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How to Create Learning Environments That Support Differentiated Instruction

The best practices for making students, teachers, and content align to create a healthy classroom.

If you’ve ever built a triangle out of cards, you know that in order for the structure to work, all three sides must support the others. The same can be said of teaching and learning. Its three sides—the teacher, the students, and the content—must work in unison for the classroom to be a healthy and productive environment. But with so many different learning styles and other changing variables, how can a teacher create a learning environment that is truly successful?

At the top of the classroom management triangle is the leader—the teacher. Every teacher hopes to create a healthy classroom in which all students—regardless of their differences—are actively engaged and learning. This calls for the creation of an environment that supports differentiated instruction. While the task may seem daunting, according to educator and differentiated learning expert Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, it is possible to keep the learning triangle balanced while creating a community of dynamic learners. Some of her best practices for creating a healthy classroom that supports differentiated instruction include the following:*

How to Create Learning Environments That Support Differentiated Instruction

  • The teacher appreciates each child as an individual. Teachers in a healthy classroom work continually to understand who their students really are and what makes then unique. At the same time, they let students know who they are as people, too.
  • The teacher remembers to teach whole children. Children have intellect, emotions, and changing physical needs that often extend beyond math and reading. Sometimes addressing self-esteem or an issue a child brings from home can be the most powerful lesson of the day.
  • The teacher continues to develop expertise. Genuine expertise in a subject is more about applying skills and insights than mastering facts. Developing expertise means not just teaching science, but thinking with the curiosity of a scientist.
  • The teacher strives for joyful learning. Both words in “joyful learning” are key. Teachers of healthy learning environments explore and understand subject matter in order to ensure the essential elements are at the core of a student’s experience.
  • The teacher helps students make their own sense of ideas. Healthy classrooms are characterized by thought, wondering, and discovery. It is important that students retain information so they can call upon it later and use it to support their own ideas.
  • The teacher shares the teaching with students. Inviting students to be a part of the teaching is important. One of the simplest ways is to have students teach each other the areas in which they excel.
  • The teacher clearly strives for student independence. Teaching methods should be like directing a play. The director works tirelessly, orchestrating every move and every role. Then, when the play opens, the director takes a step back.
  • The teacher uses positive energy. In healthy learning environments, there is a consistent sense of urgency about what is being learned. It’s not a sense of hurriedness, but the understanding that time and discussion are valuable. There are also clear expectations of respect and kindness, and laughter can be heard from making unexpected, spontaneous connections.
  • “Discipline” is more covert than overt. In healthy classrooms, students gain attention in positive ways and discipline problems rarely get out of hand.

If you are considering an early childhood development degree and are interested in the advantages of an online learning environment, The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University offers a number of online education programs for teachers at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels.

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson's career as an educator includes 21 years as a public school teacher and 12 years as a program administrator of special services for struggling and advanced learners. She is the author of more than 200 articles, books, and professional development materials, many of which are on the topic of differentiated learning. Dr. Tomlinson has been a contributing course content expert for Canter®, a longstanding Walden University educational partner.

*Tomlinson, Carol Ann (2000). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.