Differentiation Made Easy!

The following post was written by Peter Douglas and it is posted on our website…we’ve been working together on inquiry-based teaching and learning. His classroom is our workshop! You can learn about our experience at Inquiry-Based.com.

Inquiry-based learning and teaching


Planning for the individual needs of your students in the modern classroom can be paralysis-inducing.  You want to meet everyone where they are and move them along in the most efficient way.  You want to address their individual learning needs.  You want to modify your course materials and assignments to mirror their abilities.  You want to set up assessment tasks that are fair and meaningful.  But let’s be realistic for a minute here, how do you actually achieve this?

Well, one way to look at is this:  you can only do what you can do.  You need help.  You are only one person.  Thankfully, you have a rich source of differentiation help you may not be tapping into, your students.  If we assume that one of the most important elements of differentiated instruction is to create activities that are relevant to the students at their current ability level, then who better to assess that level than the kids themselves?  This may sound a little far-fetched, but let me explain with an example from my classroom.

My students are always working in groups.  They sit in groups, plan collaboratively, and negotiate roles on a daily basis.  They know each other very, very well.  Thankfully, there is a true culture of kindness in the room and the kids really take care of each other.  When explorations are underway, I no longer have to worry about whether a particular activity is meeting the current level of achievement of my students because they have a constant stream of meaningful feedback from their own group members.  I would never be able to provide as many and varied comments about what looks good, how to approach the job in an easily understood way, how to understand the task at hand or simply ask the simple question, ‘Are you getting it?”  When the students work in teams, they pull together, helping each other along at a level that makes sense to them.  There’s true differentiation.

Where do I step in?  Usually, one of the students will quietly let me know one of their team members is struggling.  I love this, because inquiry based learning has freed me up to go and spend meaningful amounts of time with kids to truly address their needs.  The rest of the class is so caught up in their work, they hardly ever miss me.  I can delve into the learning styles and interests of my students because I have the time for individual assessment in the course of any given day. Because exploration work is done over the course of days or weeks, nothing is so time-sensitive that I can’t take the time to deal with a struggling student and provide true support.

Peter Douglas

About Louise Robitaille

A teacher for 21 years, involved in a Teacher Learning and Leadership Project (TLLP) with the Ontario Ministry of Education. Our project is about collaborating, learning about iPad technology and inquiry-based teaching.


  1. John Myers /

    Lots to like in this post.
    One of the sub themes,the use of productive groups, can be part of the very powerful cooperative learning movement: powerful because students achieve when they have at least one friend.

    Perhaps cooperative learning- its power and its limits- can be explored in a subsequent post, since it connects to other recent themes such as monitoring the classroom posted in Vopiced.

    • Thanks for the response. Cooperative learning is a 21st century skill that needs to be developed. It takes the first month or so in the fall to build relationships and work on actvities that encourage a mutual respect for one another and an understanding about how to work in groups. It gives them confidence, inspires curiosity, and opportunities to think critically. What do you see as limits?

  2. John Myers /

    My short answer for limits
    Too many do not build in the positive interdependence and individual accountability that distinguish it from mere group work>
    In additional sometimes people are put in groups for tasks that are not appropriate: tasks that are better done alone.
    Finally in group tasks of any complexity you need to build in social skill development.

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