My critical step to differentiation – get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

As I continue to work and learn with educators, very often I get asked the question, “So do we have to teach and differentiate every single lesson?” I cannot but help smiling, simply because of the widespread misconception that teaching and differentiation continue to be considered as two different ‘items on the teachers’ to-do-list’. My answer to the question is that if the goal of learning and teaching is all about responding to the needs of all of our students, then the only means to this goal is differentiation- it not something that we ‘add’ to teaching- it is the only way to teach!

And then from those who practice differentiation we hear …“We all know differentiation is important. But it is so chaotic and very noisy when students are not all doing the same stuff!” I share below an extract from Carol Ann Tomlinson’s new book The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd EditionTomlinson  offers valuable insights into the power of differentiated instruction in today’s classroom. Although all the points are equally important, point #10 gives the answer to the above question. I cannot of course articulate it better …

  1. Every child is entitled to the promise of a teacher’s optimism, enthusiasm, time, and energy.
  2. Educators should be champions of every student who enters the schoolhouse doors.
  3. Teachers in the most exciting and effective differentiated classrooms don’t have all the answers. What they do have is optimism and determination.
  4. It is a human birthright to be a learner. There is little we do that is more important.
  5. Like students, teachers grow best when they are moderately challenged. Waiting until conditions are ideal or until you are sure of yourself yields lethargy, not growth.
  6. Teachers change either because they see the light or because they feel the heat.
  7. A great coach never achieves greatness for himself or his team by working to make all his players alike.
  8. Becoming an expert at differentiation is a career-long goal. One step at a time, you will get there.
  9. Don’t feel compelled to grade everything. There’s a time for students to figure things out and a time for judging whether they did, but the two shouldn’t always be the same.
  10. If curriculum and instruction are the heart and limbs of sound teaching, then classroom management is the central nervous system. Without the heart, there is no life, but without the nervous system, there is no function.

Besides giving us critical insights on why differentiation is important, I believe Tomlinson’s  insights also throws light on why, even though many of us believe in the value of differentiated instruction, we still find it complex and challenging. Is it okay for me as a teacher to not have all the answers? I don’t’ have to grade everything? I don’t have to be an expert in differentiation tomorrow? Differentiation also involves classroom management? The paradigm shift is not just huge but also quite honestly uncomfortable!

While there are innumerable resources available on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of differentiation , I believe the first step is to get comfortable in this discomfort – this is the true challenge!




Dr. Sudha Govindswamy Sunder

Curriculum Consultant – Council of International Schools,

Curriculum Reviewer – International Baccalaureate,

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