While researchers at CAST were continuing to study the UDL principles, there was another major education initiative that had an impact on the way that teachers designed and delivered their lessons before the next major federal legislation was passed. The next initiative was Differentiated Instruction (DI), which is similar to UDL, but different. Often, even educators confuse the two frameworks or think they are the same thing.

In 1999, the Backstreet Boys were the artist of the year, and the Blackberry was invented – forever changing the potential of cellular phones. On the education landscape, because districts and schools were becoming committed to keeping all students in classrooms with their peers as much as possible, many teachers reacted by providing accommodations so students could learn different content or complete different assessments. From this, Differentiated Instruction was born.

The DI framework is most often associated with Carol Tomlinson, an experienced teacher who began to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of her students in an inclusive classroom. At its conception, Tomlinson made it clear that “a serious pursuit of differentiation, or personalized instruction, causes us to grapple with many of our traditional-if questionable-ways of “doing school.”[i] Few would argue with the poignancy of her statement.

Differentiated Instruction

In a hypothetical middle school geography class, for example, imagine a teacher is designing a unit focused on the essential question, “How does where you live influence how you live?”[ii] As the teacher is designing the lesson plan, she will consider how she will teach students about how environment affects culture, and she will also decide how she will measure if students understand the answer to the question. This measurement is an assessment.

The teacher may expect students to share their answer to the question in a written analysis, but using DI, the teacher would also recognize that the written analysis may be too rigorous for some students. As a result, the teacher may instead assign students who struggle with writing a different task: to create a poster and provide captions instead of writing an essay. By nature, this work requires some aspect of labeling. Students are often labeled as “struggling” or “advanced” and grouped so they can access different options. When planning for instruction, Tomlinson suggests using the teaching-up technique, “in which a teacher first plans for advanced learners, and then scaffolds opportunities for other learners, so that the greatest number of students can access the most rigorous and engaging learning experiences.”[iii] These “other learners” are provided with options to support them because they “vary markedly from the “norm” in a classroom” (p.5).

Already, you may be able to see a critical difference between UDL and DI, as UDL doesn’t plan for the mythical “norm.” One limitation of DI is that students are labeled and all students do not necessarily have access to the same learning options. Choices are often directed by the teacher, without providing students with the opportunity to set their own goals, create their own strategies, and choose the learning experiences that best meet their needs.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a more than a way to design rigorous, engaging curriculum. It’s a philosophy. At its core, UDL encompasses the belief that if a teacher removes barriers to learning, every student can succeed. This is only truly possible when you remove student labels.


[i] Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Differentiated instruction: Can it work?. Education Digest, 65(5), 25, p.12.

[ii] Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

[iii] Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic, & ICF, I. (2015). Effective differentiation: A guide for teachers and leaders. Q&A for Carol A. Tomlinson, Ed.D. REL Mid-Atlantic Educator Effectiveness Webinar Series. Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic, p.3.

Inclusive Education Part 4: Differentiated Instruction
Tagged on:

Share your thoughts!

%d bloggers like this: