In 1983, a Harvard psychologist by the name of Howard Gardner published a book called “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” He laid the foundation with his book for what we now call differentiated instruction. That concept, differentiated instruction, has become one of the most powerful, fundamental concepts in education today.

Differentiated Instruction – A Growing Concept

Differentiated instruction (sometimes abbreviated as “DI”) is a growing concept. One effect of that is that defining differentiated instruction is difficult because it is a moving target. Educators, some of them leaders in their fields, will try to tighten the concept up (so to speak) to make it focus on their particular academic concerns to the exclusion of other areas. For example, some people will define DI as having to do with learning styles while others will try and define it as having to do with ability levels or perhaps cultural background. The best definitions of differentiated instruction tend to also be the simplest ones. So, put simply, differentiated instruction is an approach to instruction that seeks to maximize learning for each and every student – regardless of their skill level, personality, disability, culture, or other unique characteristics.
In a way, that makes DI more of a philosophy of instruction than a particular pedagogy or method. There are, however, plenty of common differences to consider among the students in most classrooms. Differentiated instruction probably begins by considering those common differences.

DI and Learning Styles

Learning styles is a common consideration in preparing lessons that differentiate instruction. Traditionally, we tend to present skills and content in visual formats for our students: they get a textbook and they have to read it. While almost every student in a typical classroom will have some visual learning skills at almost any grade level, the truth is that the majority of student will have some other style as their primary, or favorite method of approaching learning.

Multiple Intelligences

In its purest form today, Gardner’s theory lists nine types of intelligence. The idea is that a particular student could have any one of those nine modes as their preferred style of learning. Those nine styles are:

  • Bodily-Kinesthetic
  • Interpersonal
  • Verbal-Linguistic
  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Naturalistic
  • Intrapersonal
  • Visual-Spatial
  • Musical-Rhythmic
  • Other intelligences

In practice, when they make an effort to differentiate instruction based on learning styles today, educators tend to focus on presenting material for visual learners, for auditory learners, for tactile learners, and for kinesthetic learners.

A Multi-sensory Approach

Differentiating instruction based on learning styles is good for two basic reasons. First, in ensures that tactile and kinesthetic learners (neglected for decades in American education) have skills and content presented to them in a way that they find user friendly. Second, it creates a multi-sensory approach to learning that reinforces content for any learner. In other words, visual learners will remember more if they get to hear it, too, and tactile learners will learn more by touching it and hearing it than they will by just touching it…
That is not to say that DI stops with learning styles. In the best classrooms instruction gets presented in ways that appeal to all of the learning styles just described, while at the same time taking ability levels into account, compensating for the fact that students may have widely different cultural backgrounds, accommodating for the needs of English language learners and students with disabilities, and considering other factors not listed here.
Differentiated instruction is a layered approach to teaching. Ultimately it seeks to present skills and content in a manner so as to meet not just the needs of this or that particular category of learners, but of individual unique students.