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Original research article, variables that influence teachers’ practice of differentiated instruction in chinese classrooms: a study from teachers’ perspectives.

differentiated instruction 2021

  • 1 Department of Educational Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium
  • 2 School for Educational Studies, Hasselt University, Hasselt, Belgium

As the diversity of students increases, differentiated instruction (DI) serves an increasingly significant function in meeting their individual learning needs. Emerging research has highlighted the value of inclusive teaching approaches to address students’ differences, such as DI. Therefore, it is important to quantify teachers’ DI thoughts and behaviors in classroom teaching. This study follows the original Differentiated Instruction Questionnaire (DI-Quest) to investigate the factors that influence teachers’ practice of DI, taking into account their teaching experience, class sizes and school locations. The sample comprised 1,935 teachers from 150 national lower secondary schools in six provinces of central and western mainland China. Exploratory factor analysis (EFA), confirmatory factor analysis (CFA), scale reliability, and invariance testing were conducted to explore and verify the factor structure of a Chinese mainland version of the DI-Quest (CN-DI-Quest). The empirical findings indicate that CN-DI-Quest is a valid and reliable instrument for future study of teachers’ DI philosophies, principles, and practice. Moreover, the results of structural equation modeling revealed that teachers’ practice of DI (i.e., adaptive teaching) was explained largely by their ethical compass, flexible grouping, output = input, teaching experiences, and class size. Notably, teachers’ practice of DI (i.e., adaptive teaching) could not be predicted by growth mindset and school location. This study addresses gaps in the literature, since it provides empirical evidence regarding DI in Chinese mainland schools, offers material and suggestions for future research, and provides recommendations useful to the professional advancement of Chinese teachers, including training programs and professional support.

1. Introduction

Student diversity within classrooms is rising both consistently and globally and provides challenges with far-reaching implications. Educators must implement appropriate teaching strategies to bridge student differences and ensure that all students are given maximum opportunity to learn ( Unesco, 2017 ). Differentiated instruction (DI), which has emerged as an effective classroom practice for responding to individual differences and meeting students’ diverse learning needs, requires instructors to consider the differences among their students and to tailor their teaching practice in light of these ( Adebayo and Shumba, 2014 ; Dixon et al., 2014 ). This study investigates DI and in doing so, uses the definition proposed by Tomlinson (2014 , 2017) , who describes DI as both a teaching philosophy and classroom practice, in which teachers are responsive, proactive, and positive in their accommodation and leverage of students’ differences.

Ultimately, the successful practice of DI depends on teachers, and it is therefore necessary to understand the underlying variables that influence their DI practice. More specifically, many researchers have reported that teachers’ DI beliefs, teaching experience, and class size are strongly associated with their DI practice (e.g., Suprayogi et al., 2017 ; Whitley et al., 2019 ). However, such research in mainland China has rarely been conducted. Furthermore, research investigating the relationship between school location and DI practice remains rare. The current study aims to explore the impact of teachers’ belief, teaching experience, class size, and school location on their practice of DI, and thus to provide new empirical evidence from the Chinese context and valuable suggestions for teaching practice, training, and future research.

2. Background and literature review

The increasing diversification of classrooms is a global phenomenon ( Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019 ). However, the resulting challenges are perhaps more acute in China than elsewhere because, additionally, the Chinese government has introduced a policy named Learning in Regular Classrooms (LRC), which mandates the teaching of students with special educational needs in mainstream classrooms ( Cheng, 2005 ; Shi and Hua, 2007 ; Deng and Harris, 2008 ). Thus, Chinese teachers must address and cater for a wide range of differences among learners, and ensure that all students have the best possible opportunities to learn ( Yan and Hua, 2020 ). Clearly, DI is applicable here, and fortunately, the broad concept of DI is not new for Chinese teachers. A traditional Confucian belief, that education should be delivered in accordance with students’ individual characteristics and learning needs, has given the country a valuable platform upon which to build a modern iteration of DI ( Lam et al., 2002 ). However, the development of the Confucian concept of education did not occur systematically, and until recently, it was seen as a somewhat abstract teaching principle. Furthermore, while modern DI has been empirically tested and frequently implemented in the West ( Tomlinson, 1999 , 2014 ), until now, most assessment of DI in Chinese societies has been conducted in Hong Kong (e.g., Yuen et al., 2022 ) and Taiwan (e.g., Hung and Chao, 2021 ), with little evidence gleaned from the Chinese mainland. Hence, this study hopes to provide a new viewpoint and understanding of teachers’ practice of DI on the Chinese mainland, and to explore the factors that influence teachers’ DI practice through connection of the original DI-Quest variables with teaching experience, class size, and school location (for which more detail is given in section 2.2).

