its implementation when a connection has been made between old information and the new information (Anonymous, 2012). These connections can be made through the help of a professional developer who understands his audience and their previous backgrounds.

In using differentiated learning, teachers need to have training on implementation in understanding the different aspects related to this teaching technique. Based on the foundation of understanding students’ learning styles, characteristics, interests and multiple intelligences, teacher can manipulate the content, product and process of learning. Through this training, teachers understand that education is a balance between information and students (Thousand, Villa & Nevin, 2007). The professional developer should point out how he had modeled this technique by interview the administration and making walk-throughs in the classrooms prior to the staff development. Additionally, teachers need to know learning about the student is not a quick or one-time effort but a semester long activity. Also, their learners will mold and grow which will require vigilance in monitoring.

Teachers also need to be encouraged to utilize this resource. Hopkins (2003) shares that many times professionals don’t even know what to ask when new information or techniques are being presented. They are unfamiliar with the topic and therefore don’t know many times when there is an issue which needs to be addressed. Through staff development which includes group discussions, questions can be addressed which may not have entered the minds of other colleagues. Hopkins states that training is the key. Teachers need to be trained and overtrained before they feel comfortable with the new knowledge and implement it in their classrooms.

As differentiated learning is implemented, teachers should be invited into other classrooms to witness the process in action. This technique is a multifaceted approached which may overwhelm teachers with the number of individual strategies needed to cater to the needs of each student (Hilden & Pressley, 2012). These strategies are better understood through witnessing the process. Additionally, skeptic teachers will be given proof that the process does work (Cunningham, 2007).

Feelings of success and the experience of each success are essential to every individual (Nieto & Bode, 2008). As teachers have successful experiences with differentiated learning, they will be apt to consider other applications. Successes can be provided through guided learning experiences between a teacher acting as a mentor and a teacher who is applying differentiated learning for the first time. Through modeling and guiding, an inexperienced teacher is walked through differentiated learning starting at planning, through implementation and to the conclusion of reflection.Teachers new to differentiated learning need to be encouraged that they are not alone in the process. At the beginning of a unit or lesson, teachers should ponder co-teaching strategies which include supportive teaching, parallel teaching, complementary teaching and team teaching (Thousand, Villa & Nevin, 2007) and the use of other professionals within the school and community. The main goal for teachers to remember is “always… to improve the educational outcomes of students” (ibid, p 122).

A foundational complaint of most teachers is a lack of time which also contributes to their fear in starting a new teaching technique. Alliance for Excellent Education (2005) quotes that every fall thousands of teachers do not return to the classroom “in pursuit of better working conditions. … Among teachers who transferred schools, lack of planning time (65 percent), too heavy a workload (60 percent), problematic student behavior (53 percent), and a lack of influence over school policy (52 percent) were cited as common sources of dissatisfaction” (p 1).

To address this contributor of fear, teachers should be encouraged to share their experiences with differentiated learning through lesson swaps. Swaps can occur across grade levels or throughout the school. School administrators should encourage lesson swaps especially as teachers create successful applications in differentiated learning. Also, resources abound online for teachers, even lessons adapted for differentiated learning. Yet such abundance of resources is not always beneficial. The mountainous pile of information can easily overwhelm any teacher and especially as they begin working with a new technique (Jackson, 2006). Through lesson swapping within the confines of a grade, school or district, teachers receive reliable resources with little effort in sorting through the internet.

As differentiated learning is introduced into a school, administrators need to take extra time to visit each classroom even on walk-throughs and praise every attempt made. Positive feedback is an essential element to implementation of every successful program (O’Brien, Axelrod, Dulaney & Ogren, 2006). As teachers receive positive feedback they are inspired to attempt greater feats and experiment more with information. Leiden University (2008) in a recent study found that eight year old children learn better from positive feedback such as “Good Job” or “Well Done” than through negative feedback such as “Wrong” or “Not right this time.” As a child grows, they are better able to process negative feedback but continue to learn more from positive feedback. The research concludes “adults do the same, but more efficiently” (p 1).

Positive feedback can take on a creative aspect. Reh (2012) states “don’t ever underestimate the power of positive feedback. We are quick to point out to someone when they make a mistake. Sometimes we forget to acknowledge them when they do something right. Giving positive feedback can be a powerful tool for employee motivation” (p 1). He continues on to give several suggestions for effective positive feedback.

  1. First, positive feedback should be given immediately before it is forgotten or the moment has passed.
  2. Second, it should be given publicly in a large group but management needs to keep in mind that all negative feedback is given privately.
  3. Third, make the feedback specific. Instead of simply saying ‘good job’ try saying ‘You did a good job remembering the specific needs of that student.’
  4. Fourth, periodically make a big deal out of some things.
  5. Fifth, always remember the receiver. Some employees simply would not like a big deal made out of them in front of a large group .
  6. Sixth, do it often and evenly. Remember frequency and never consistently acknowledge one employee over another.
  7. Lastly, remember sincerity. Don’t give praise simply to give it. Be sure to make it a sincere positive feedback.

