III Curricular and Mindset Interventions

Differentiated Instruction in Rural School Contexts

Carol Ann Tomlinson

Differentiated instruction is an instructional model designed to guide educators of learners at all grade levels to teach their students more effectively than when those educators plan and teach as though all students in a classroom are essentially alike. The model began in middle school classrooms in a rural, public school district in the 1970s as teachers in those classrooms sought ways to make learning relevant, engaging, and effective for students who spanned a wide range of readiness levels, interests, and backgrounds. Beginning in the 1990s, the model moved from one largely based on practitioner study of the impact of the model on their students to a model that was refined, examined in the tradition of educational research, and used as a focus of research (Tomlinson, 1995; Tomlinson, Callahan et al., 1997; Tomlinson, Moon et al., 1998; Tomlinson & Jarvis, 2014). Simultaneously, the model has been shared broadly with teachers in formats and language useful to classroom teachers (e.g., Tomlinson, 2014, 2017). It continues to evolve as research emerges with both psychology and neuroscience continuing to inform its tenets and practices (e.g., Sousa & Tomlinson, 2017).

Assumptions That Undergird the Model

There are several assumptions that arc foundational to the interpretation and use of the differentiation model. Among those arc the following:

  • • Students vary in ways that can significantly impact their growth and success in learning: for example, gender, race, culture, facility with the language of the classroom, geography, economic status, learning exceptionalities, prior experiences with school, and degree of adult support outside of school.
  • • Attending to student variance is necessary to support maximum growth in each student.
  • • Diversity is both inevitable and desirable. Adapting teaching practices to address that diversity in positive and productive ways is necessary to enable the full range of students in today’s diverse classrooms to succeed both in and out of school.
  • • Students learn better when their teachers have a growth mindset—that is, when their teachers believe unequivocally that the human brain is malleable and that people can therefore develop the attitudes, skills, and will necessary to “grow their brains,” to become smarter and more effective in learning (Dweck, 2006).
  • • Students arc more likely to develop growth mindsets themselves when their teachers have growth mindsets, make clear their belief in each student to succeed, guide their students in developing the skills and attitudes that typify successful individuals, and consistently provide work that is slightly beyond the reach of the individual as well as the support necessary to succeed at successively challenging levels (Vygotsky, 1986).
  • • Students who develop agency as learners are much more likely to continue to pursue learning and to be positive contributors beyond school.
  • • Teachers who accept full responsibility for maximum growth of each student are more likely to seek a variety of learning pathways through which a student can achieve essential goals than teachers who assign responsibility to students’ families, cultures, or the students themselves.
  • • Recognizing and working to eliminate barriers in schools and classrooms that make it difficult or impossible for some students to equitably access the highest quality learning experiences a school can offer is an ethical responsibility of teachers.

These beliefs both shape the model and provide a rationale for enacting the model with fidelity to its intent.

Five Key Elements in the Model of Differentiation

Differentiated instruction is, as its name suggests, a model for classroom instruction. In order to plan for and lead learning that contributes broadly to student success with the model, teachers should adjust each of five key classroom elements (learning environment, curriculum, formative assessment, instruction, and classroom leadership and management) in ways that most fully invite and support that success (i.e., Tomlinson, 2014; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010; Tomlinson & Moon, 2013). Following is a brief capsule of those elements, including their characteristics when they are planned for, shaped, and used to greatest advantage.

Learning Environment

Learning environment refers to the context in which students are asked to learn as well as to both the physical environment and the affective environment. Physical environment includes the actual space(s) in which teaching and learning occur and aspects such as space, use of space, furnishings/furniture arrangement, and resources. The general intent in establishing the physical

Differentiated Instruction 81 environment in differentiated classrooms is to honor and respond to student differences—therefore, to plan for flexibility. Thus, as one example, there would be a general preference for furniture that students can move easily to allow for a variety of seating and working arrangements.

In addition, it is helpful to use space and furniture in ways that allow both independent/quiet working opportunities and collaborative/conversational working opportunities. Arranging a room so students can move around, form stand-up conversational groups, and secure and return resources as appropriate also reflects understanding of a range of student needs and preferences— such as need for quiet, for dialogue, for visual stimulation, and for visually “plain” surroundings.

Affective environment refers to how being in classroom makes a learner feel—to the positive or negative emotions that arise from some aspect of the classroom. Students need to feel both physically and emotionally safe in a classroom in order to learn well. That suggests an environment free of physical threat and one in which students feel seen, appreciated, and affirmed by the teacher and peers (Maslow, 1943; Tomlinson, 2003). Feeling a sense of challenge is also important as long as that challenge is matched with support from the teacher and peers so it becomes attainable. The teacher is the most powerful influence on student learning in the classroom. For example, students who feel their teacher regularly exhibits “emotional support” for them achieve better than students who do not have a predictable sense of that support (e.g., Pianta ct al., 2008). Hattie (2012), in his wide-ranging metaanalysis of education meta-analyses, concludes that an “invitational” learning environment is a potent driver of student success. In such classes, teachers demonstrate:

  • • Respect—working with students in ways that make clear the teacher’s belief that each student is capable, valuable, and responsible
  • • Trust—visible through the many opportunities for students to collaborate and learn together
  • • Optimism—as students get clear messages from the teacher that they have significant untapped potential and can use that potential to learn what they need to learn in order to succeed
  • • Intentionality—evident as students come to understand that the teacher designed every step in a lesson to invite every student to learn.


The quality of what a teacher teaches in a classroom has a consequential impact on all the other elements in a classroom and their capacity to support student success. Curriculum is not best conceived as a textbook, a set of content standards, or a pacing guide. Rather, it is a systematic plan to engage students with the most important knowledge, ideas, and skills of the discipline students arestudying at a given time. It should help young people understand the disciplines that form the backbone of humanity’s knowledge, the world around them, and themselves. To that end, quality curriculum should:

  • • Be based on clear learning goals that make clear to teachers and students alike the essential knowledge, essential understandings, and essential skills central to a segment of learning
  • • Be designed to engage student attention, interest, and motivation
  • • Promote student understanding of content, including major concepts and/or principles of the content areas, rather than largely promoting student repetition of information
  • • Call on students to use knowledge, skills, and understanding in contexts meaningful to them
  • • Be designed to challenge advanced learners with the intent to provide instructional scaffolding to most other students so they can access the kind of quality and instruction associated with advanced learning opportunities.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment refers to the process through which teachers consistently monitor student progress throughout a unit of study in order to do a more effective job of understanding and responding to each student’s status along a trajectory of learning. It takes place prior to the start of a new unit of study (pre-assessment) and throughout the unit of study as well (ongoing/ formative assessment). Formative assessment is the pipeline of information that powers differentiation.

Some formative assessments are informal (e.g., conversations with students, observations of students on the playground, noticing the work of a few students as they complete an in-class assignment who seem to be having more difficulty or moving ahead more rapidly than a teacher might have anticipated, using thumbs-up/thumbs-down signals during an explanation so students can express their degree of understanding of an idea). While informal formative assessments can be usefill, they do not generally provide systematic information on every student in ways that make the information actionable. Some formative assessments are formal (e.g., using a checklist of skills to observe students as they work in order to record the status of each student, using formats such as exit slips, 3-2-1 cards, quick writes, and Frayer diagrams). The term ‘■‘formative assessment” presupposes teachers analyze information gathered through formative means and then teach differently in the very short term than they would have taught without the formative information. When teachers administer an assessment and do not change their instruction as a result, the process, by definition, does not qualify as formative assessment. It is often useful to differentiate formal formative assessments to enable students to reveal as much as possible about what they have learned. In differentiating formative assessments, virtually anything related to the assessment can be differentiated except the essential knowledge, understanding, and skill specified

Differentiated Instruction 83

as learning targets for the learning sequence. (An exception to that principle occurs when a student has an individualized learning plan that specifies learning goals that differ from those established for the class as a whole.) Effective use of formative assessment in a differentiated classroom has the following characteristics:

  • • Formative assessments tightly align with the knowledge, understanding, and skills designated in the curriculum as essential to the segment of study being assessed.
  • • Assessments gauge the degree of student understanding as well as of knowledge and skills.
  • • Pre-assessments check student status with prerequisite knowledge, understanding, and skills necessary for success with upcoming new content.
  • • Formative assessment is used to help the teacher know how to more effectively support each student in taking his or her next steps in learning (“assessment for learning”).
  • • Assessment also helps students understand their own progress and know how to more effectively contribute to their own growth and success (“assessment as learning”).
  • • A major goal of pre-assessment and ongoing assessment is to support student learning without judgment so that students arc more willing to make errors and learn from them and less focused on grades than on learning itself. Pre-assessments should never be graded. Students should receive clear, student-specific feedback on ongoing assessments that helps them identify steps they can take to move forward successfully. Formative assessments should very rarely be graded, and then only with advanced notice to the students that a graded formative assessment will happen on a specified date.