2.1. The differentiated instruction-quest model

Since teachers play a significant role in DI, instruments have been developed to measure teachers’ DI practice, including the Differentiated Instruction Scale ( Roy et al., 2013 ), DI practice ( Letzel, 2019 ), and the DI-Quest instrument ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ). Since the DI-Quest was developed to describe the extent to which teachers’ thought and performance by emphasizing their DI philosophies and principles, and was validated in Belgian ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ) and Hong Kong ( Yuen et al., 2022 ) schools, it was chosen for use in this study, as the main instrument to explore Chinese teachers’ DI philosophies and practices.

The DI-Quest model ( Table 1 ) comprises five constructs: growth mindset, ethical compass, flexible grouping, output = input, and adaptive teaching (i.e., adaptive to students’ differences in readiness, interests, and learning profiles, which are, in turn, identified as three factors in the model; Coubergs et al., 2017 ). The first two constructs (i.e., growth mindset and ethical compass) are categorized as teachers’ philosophies of DI; the subsequent two (i.e., flexible grouping and output = input) are categorized as teachers’ principles on how to organize DI teaching; the last construct (i.e., adaptive teaching) is the practice of DI whereby teachers differentiate their practice according to students’ interests, readiness, and learning profiles ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ). The last factor is considered crucial, since it acts as the “core function” of DI, implying that the core concept of the DI framework includes students’ learning differences in terms of interests, readiness, and learning profiles ( Tomlinson and Moon, 2014 ; Tomlinson, 2017 ). Thus, the other four factors may be utilized to predict the last factor ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ).


Table 1 . The description of DI-Quest instrument.

2.1.1. Philosophies of differentiated instruction: Growth mindset and ethical compass

According to the definition provided by Dweck (2006) , growth mindset is an implicit belief concerning the stability of capability. Teachers with a growth mindset generally embrace students’ interests, readiness, and learning profiles as the basis for differentiating their teaching, which may lead students to achieve at higher levels than they have done, or would do, otherwise ( Hattie, 2005 ; Coubergs et al., 2017 ). In contrast, teachers who maintain a fixed mindset are more likely to believe that students’ learning success is determined by their attributes, such as talents and intelligence. Those with fixed mindsets may consider intellectual capability as static, and attach little, if any, significance to the skills and effort applied by their students ( Lynott and Woolfolk, 1994 ). Consequently, in the classroom environment, they use controlling teaching practices, rather than devise a competitive learning environment ( Lambert, 1999 ).

The term ethical compass refers to whether teachers consider the (a) curriculum or (b) their observation of the students’ learning as a compass for teaching ( Tomlinson and Imbeau, 2010 ). It reflects how flexibly a teacher adapts the curriculum and makes adjustments that meet students’ learning needs ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ). Teachers who restrict their approach to strict pursuit of the curriculum, without regard to learners’ needs, may assume that student performance depends on external factors, such as government policies and regulation, structure, or discipline ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ). Therefore, teachers with curriculum-centered beliefs are less inclined to differentiate their classroom teaching. However, teachers who tailor their instructions more precisely, writing lesson plans and designing exploratory activities to expedite students’ learning goals, are said to hold student-centered beliefs ( Tomlinson and Imbeau, 2010 ).

2.1.2. Principles of differentiated instruction: Flexible grouping and output = input

Teachers who are proficient in DI practice should plan student study groups with a flexible approach ( Tomlinson, 2001 ); flexible grouping refers to a practice of grouping students homogeneously and heterogeneously according to the learners and targets involved, and of switching these groups flexibly in classrooms so that students experience both independent learning and work in various cooperative groups ( Tomlinson et al., 2003 ). Flexible grouping lets teachers monitor and evaluate students in various learning contexts, via provision of diverse learning materials and target tasks ( Tomlinson, 2001 ; Whitburn, 2001 ). Research indicates that flexible grouping of students tends to work best when used with appropriately differentiated materials, profiles, methods, activities, and learning goals ( Tieso, 2005 ; Aliakbari and Haghighi, 2014 ).

Output = input refers to the principle that teachers should plan their teaching (input) according to students’ classroom performance (output), which helps teachers to understand their students’ learning progress and assist them accordingly ( Hall, 2002 ). Successful practice of DI requires teachers to provide students with ongoing feedback on their performance, both during and after classroom activities ( Hattie, 2012 ). This also helps teachers to prepare appropriately for subsequent lessons ( Hattie, 2009 ). The notion that the application of adaptive teaching should be based on the learning differences of learners and appropriate feedback is confirmed in the work of Coubergs et al. (2017) .

2.1.3. Practice of differentiated instruction: Adaptive teaching to accommodate learning differences

The term adaptive teaching refers to the proactive and positive actions that teachers take in response to students’ learning needs ( Parsons, 2008 ). According to Tomlinson et al. (2003) , teachers can do helpfully adapt their teaching practices in light of three specific types of learning need, namely, readiness, interests, and learning profiles. Thus, to accommodate differences in students’ readiness to study, their previous knowledge could be linked to their learning goals in fields of study, subject areas, and topics based on their current learning status ( Woolfolk, 2010 ). By taking differences in readiness into account, teachers can provide greater possibilities for every learner to achieve the present and desired levels of learning. In addition, the need to respond to students’ interests suggests teachers should offer topics, contents, or activities that interest students, since this is associated with positive learning experiences, greater levels of student engagement, and productivity ( Eisenberger and Shanock, 2003 ; Woolfolk, 2010 ). Finally, the differences exhibited by students in terms of learning profiles indicate diverse approaches or modes of learning that consider the combined outcomes of several factors; for instance, contexts, topics, gender, and intelligence ( Tomlinson et al., 2003 ). Teaching that caters for the differences between students’ learning profiles is likely to improve their outcomes considerably ( Perry et al., 2004 ).

2.2. Variables influencing differentiated instruction practice

The literature indicates that the practice of DI and accommodation of differences in readiness, interests, and learning profiles can exert a positive influence on students’ academic achievement, classroom engagement, learning interests, enthusiasm, and self-confidence (e.g., Tulbure, 2011 ; Bal, 2016 ; Eysink et al., 2017 ). However, this process is not necessarily straightforward, and research has reported a set of complex variables, at both teacher-levels and context-levels, that influence teachers’ practice of DI.

Teachers’ belief in DI greatly affects their DI practice in classrooms. Studies have reported that the instructional outcomes of teachers, such as their actions and decisions in the classroom, are guided by their educational ideas, thoughts, and opinions ( He and Levin, 2008 ; Cross, 2009 ). Whitley et al. (2019) conducted mixed methods research within K-12 settings and found a significant correlation between teachers’ DI beliefs and their DI practices. Suprayogi et al. (2017) found similar in a survey of 604 teachers, stating that teachers’ differing beliefs in constructivist ideas and self-efficacy hinder the practice of DI. Furthermore, a case study of eight teachers revealed that teachers’ classroom practice is enhanced by their positive perceptions of DI ( Sibanda, 2021 ), and that teaching experience is a factor affecting DI practice ( Casey, 2011 ; Dixon et al., 2014 ). Teachers with at least 5 years’ experience applied DI more often than their less experienced peers ( Davis, 2013 ). Corresponding outcomes were reported by Sheehan (2011) , who found that teachers with at least 8 years’ experience maintained a positive attitude toward DI practice, while Burkett (2013) also linked teaching experience to the use of DI strategies. Generally speaking, the literature has suggested that experienced teachers use a more extensive range of educational practices, which helps them to optimize their DI instructions and strategies ( Liu et al., 2010 ; Ginja and Chen, 2020 ). However, some scholars have claimed that teaching experience has no significant correlation with DI practice (e.g., Donnell and Gettinger, 2015 ; Merawi, 2018 ).

Moreover, the practice of DI is intricately associated with classroom size and school location. Large class size has been identified as a barrier to implementing DI (e.g., Wan, 2016 ; De Jager, 2017 ). Often, as class size increases so does diversity in students and learning needs ( Dixon et al., 2014 ). This makes class management more complicated for teachers, who accordingly refrain from using DI ( Aldossari, 2018 ; Moosa and Shareefa, 2019 ). Regarding school location, few studies have examined the correlations among DI practice, student performance, and teacher-related parameters in rural or urban schools ( D'Angelo, 2006 ; Wu, 2017 ; Goddard and Kim, 2018 ; Goddard et al., 2019 ). Until recently, it was unknown whether teachers’ DI practice varied between rural and urban schools, or whether school location is an influential variable in teachers’ DI. A recent study has explored factors affecting DI practice in the rural and urban schools but found no significant difference between them ( Lavania and Nor, 2021 ).

3. Materials and methods

3.1. research questions.

Following the DI-Quest model, this study aims to examine the effect of teachers’ self-reported DI philosophies and principles on their DI practice, while considering their teaching experiences, class size, and school location (see Figure 1 ). Two research questions are posed:


Figure 1 . The conceptual research model of this study.

1. Are the five-factor structures of the original DI-Quest instrument fit for Chinese mainland schoolteachers?

2. How do teachers’ philosophies, principles, teaching experience, class sizes, and school locations relate to their self-reported DI practice?

3.2. Research context and procedure

For this large-scale study, we selected six provinces in central and western China as the research area. All districts in the research area have been supported by government programs to encourage the use of DI, and participating schools were selected randomly, without considering the student number, class size, and geographical locations within the selected provinces. The study was conducted in national lower secondary schools ( OECD, 2021 ), which provide the final 3 years of compulsory education for Chinese students, culminating in the national upper secondary school selection examination.

The study ran from September 2019 to December 2019. The researcher presented the research proposal to the school authorities and requested their participation through emails and/or calls. Some declined, questioning the inclusion of political elements in the questionnaire. However, once the expression of two items (items 9 and 11) had been modified and permission secured from the principals, an online hyperlink was emailed to school principals, who then invited teachers from Grades 7–9 to complete the survey voluntarily, in their spare time.

3.3. Sample size and demographics

We used the online Raosoft sample size calculation methodology to determine the sample size; it suggested a minimum of 1,676 participants (margin error alpha = 0.03, the confidence level is = 99%, total population = 20,000, the response of distribution = 65%; Raosoft, 2004 ). Therefore, 1,935 teachers were invited to participate, from 150 schools in six provinces throughout central and western China. Approximately 1,694 teachers from national lower secondary schools provided the information for every variable. After deletion of unusable data, 1,689 responses were used for further analysis.

Of the valid responses, 1,040 were from female teachers and 649 from male teachers. Most teachers (1,479) had a bachelor’s degree while the number of teachers holding under bachelor and master’s degrees was small. 758 teachers had over 20 years of teaching experience. Respondents’ class sizes ranged from 15 to 79 students: a class with more than 55 students is considered a large class—in China, the average class size is 45 for elementary schools and 50 for lower secondary schools ( Jiacheng and Jing, 2013 ). Respondents having class sizes of 15–40 and 41–55 were 24.6 and 59.6%, respectively. Large classes (>56) accounted for 15.7%. Regarding geographical distribution, 29% of the sample worked at rural schools; teachers working in town and city schools constituted 47.4 and 23.6%, respectively ( Table 2 ).


Table 2 . Demographic characteristics of the samples.

3.4. Research instrument

The online questionnaire survey comprised two parts: (i) basic demographic information and (ii) the DI-Quest instrument. Data on the background variables of teachers and schools, including gender, age, academic qualification, years of teaching experience, class size, and school location, were collected. In the event, that the respondents taught more than two classes, the variable (class size) chosen was the class with the largest number of students. The second part of the questionnaire comprised the original version of the DI-Quest instrument ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ), whereby teachers report the extent to which they differentiate their practices in classrooms according to the philosophies and principles of DI. The instrument was launched in Belgium ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ), then validated in Hong Kong ( Yuen et al., 2022 ). It comprises five dimensions with 31 items. An ordinal frequency rating scale (1 = totally disagree, 5 = totally agree; 1 = never, 5 = always) is used to measure growth mindset, ethical compass, and flexible grouping, as well as output = input and adaptive teaching. Notably, since the two items of growth mindset and six items of ethical compass express the reverse meaning, these items were reversed for further analyses. Table 1 shows the number of items and example items for each dimension.

3.4.1. Translation of the differentiated instruction-quest instrument

We used forward-backward translation procedures to translate the original DI-Quest instrument ( Behling and Law, 2000 ). The first author translated the initial version into Chinese, then invited two professors in educational fields and one expert in Linguistics to proofread it. Following discussion, minor changes in wording and expression were made to clarify the meaning and linkage with the (Chinese national lower secondary school) context. The Chinese version of the DI-Quest instrument was then given to another two Chinese experts in education, who translated it back into English. The first author and two professors worked together to compare and check these two translations, and differences between versions were discussed until an agreement was reached.

3.5. Data analysis

This study firstly assessed whether the univariate and multivariate normality of the data obtained met the general requirements. Regarding univariate normality, no standardized skewness (range − 0.935 to 0.180) and kurtosis (range − 0.851 to 1.885) values for each item fell outside the range of −3 to +3, indicating that no violation of univariate normality existed ( Kim, 2013 ). Regarding multivariate normality, the Mardia’s multivariate kurtosis (MK) test showed a significant result (MK = 202.925; z-statistic = 91.64, p  < 0.001). The expected value of multivariate kurtosis can be calculated through a formula, p (p + 2), in which p refers to the number of observed variables ( Cain et al., 2017 ). After comparing the observed value and expected MK, we found deviation from multivariate normality in this study. We used maximum likelihood estimation (MLR) to deal with the deviation in the subsequent confirmatory factor analysis (CFA), since it produced robust standard errors and rescaled test statistics ( Curran et al., 1996 ).

Concerning the first research question, to examine the psychometric properties of the DI-Quest instrument in the Chinese mainland school context, one-half of the data set ( n  = 845) was randomly selected for the exploratory factor analysis (EFA) in SPSS 26, to identify the factor structure of the 31 items. The rest of the data set ( n  = 844) was evaluated with CFA in Mplus 8.7, to confirm the factor structure through EFA. Before employing EFA, the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) and Bartlett’s test of sphericity were applied, to demonstrate sampling adequacy ( Pallant, 2020 ). For the EFA, principal component analysis (PCA) with an oblique rotation method was used to verify the structure of the 31 items ( Fabrigar and Wegener, 2012 ). Factors with eigenvalues greater than 1 ( Kaiser, 1960 ) and factor loadings above 0.4 were retained ( Tabachnick et al., 2013 ). Furthermore, CFA was used to identify the factor solution from EFA, and criteria for evaluating the model fit were: Satorra-Bentler Scaled Chi-Square to degrees of freedom ratios (SBχ 2 /dƒ) <0.3, a root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) <0.08, comparative fit index (CFI) >0.9, Tucker-Lewis index (TLI) >0.9, and standardized root mean square residual (SRMR) <0.08 ( Hu and Bentler, 1999 ). In addition to EFA and CFA, scale reliability was measured through computation of the Coefficient H, since the estimate of Cronbach’s alpha of checking the internal reliability of the factor structures usually generates the lowest possible value ( Sijtsma, 2009 ).

We also conducted invariance testing of the factor structure across gender, age, and school location, using multi-group CFA. The steps of configural, metric, and scalar were included in measurement invariance tests. The differences in CFI (ΔCFI) and RMSEA (ΔRMSEA) were calculated for examination of differences in model fit. If the value of (ΔCFI) is ≤0.01, and the value of RMSEA is <0.05, the hypothesis of invariance should be accepted ( Cheung and Rensvold, 2002 ). Subsequently, descriptive statistics and a correlation matrix for CN-DI-Quest were reported.

For the second research question, we used a structural equation modeling in Mplus to explore the impacts of teachers’ philosophies (i.e., growth mindset and ethical compass), principles (i.e., flexible groping and output = input), teaching experience, class size, and school location upon their reported DI practice (i.e., adaptive teaching).

4.1. Exploratory factor analysis, confirmatory factor analysis, scale reliability, and invariance testing

Regarding data suitability, the value of KMO measurement and Bartlett’s test of sphericity gave significant results (KMO = 0.920, χ 2 (465) = 14719.493, df = 465, p  ≤ 0.001; Pallant, 2020 ). A five-factor solution was yielded through the initial eigenvalue analysis based on the aforementioned factor and item retention criteria. These five factors accounted for 16.59, 14.01, 13.36%, 13.38, and 11.01% of the variance, respectively ( Table 3 ). Four items from the original DI-Quest questionnaire were eliminated (EC2, FG4, FG8, and AP4), because their factor loadings had values lower than 0.4 ( Tabachnick et al., 2013 ). The 27 retained items were re-ordered and the standardized factor loading values can be found in Table 4 . Based on the five constructs with 27 items identified in EFA, we conducted CFA to further validate them ( Figure 2 ). No further items were deleted, and sufficient fit was derived from the CFA modeling (SBχ 2  = 675.823, df = 314, CFI = 0.967; TLI = 0.963; RMSEA = 0.037; SRMR = 0.033; Table 5 ; Hu and Bentler, 1999 ).


Table 3 . The factor loadings in EFA for the initial and final round.


Table 4 . Standardized factor loading and scale reliability.


Figure 2 . The measurement model of Chinese version DI-Quest instrument; N  = 844. Coefficients presented are standardized estimates.


Table 5 . Fit indices for the model 1 and model 2.

We also tested scale reliability, and the score of Coefficient H ranged from 0.89 to 0.93, indicating that the Chinese version of the DI-Quest instrument is highly reliable ( Table 5 ). Regarding invariance testing, as mentioned earlier, strong invariance was achieved for three groups (i.e., gender, age, and school location) after comparing the results of configural, metric, and scalar steps in this study ( Table 6 ).


Table 6 . Results of invariance analysis.

4.2. Descriptive results

Table 7 shows descriptive results and correlations between research variables. The average mean for each variable ranged from 2.65 to 3.75. Adaptive teaching and output = input achieved the same (and highest) score. A significant correlation existed between the flexible grouping of Chinese lower secondary school teachers alongside output = input and adaptive teaching, accompanied by the growth mindset of teachers. A moderate correlation was observed between flexible grouping and output = input; otherwise, low correlation values were observed.


Table 7 . Descriptive statistics and Pearson correlation coefficients between DI variables.

4.3. Predictors of differentiated instruction practice (i.e., adaptive teaching)

Structural modeling results indicated that an acceptable conceptual model (SBχ 2  = 1132.465, df = 412, SBχ 2 /df = 2.749, CFI = 0.970, TLI = 0.966, SRMR = 0.050, RMSEA = 0.032). Flexible grouping, output = input, ethical compass, teaching experience, and class size largely explained teachers’ DI practice ( R 2  = 62.3%; Figure 3 ). Table 8 shows that the effects of output = input, flexible grouping, teaching experience, and class size on teachers’ DI practice were statistically significant, and these variables served a beneficial function in the model. However, the results of the impact of growth mindset and school location on DI practice were not significant; ethical compass was observed to have a negative impact on DI practice.


Figure 3 . Structural equation modeling of the conceptual model; N  = 1,689. School location 1: Town (Base = rural schools); School location 2: City (Base = rural). Standardized path estimates are reported. The path estimates in solid line that were significant while estimates in dashed line were not significant.


Table 8 . Direct effects of teachers’ growth mindset, ethical compass, flexible grouping, output = input, teaching experience, class size, and school location on DI practice (i.e., adaptive teaching).

5. Discussion

As the first study to explore teachers’ DI practice in Chinese mainland schools, this study extends previous work, which has lacked understanding of Chinese teachers’ perceptions and implementation of DI. Most prior research has not developed and validated DI-related instruments in non-Western counties, and although the DI-Quest had been studied in Hong Kong schools ( Yuen et al., 2022 ), a replication study in the context of Chinese mainland schools was needed, since the school cultures and educational systems of Hong Kong and China differ ( Malinen et al., 2012 ). Therefore, the current study makes up for this deficiency and fills a gap in the literature by adding the experiences of Chinese mainland schoolteachers to the extant literature on DI.

5.1. Factor structures in the Chinese mainland version of the DI-Quest

This study is the first examine the psychometric properties of the DI-Quest instrument in the context of Chinese mainland lower secondary schools. The CN-DI-Quest verified the same five factors as the original and Hong Kong versions ( Coubergs et al., 2017 ; Yuen et al., 2022 ). This study omitted four items, which contrasts with Yuen et al. (2022) , who removed 12. Reviewing the items eliminated from the original instrument helped us, in some cases, to better understand DI in Chinese mainland schools. For example, EC2 ( “The curriculum is overloaded on content and goals” ) and AP4 ( “Every student will receive the same assessment” ); these two items may have suggested that Chinese teachers are curriculum-oriented and teacher-centered, but DI, according to the theory, should be oriented to students ( Tomlinson and Imbeau, 2010 ). Regarding the other two deleted items, FG4 ( “During my lessons , students need to work together in order to progress in their learning process” ) and FG8 ( “I differentiate by switching between working with heterogeneous and homogeneous groups” ) implied that Chinese teachers may not consider flexible grouping strategy during their DI implementation. This may be explained by the class sizes in Chinese mainland schools. As Table 2 shows, 75.3% of classes in this study contained more than 40 students. So many students in one classroom make it difficult for teachers to group them flexibly, due to the increased diversity, number of groups formed, challenges to classroom management, and time taken for interaction between students and the teacher (e.g., Suprayogi et al., 2017 ; Aldossari, 2018 ). Another plausible explanation is that Chinese mainland teachers are discouraged from grouping students flexibly, which is supported by Gaitas and Martins (2017) who reported that teachers encounter barriers to the adjustment of teaching procedure and classroom management when grouping students during teaching.

5.2. Predictors of teachers’ differentiated instruction practice

This study has also shown that Chinese mainland teachers’ DI philosophies, principles, teaching experience, and class size have a significant impact on their self-reported DI practice (adaptive teaching). We achieved this by connecting the DI-Quest instrument with teacher-levels and context-level variables. Our findings indicate that flexible grouping is an essential predictor of teachers’ DI practice in the context of schools in China, which is not surprising, since other studies have found that teachers who prefer to flexibly group students in heterogeneous and homogeneous combinations tend to use DI more often ( Tomlinson et al., 2003 ; Ford, 2005 ; Coubergs et al., 2017 ). To adopt DI practice, teachers must become skilled in switching groups in various ways; this corresponds with the research findings whereby the integration of diverse forms of flexible grouping strategy helps students to achieve learning outcomes at appropriate levels ( Whitburn, 2001 ; Castle et al., 2005 ).