Another effective measure to overcome the fear of a new technique is through cooperative group learning. This method is “one of the most researched instructional strategies in education today. … Working in cooperative groups, students learn valuable social skills, use higher order thinking, and rehearse and practice new concepts, processes and information” (Gregory & Chapman, 2007, p 109). Cooperative groups can also be coordinated to discuss and brainstorm the fears in beginning a new program or implementing new information. Each group should be carefully constructed to ensure a positive and innovative teacher or an ‘early adopter’ is one member of each group. Graphic organizers can be distributed to each group to facilitate the discussion process.

To break down fear barriers, a debate can be used. “Ask half the faculty to brainstorm all of the reasons that we should try differentiated instruction and how it might work. Invited the other half to generate all the aspects that would be negative and why differentiated learning would not work. Then, ask the groups to switch positions and brainstorm again. This is a way to legitimize the naysayers and also solve problems around some of the genuine concerns and barriers up front” (Gregory, 2008, p 124).

Another method to approach the fear factor is through a professional party to collaborate on problems and provide solutions. Teachers would be invited to a party at the introduction of differentiated learning where they would enjoy ‘Fear Factor’ games. During this time, teachers would forge new relationships amongst themselves, foster continued relationships, discuss their fears in implementing differentiated learning, brainstorm probable solutions and simply have some fun.

The foundational premise of the fear factor event would be to introduce the stages of Concerns Based Adoption Mode (CBAM) which addresses the fears educators have when facing a change(Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009). CBAM consists of four stages.

  1. First, non-use is the phase when teachers know vaguely about the information but are not practicing due to a lack of awareness and information.
  2. Second, early use begin to use differentiated learning but they are concerned with their ability to apply it accurately.
  3. Third, maturing is collaborating as teachers recognize the impact differentiated learning has on students.
  4. And fourth, mastery includes the teachers’ ability to reflect, adapt and adjust their teaching strategies based on their knowledge of differentiated learning (Gregory, 2008).

A differentiated learning approach will meet the requirements of both the humanistic and scientific curriculum approaches as the learning method can be molded to fit the needs of the students and the approach most appreciated by the educator. Also, both a quantitative and qualitative approach can be used in the learning and assessment process. The utilization of this learning method will encourage students to not only address their personal learning styles but can open them to additional learning opportunities. Such a learning experience provides practical knowledge for interactions with classmates and coworkers.

Providing successful learning experiences is the foundation of differentiated learning. Administrators and teachers need to understand that change is a process which requires a daily journey of improvement. This process will also require teachers and administrators to face their fears of the unknown. Implementing differentiated learning will not be an event which is completed as one checks off a task from a to do list. It will require nurturing, patience and understanding as well as motivation, momentum and a desire to meet the needs of every student.


Alliance for Excellent Education. (2005). Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to    the States. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from     publications/TeacherAttrition.pdf

Anonymous. (2012). Changing teachers’ practice: Curriculum materials and science education reform in the USA. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from

Anthony, K. (2012). Building staff buy-in. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from           

Cunningham, D. (2007). Reluctant Teachers of Technology Need Support and Professional          Development Training to be Successful in Integrating Technology into their Classrooms. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from         %2520paper1.doc+teachers+experience+reluctance+to+start+new            +curriculum&cd=10&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

Product Details
Click on image.

Gregory, G. (2008). Differentiated instructional strategies in practice: training,    implementation, and supervision (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Gregory, G. & Chapman, C. (2007). Differentiated instructional strategies: One size doesn’t fit all. (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hilden, K. & Pressley, M. (2012). Stories of obstacles and success: Teachers’ experiences in  professional development of reading comprehension instruction. Retrieved January 30, 2012 from

Hopkins, G. (2002). 25 Ways to motivate teachers. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from   

Hopkins, G. (2005). Training teachers who are terrified of technology. Retrieved January 10,      2012 from

Jackson, K. (2006). Teacher Training: Web Resources for Staff Development. Retrieved February  01, 2012 from     teacher_training008.shtml

Leiden University. (2008). Learning from mistakes only occurs after age 12. Retrieved January   29, 2012 from

Nieto, S. & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming diversity: the sociopolitical context of multicultural           education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

O’Brien, M., Axelrod, J., Dulancey, E. & Ogren, K. (2006). Implementing and sustaining social and emotional learning. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from           

Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P.   (2009).  Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues. Allyn & Bacon.

Reh, F. (2012). How to give positive feedback. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from   

Product Details
Click on image

Thousand, J., Villa, R. & Nevin, A. (2007). Differentiating instruction: Collaboratively planning   and teaching for universally designed learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.





Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

%d bloggers like this: