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Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom: How to Reach and Teach All Learners, Grades 3-12.

Heacox, D. (2002). Differentiating instruction in the regular classroom: How to reach and teach all learners, grades 3-12. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Today's classrooms present a number of new challenges to people in the field of education. More than ever before, students come from diverse backgrounds, have different skill sets, possess various levels of background knowledge, and represent various learning styles. As teachers, we must become more deliberate and thoughtful about how we meet the needs of our students, and regardless of the challenges posed by today's diverse classrooms, it is imperative all students are challenged appropriately and equitably. Differentiation, as an instructional method, is one way to ensure that all students are achieving at their highest potential.

Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom: How to Reach and Teach All Learners, Grades 3-12 by Diane Heacox (2002) is a practical guide for teachers new to or interested in the process of differentiation. Drawing on Bloom's taxonomy, Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, and other experts in the field of educational psychology, Heacox presents several practical strategies and ideas that teachers can use to differentiate instruction at any level in any curriculum. Though not intended as a guide for working specifically with gifted learners in the regular classroom, the reader will come away with some good, practical suggestions for increasing the challenge level for gifted students.

Differentiating Instruction is divided into two sections, "Getting Ready" (Part I) and "Differentiation in Action" (Part II), and three appendices. Part I is divided into three chapters that introduce the concept of differentiation, strategies for understanding and assessing student needs, and ways to integrate differentiation into instruction. Part II is divided into seven chapters that address the practical aspects of implementing differentiation. More specifically, Chapters 5-7 focus directly on what students need, why, and how to incorporate these strategies into the classroom. Chapters 8-10 provide an overview of how differentiation will look in action. Throughout the book, the reader is provided with several samples, lesson plans, assessments, and reproducible templates.

In Chapter 1, Heacox (2002) describes the diversity of learners in today's schools and the implications of these differences. The chapter presents an overview of differentiating content, process, and product by providing more choices for students, designing a wider variety of learning activities, varying degrees of complexity in assignments, and encouraging students to create products that match their learning strengths. In a differentiated classroom, the teacher serves as a facilitator and collaborator; the teacher is not planning for each individual student, but rather considering the various needs and learning styles of students and planning in such a way that these needs are addressed. According to Tomlinson (1999), "differentiated classrooms feel right to students who learn in different ways and at different rates and who bring to school different talents and interests" (p. 8). Also included in this chapter is a self-assessment of teaching and classroom practices so the reader can gain a better understanding of where he or she falls on the continuum of differentiated instruction.

Knowing students' strengths and weaknesses is key in creating an appropriate learning atmosphere. To effectively implement Heacox's (2002) strategies, the teacher has to understand, appreciate, and build upon these student differences. Accordingly, Chapter 2 maps out a plan for gathering pertinent information about students. The author suggests gathering information from many sources such as academic histories, checklists, classroom performance, learner profiles, and, on a more personal note, from their families. Heacox includes a modified version of Renzulli's (1997) Interest-A-Lyzer, as well as assessments, surveys, and checklists based on Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences to assist in gathering information.

With the current focus in education on meeting standards, Heacox (2002) explains how differentiated instruction is an effective way to help students achieve these benchmarks. Although the curriculum and learner goals may be prescribed, the teacher still decides how to present the material. With this in mind, the process of writing essential questions and unit questions to frame and focus the curriculum is the topic of Chapter 3. Heacox provides the reader with several examples of questions, and encourages teachers who are new to differentiation to start the process at this level--to work within the framework of essential questions and unit questions to design and modify learning activities. These questions and activities are then charted on a curriculum map so the teacher can see how curriculum standards and content lend themselves to differentiation in content, process, and product.

Part II, "Differentiation in Action," begins with a review of Bloom's taxonomy and serves as a springboard for teachers as they begin to develop more challenging instruction for all students. In Chapter 4, Heacox (2002) guides the reader through coding and assessing the curriculum map in terms of Bloom's taxonomy and Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. After coding the curriculum map, the teacher constructs a matrix plan of activities based on the skills in Bloom's taxonomy. Following this, the teacher creates an integration matrix, which details activities based on Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. These strategies allow students to work at their readiness level in a way that is appealing to them; authentic, meaningful work is the key to motivating and challenging students. Consequently, because students will have strengths in different areas, flexible grouping patterns will emerge.

Flexible grouping is an advantage of differentiated instruction and is the topic of Chapter 5. Given the structure of differentiated classrooms, not all students must work at the same task for the same length of time. Some students may require more time, others less; dealing with this issue is easy in the differentiated classroom as the flexible use of time is a key element in supporting students as they master particular objectives. Student groups are also fluid, which means students will not always work with the same group. Assignments may vary day to day based on who is in the group. Also, as students spend more time working at an appropriate level in a skill area, they will become more proficient and possibly surpass their ability in another skill. In this respect, group work is more effective because students view group assignments as stepping-stones instead of obstacles. Another benefit of flexible grouping is that teachers are free to work with various students at different times to monitor their progress and understanding.

As the reader moves through the stages of differentiating content, it is important to think about differentiating processes and products as well. Chapter 6 focuses on the creation and use of tiered assignments. Heacox (2002) discusses strategies for tiering assignments in terms of altering challenge level, complexity, resources used, desired outcome, process, and product. An important point made is that tiering, when done well, is invisible to the students. "Teachers use tiered activities so all students focus on essential understandings and skills, but at different levels of complexity, abstractness, and open-endedness" (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 83). Because the activities are created according to skill level, students will be able to take knowledge learned in one skill and transfer it across the entire skill set.

Chapter 7 discusses giving students some choice in what they will learn and when. Some days the teacher may assign specific learning activities, some days the students will self-select, and some days may be a combination of teacher and student choice. Through the use of pathway plans, project menus, challenge centers, and spin-off activities, students will also have a choice of what materials and resources to use. Giving students a voice in what they learn helps them accept responsibility for the material and will increase their motivation to learn.

Given that students are working at different levels at different times, the question of grading student work is important to address. Grading is the main topic of Chapter 8, and Heacox (2002) gives quality criteria as guidelines so that the grading is fair, equitable, and based on learning progress and growth. Some of the quality criteria, or guidelines, include providing detailed and clear expectations for student work, and not grading everything a student produces--grades should be reserved for rigorous work, however, student work should be assessed regularly. Assessment and instruction are the foundation of an effective differentiated classroom; the information gained about student progress is necessary for creating appropriate learning activities.

So how can teachers create, implement, and assess differentiated learning activities, especially in a mainstreamed classroom? Time management and tips for planning and collaboration are discussed in Chapter 9. In Chapter 10, Heacox (2002) discuses how differentiation can be best used to meet the needs of special populations such as students with physical or mental disabilities or behavior disorders. Because differentiated instruction is based on students' strengths and weaknesses, the teacher is able to adjust the curriculum accordingly. In this chapter, Heacox also discusses how differentiated instruction, especially activities based on student interest, can be used to meet the needs of gifted students. Some of the suggestions for gifted learners include acceleration through tiered activities, curriculum compacting, advancement to more complex levels of work, and, in some cases, mentoring.

The appendices provide additional information that is useful to educators who incorporate differentiation into their classroom. Appendix A is a personal letter to parents detailing how the teacher plans to conduct the classroom and includes the goals and expectations for the students. Appendix B provides guidelines and several ideas and prompts for differentiating classroom discussions. Appendix C is a content catalysts, processes, and products (CCPP) toolkit, which provides a quick and easy way to differentiate instruction using a menu-like approach for choosing activities.

In general, Differentiating Instruction is well written; however, there are a few shortcomings. Although Heacox (2002) weaves together highlights of work in the field of educational psychology by Gardner, Bloom, Renzulli, and others, there is no sense of the context or depth of the original works. To fully understand how Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, Bloom's taxonomy, and Renzulli's learning preference inventories work together to inform differentiated instruction, the reader should read about the theories on his or her own. The unwary reader may come away from this text believing he or she has a keener grasp on differentiation than the treatment of the material truly gives.

Aside from the limitations mentioned above, Heacox (2002) successfully makes the point that a key feature of differentiation is its flexibility and widespread applicability. In summation, strengths of the book include the simple format of the book, the variety of strategies presented, and the distilled, easy-to-use versions of instruments used to gather information about students and their learning styles and preferences. A majority of the tools and strategies can be used in any content area at any grade level. Furthermore, the book has many reproducible, ready-to-use forms and templates. These templates are not only useful to teachers new to differentiation but also are relevant for teachers who have been differentiating instruction for many years.


Heacox, D. (2002). Differentiating instruction in the regular classroom: How to reach and teach all learners, grades 3-12. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Renzulli, J. S. (1997). The Interest-A-Lyzer. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom: responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Marcianne W. McHugh

University of Georgia

Marcianne W. McHugh is a teaching assistant at the University of Georgia in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages.
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Author:McHugh, Marcianne W.
Publication:Journal for the Education of the Gifted
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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