Research Evidence for Differentiation

by Carol Ann Tomlinson

The importance of attending to learner variance is reflected in the ancient writing of Confucius and in the Jewish scriptures. It was practiced in the one-room schoolhouse and today is commended by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, prominent high school reformers such as Ted Sizer and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Each of those sources and countless others recognize that a student’s gender, culture, experiences, particular aptitudes, interests and approaches to learning greatly affect how students learn and how they learn effectively.

Research suggests that at least three categories of student variance deserve our attention:

  • Addressing readiness is essential for student growth.

  • Addressing interest is an important motivational factor.

  • Attending to learning profile or learning preference is necessary if we want students to learn efficiently.

Student Motivation

Numerous theorists and contemporary translators of brain research propose that students do not learn effectively when tasks are too simple or too complex for their particular readiness levels. Rather, say these researchers, tasks must be moderately challenging for the individual for growth to occur.

Research in support of these theories concerning the role of readiness in learning is abundant. For example, some studies of multiage/multigrade classes show that students in such classes are likely to have higher achievement and better adjustment than peers in single-grade classrooms. Further, effects tend to become more positive the longer students stay in multigrade settings.

Similarly, numerous theorists propose that addressing student interest enhances motivation to learn. When teachers link required content to student interests, students are likely to respond with greater commitment, energy and endurance. Research confirms that when students are interested in what they study, learning outcomes are more positive in both the short term and the long term.

Finally, various theorists contend that how individuals learn is shaped by their culture, learning style and intelligence preference or neurological makeup. Again, research supports those propositions, finding that student achievement benefits from teacher attention to students’ learning patterns.

Several recent studies of a model of differentiation that employs attention to readiness, interest and learning profile also point to positive achievement results for students taught with the model when compared to students not taught by the model.

In the end, however, it is always critical to note there is little magic in a word, including “differentiation.” It is the quality of the approach teachers implement that ultimately will tell the tale of student impact, not simply that we can say we do differentiation.

Accessible Resources

To read more about theory and research that support differentiation, consider the following:

  • Qualities of Effective Teachers by James Stronge (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) provides a digest of research studies that point to promising practices for strong student outcomes. Principles of differentiation are evident throughout the book.

  • Chapter 2 in Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms by Carol Tomlinson and Susan Allan (ASCD) contains a literature review for educators of theory and research that support differentiation as a way of thinking about teaching and learning.