Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson on Differentiated Instruction

10 Tips for Honoring Students in the Distance Learning Environment

In our continued effort to support our teachers, Southern Westchester BOCES reached out to one of the consummate leaders in the area of Differentiated Instruction, Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson at the University of Virginia. Dr. Tomlinson has generously provided our professional learning community with her advice on how to support all students learning remotely during the COVID-19 crisis. We thank her for her contribution.

—David Luhman, Director of School Partnerships &  Innovative Practices, Southern Westchester BOCES

Carol Ann Tomlinson

Carol A. Tomlinson, Ed.D.
William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor
Dept. of Education Leadership, Foundations, and Policy
Curry School of Education and Human Development
University of Virginia
Learn more at Curry.Virginia.edu 

1.  Remember (as I’m sure you do daily) that many students are afraid, frustrated and anxious.  Bear those realities in mind as you plan to meet with them virtually and as you plan work for them to do.  Lead with your heart as well as your head.  Make time for talking, connecting, sharing, and laughter. Much of differentiation has to do with seeing, trying to understand, and responding to individual human beings.  Affective responsiveness is nearly always more important than academic responsiveness because kids really can’t learn when important affective issues dominate their thinking.  You’ve heard the line before, but until a learner’s brain sees that the Maslow needs are taken care of, it will shut down Bloom.

2.  Think hard about what REALLY matters in terms of student learning over the rest of the school year.  It may not be “covering” the science chapter or memorizing words, dates, names, places.  The most important things may be the foundational ones like reading, writing, finding and using appropriate resources, understanding a scientific principle, or thinking about life in a time period different from your own.  Put what matters most in the center of your plans—and don’t feel guilty about pruning away things that are likely that students will easily forget.

3.  Focus lessons/work/conversations around those essentials or fundamentals. What is it MOST important for students to know, understand, and be able to do right now? Go for the most powerful information, understandings, and skills!!

4.  When you do that, differentiating lessons or work is much easier.  Nearly everyone can work with writing (or other forms of sharing their ideas or stories) in ways that are interesting and appropriately challenging for them.   Nearly everyone can read (or listen to people reading) and think/talk/draw/write about what they heard or how they feel about the readings.  Think about providing a print version and a video or audio recording of you reading an article or story, for example, and let students work with either or both. That’s applicable whether the learner is six of sixteen.  It is true whether the class is elementary language arts or high school history.

5.  Give lots of room for student choice.  “Here are three things you need to show you understand (and/or can do), and here are two possible assignments you could select from to learn and show what you’re learning.  If you have a third idea, share that with me.  Just remember you will need to show you understand (and or can do) these things no matter which choice you make.”  Some of the options could be more complex and some more straightforward.  The options might let students choose whether to apply ideas or skills to sports or music or performing or the solar system—or to their family or friends. 

6.  Ask students to share with you something they’d like to learn about. Or ask them to suggest ways they and their classmates could learn about multiplication or World War II or Impressionism.  This is a great time to encourage and support student voice in their learning.  What probably matters most at this juncture is that they are interested in learning something/creating something/expressing something that seems worth their time and energy—that creates an opportunity for positive outcomes and increases their sense of agency.

7.  Encourage students to express what they are learning in a way that interests them—creating an on-line video, making a Flipgrid explanation or game or demonstration of the student explaining how he or she solved a problem, writing an explanation for a friend or for a younger learner, drawing, making a model, writing or performing a dialogue between two people whose perspectives on a topic vary significantly, writing a parody, recording and reflecting on an interview with someone who is important to you.  (The options will vary, of course, by age and content area.)

8.  When it comes to plain old practice, try to provide students with work that is just a bit above their current comfort level (vocabulary for a World Language class, math facts, word families, the periodic table) That may mean adjusting the length of time a student should practice, the number of words they are trying to master, providing frames some students will complete with appropriate vocabulary rather than asking them to just practice/learn the words.  It does not mean a different task or set of materials for each learner, but rather to a couple of app options or on-line games or practice sets that are flexible enough for student decision-making based on their interests and needs.  The idea is to ask students to practice something that will stretch them a little bit (and therefore move them forward) rather than boring or frustrating them.

9.  If you have the technology to allow it, meet with students in clusters.  That enables you to hear from and respond to students on a more personal level.  A cluster might be a group of students working on the same kind of writing, or building a model vs. drawing a set of diagrams, or a group of students who need help in getting started on an assignment, or a cluster that’s ready to use an advanced on-line resource to push their thinking, or a few students you’re worried about in general.  The cluster meetings allow lots of opportunity for differentiating resources, explanations, feedback, and modeling or demonstrating as well as in addressing affective needs.

10.  When possible, provide opportunities for student collaboration, student-to-student feedback, students sharing what they are learning—making sure they are ready to be encouraging and constructive in their responses to one another.


Your work is very hard right now on so many levels, and it’s important for you to be in as good a frame of mind as possible so you can support your students. 

Focus on a few things that seem durable and important, let go of trying to do everything, or even too much.  Invite students to help you decide what to learn and/or how to go about learning and expressing learning.  Make time for sharing, for celebrating student efforts, creativity, and thought. 

It would be a great semester if, in two years or 10 or a couple of decades, most of your students could say, “In that really scary semester, my teacher let me do something that mattered to me, and I remember feeling good about what I did, and about myself." That approach may enable you to keep your bones together and will almost certainly work better for your students than a race to complete an assortment of things that might have worked just fine in the classroom.

DISCLAIMER: Please note, to the extent any reference is made to any software tools for use with students, Southern Westchester BOCES makes no representation that such software tools comply with the New York State Education Law Section 2-d. As always, before introducing new technology tools, check with your School District’s Data Protection Officer and/or Director of Technology to ensure such technology complies with your School District’s data privacy and technology policies and the use of such technology will comply with New York State Education Law Section 2-d.