While it is difficult to draw a hard line between curriculum and instruction, curriculum generally refers to what teachers should teach/what we ask students to learn, and instruction to how teachers teach the curriculum/how we ask students to engage with the curriculum in order to make sense of it and come to “own” it. Instruction encompasses not only strategics or methods teachers might select to use in teaching the content (and that students will therefore use in learning the content) but also guidelines for appropriate use of those strategies. The primary goal of differentiation is maximum growth for each learner. Instruction in effectively differentiated classrooms has the following characteristics.

• Instruction tightly aligns with the knowledge, understanding, and skills designated in the curriculum as essential to the segment of content students are learning and which will therefore be assessed formatively during or shortly after a segment of learning.

  • • Instruction focuses students on understanding content as well as mastering essential knowledge and skills.
  • • Teachers can differentiate content (what they ask students to learn), process (how they ask students to make sense of what they are learning), products (how students show what they know), and learning environment (the physical and affective context in which students learn) in response to students’ varied readiness levels or entry points into a learning sequence, students’ interests, and/or to enable learners to work in a variety of ways to accomplish their goals.
  • • Teachers differentiate to address learners’ varied needs both when the teacher is leading the class and when students are working independently or in small groups.
  • • Teachers plan to differentiate instructional elements to address varied student needs based on most recent formative assessment information.
  • • Teachers select instructional strategies or approaches based on student needs and the nature of the content being differentiated.
  • • Differentiated student work is respectful of each student (respectful tasks)—in other words, every student’s work is equally engaging and equally important to mastering essential knowledge, understanding, and skill. In addition, all work asks each student to be a thinker and problemsolver with what they are learning.
  • • The teacher in a differentiated classroom uses a variety of student grouping in a short period of time so that all students have the opportunity to work with many students in a variety of contexts. Groups can be student-selected, teacher-selected, of similar readiness, mixed readiness, similar interest, mixed interests, similar preferences for processing learning, or mixed preferences for processing learning. There are not “high groups,” “middle groups,” and “low groups” because thinking of students in that way makes it difficult for both teachers and students to believe in the capacity of each learner in the class and also inhibits students’ selfconfidence and willingness to take intellectual risks as a learner.
  • • Teachers “teach up.” That is, they plan student work first with their advanced learners in mind, designing the work to be engaging and challenging for those students. Then they develop scaffolding to enable the other students in the class to access that work. Scaffolding can take many forms. A few examples are extended time to complete work, resources at varied levels of complexity, models of competent student work at various levels of sophistication, collaborative work teams, students meeting with the teacher at varied points during the work cycle, and getting feedback from student “experts of the day” or other peers.

Classroom Leadership and Management

Because students in any class will differ in their entry points into virtually any segment of learning as well as in their interests, preferences for how to

Differentiated Instruction 85 go about completing a particular task, attention span, maturity level and so forth, differentiated classes typically alternate between whole-class learning and opportunities for individuals and/or small groups to do work suited to their readiness needs and/or interests, and often to choose a mode of learning that seems most likely to support their success with the work at hand. As a result, it is often the case in a differentiated classroom that more than one thing is going on. That calls on teachers to create an environment that is flexible enough to support varied tasks occurring simultaneously and predictable enough to provide stability for students and teacher alike. Teachers work in partnership with their students to create such an environment, which calls for a two-pronged approach. First, the teacher works with the students to envision what it would look like to create a class that is designed to meet everyone’s needs and to sketch out the parameters of that classroom. That casts the teacher as the leader of his or her students as they work together to think about a student-focused classroom. Then, the teacher and students together develop routines that make flexibility a core part of the class but that also establish a sense of predictability or reliability within the flexibility. Teacher leadership in a differentiated classroom is people-focused and includes:

  • • Having a vision for a class focused on the needs of each person in the class and the class as a whole
  • • Effectively sharing the vision, inviting students to contribute to it, and enlisting the partnership of students in making the vision work
  • • Building a team for achieving the vision
  • • Renewing commitment to the vision from time to time
  • • Acknowledging success and making changes as needed.

Management in a differentiated classroom is about mechanics and includes:

  • • Planning schedules
  • • Handling details
  • • Preparing materials
  • • Arranging furniture
  • • Orchestrating movement
  • • Practicing routines
  • • Troubleshooting

Differentiation in Rural Classrooms

Students in rural classrooms are, in many ways, like students who attend school in any other context. They come with varied backgrounds and prior school experiences, a range of entry points into any segment of curriculum, a broad array of interests, a mix of learning challenges, and so on. In that way, the model of differentiation is important in planning for student differences inrural classrooms as in others. The principles and practices briefly explained in this chapter are as applicable in rural schools as in any other.

Two points are perhaps particularly relevant in linking differentiation with rural contexts. The first has to do with designing curriculum that is likely to be relevant and engaging to rural learners. The second has to do with fruitfully addressing the range of student readiness levels in rural classrooms.

Creating Curriculum That Is Relevant to Rural Learners

Neuroscientists indicate that, in order to learn, students need the content they study to help them make sense of what they learn and be relevant to their lives and experiences (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2017). No matter what content we teach, those two goals should be built into the way we structure, present, and ask students to engage with that content.

Teaching for sense-making requires that we help students see how the content is organized, why it is organized that way, how they can use the organization to learn effectively, how to approach problem-solving appropriately in the content area, and so on. An effective approach to organizing and teaching curriculum for sense-making is to teach a topic around the key concepts or big ideas of the discipline in which the topic resides (e.g., Erickson, 2007). Concepts help the brain organize and retrieve content more efficiently and at the same time point toward meaning that may not readily be evident in a content area. A few examples of concepts are freedom, identity, structure and function, work, technology, adaptation, value, change, patterns, revolution, dependence/independence/interdependence, systems, patterns, force, order, perspective, power, oppression, and reform. Concepts are represented in multiple disciplines to help students connect content and ideas across subject areas.

Teaching for relevance requires that we show students how the content connects with their lives and experiences. It is this lens that offers great possibility’ for working with students from rural areas. Concepts are helpful in this way as well because students have often experienced a concept in their own lives and we learn by connecting new ideas to familiar ones. Think about the list of concepts in the previous paragraph. How many of them arc likely to be relevant to rural life?

While it is not the case that rural learners are a homogeneous group, it is the case, at least in many rural areas, that there are aspects of rural life that significantly shape students’ lives (and in which important concepts are embedded). There may be music that speaks strongly to a community, stories or tales that are part of the culture, natural elements that are meaningful through recreation or simply because they represent beauty. It is likely that there are some shared struggles related to the economy, health, change in family structures, as well as human strengths much valued by natives to the area.

Place-based curriculum advocates that teachers work with students and community members to identify themes, issues, strengths, aspirations, artistic

Differentiated Instruction 87 expressions, and other categories that can link with curricular content in ways that help learners both see more meaning in the content through the lens of rural experience and understand the rural experience more fully by examining content-based ideas and skills that compare and contrast with the rural experience. When learners can say, “I see my experiences and my world in what I’m learning,” motivation to learn, accessibility to learning, and durability of learning are likely to increase.

Addressing Student Readiness in Rural Classrooms

There is no such thing as a “typical” rural student any more than there is a “typical” urban or suburban student. There is a very high likelihood that every class will contain students who have learning gaps that are more significant than many of their peers as well as students who perform significantly in advance of many peers. It is unwise to assume that the range does not exist. To teach from that belief is to “teach down” to too many learners and to lift up very few.

When planning for readiness variance, “teaching up” is far more likely to serve far more students much better than “teaching down.” As noted earlier, teaching up calls on teachers to plan student work that is likely to be a bit above the current reach of his or her advanced learners and then to scaffold or support other students in working successfully with the core of the more challenging work. (See the Instruction section, for sample ways to scaffold.) In addition, it is often useful when creating multiple versions of a task to address a range of readiness levels to use a planning tool called “The Equalizer” (Tomlinson, 2014). Begin by designing a meaning-rich assignment likely to be both challenging and inviting for advanced learners and to focus them on the knowledge, understanding, and skills indicated in the curriculum as essential targets for the learning segment the assignment addresses. Then, to differentiate the assignment, revise the task and directions, using the indicators on The Equalizer, so that subsequent versions (almost always between one and three additional versions will be adequate) will be a reasonable match for the entry points of students in the class. The Equalizer provides language that helps teachers envision ways to modify the task to increase or decrease its “degree of difficulty” while holding steady the core of the work so that virtually all students can access and succeed with work that calls for reasoning, connection-making, creativity, or other attributes of the original task.

Figure 8.1 shows a simple example of using The Equalizer to design tasks at two levels of difficulty but focusing on the same learning targets. A middle school English teacher gave her students a list of prompts from which they could select options for reflective writing after completing sections of a novel they were reading. Students selected a novel from a selection available to them in the school library or their classroom based on their interests and whether the book seemed appropriately challenging for them as readers. While the books differed widely in those two regards, the teacher had terms, concepts,

"The Equalizer"—A Tool for Planning Differentiated Assignments Based on Learner Readiness

1. Information, Ideas, Materials, Applications

Foundational I


2. Representations, Ideas, Applications, Materials

Concrete 1 Abstract

3. Resources, Research, Issues, Problems, Skills, Goals



4. Disciplinary Connections, Directions, Stages of Development

Single Facet

Multiple Facets

5. Application, Insight, Transfer

Small Leap [

Great Leap

6. Solutions, Decisions, Approaches

More Structured I

More Open

7. In Process, in Research, in Products

Clearly Defined Problems i

Fuzzy Problems

8. Planning, Designing, Monitoring

Dependent I

More Independent

9. Pace of Study, Pace of Thought


1 Quicker

Figure 8.1 The Equalizer—A Tool for Designing Differentiated Lessons Based on Learner Readiness

From: Tomlinson, C. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms (3rd ed., p. 85). ASCD. Used with permission.

Differentiated Instruction 89 and skills she would ask all learners to consider and respond to in the book they chose. She first created a list of 20 writing prompts for students who were reading and thinking about what they read at advanced levels, making sure the prompts focused students on the literary concepts and vocabulary she wanted all students to think about and learn. Next, she used The Equalizer to create a second set of prompts that paralleled the first set in terms of goals but that were written at a somewhat lower “degree of difficulty.”

One prompt in the more advanced set asks students to consider characterization in this way:

The choices we make shape our lives for better or for worse. Remember that often “not to decide is to decide.” How does a major character in the book make choices? Could the character do better in that regard? Support your thinking with evidence from the book and your lite experience. Given a continuing pattern of choice-making over time, what would you predict would be his/her quality of life in ten years?

The parallel prompt in the second set also asks students to consider characterization and in a similar way, but the questions is written a bit more accessibly:

What advice would you give a character at this point in the book you’re reading? Be clear and detailed in sharing your advice. Defend why you think it’s good advice for the character. Do you think the character would accept your advice? Why or why not? Support your answer with examples of how the character has responded up to this point in your reading.

Using the wording on The Equalizer, the first prompt is “fuzzier” than the second one in that projecting a character’s quality of life into the future is more uncertain than projecting a character’s response to the reader’s advice based on how the character generally responds in the book.

In addition, the first prompt is written in a way that makes it more abstract (not to decide is to decide, the choices we make shape our lives, quality of life, get inside the character’s mind to figure out how he or she thinks about decisions), whereas the second prompt is somewhat more concrete (give advice that you feel is good advice, support your thinking with examples of the character’s responses that are in the book).

After responding to their prompts, all students joined in a common discussion about how authors help us know characters, how and why they make characters predictable through a book, how characters in the book are like and unlike the students, and so on. In that way, all students are working with the same learning targets (in this case, characterization and character analysis and using higher-level thinking), but the two sets of prompts are designed to ask each reader to stretch their thinking a bit further than is immediately comfortable to them, and all of them should be ready to contribute to a “meaty” and relevant discussion.

Thinking and planning in this way demonstrates to students our belief in each learner’s capacity to do thought-provoking work. Outcomes are nearly always stronger when we teach up rather than teach down.

Pairing curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives and experiences with a level of challenge that is just beyond where a student is currently functioning in a learning sequence offers great promise for enlivening school, maximizing student growth, and commending learning to students as fillfilling. The pairing also supports both teacher and students in developing a growth mindset approach to learning—and to life beyond the classroom.


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