The results of this study have also reported that the second predictor of the practice of DI is output = input; this indicates that teachers are more likely to use differentiation techniques in their practice if they consider the feedback from, and evaluation of, students as teaching resources on which to base their next lesson plans. This study’s findings are consistent with those of Coubergs et al. (2017) and Griful-Freixenet et al. (2021) , both of whom identified output = input as a strong variable to explain DI practice. The logic behind the DI theoretical framework also explains this positive outcome, in which teachers are assisted by continuous assessment at every stage of instruction to adapt both teaching and learning plans to the needs of students ( Hall, 2002 ; Tomlinson and Moon, 2014 ).

This study indicated that teaching experience was found to be the third predictor of DI practice. The experienced teachers, namely those with more than 5 years of teaching behind them, who took part in this research have higher levels of DI philosophy and practice. This contradicts the findings of McMillan (2011) , but corroborates Garrett (2017) and Suprayogi et al. (2017) assertion that novice teachers with less than 5 years’ experience were associated with a lower frequency of DI practice. This may be explained by the professional development and training of teachers ( VanTassel-Baska et al., 2008 ; Suprayogi et al., 2017 ), whereby only after years of training and experience can teachers integrate DI-related content and knowledge to move from fact-based programs to authentic investigations and become an educational subject matter expert ( Moosa and Shareefa, 2019 ). Novice teachers are trained in DI during initial teacher training, since at that stage most lack insight concerning relevant variations among students or cannot identify differentiation needs ( Dack and Triplett, 2020 ). Class size was also reported to predict DI practice significantly in this study. This confirmed the findings of Tomlinson et al. (2003) and Suprayogi et al. (2017) , in which DI practice is acutely required, to accommodate students’ differences in larger classes, possibly because an increase in student numbers increases the extent diversity in students and learning needs ( Dixon et al., 2014 ), which requires teachers to adopt more differentiated approaches to addressing such large-scale learning diversity ( Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019 ).

Another predictor in this study was teachers’ ethical compass, which had a negative impact on DI practice. This resonates with the findings of Coubergs et al. (2017) and Griful-Freixenet et al. (2021) , who have stated that teachers who focus on students’ learning to guide their teaching practices rather than use unquestioning compliance with the curriculum as a teaching guide, seemed to use more differentiation in their practice. These findings echo Tomlinson (2014) , wherein DI is integrated with a high-quality curriculum in accordance with students’ needs. Therefore, if teachers focus primarily on external variables such as discipline or curriculum structure, they tend to adopt traditional practices without considering students’ needs ( Nowell, 1992 ; Coubergs et al., 2017 ).

6. Limitations and recommendations for future research

While this study is a pioneering work that explores the impact of teachers’ DI philosophies and principles on their DI practice in the Chinese mainland, it has been subject to certain limitations that could be mitigated in future research.

Firstly, the DI-Quest instrument in this study was a self-reporting survey, which may have prompted some teachers to give socially desirable, rather than completely accurate, responses. The use of other research methods, such as classroom observation, videos, and individual and group interviews, may overcome this shortcoming. Also, Graham et al. (2021) argued that more DI research should be conducted in diverse countries around the world. Consequently, replication studies using the DI-Quest should be conducted in different school areas and contexts.

The present study uses a cross-sectional design, which limits the capacity to demonstrate causal interpretations; we recommend that longitudinal and experimental research studies should be conducted, to reveal more about DI in Chinese mainland schools. Furthermore, this study has surveyed only teachers working in central and western China; regional differences are among the variables that generate disparity in Chinese education ( Yang et al., 2014 ), and further research could invite respondents from eastern China, and assess whether outcomes are similar there.

Additionally, this study has focused on teachers’ perceptions of their DI philosophies and practices according to the DI-Quest model; however, in the classroom setting, students are critical. Future research might helpfully explore is how students perceive the differentiated teaching practices deployed by their teachers since consideration of students’ experiences in the course of DI practice helps teachers to hone their approaches ( Pozas et al., 2021 ).

Finally, previous studies have reported that other variables, like teachers’ self-efficacy and attitudes toward DI, are predictors of DI (e.g., Coubergs et al., 2017 ; Letzel et al., 2020 ). Hence, future empirical studies should connect more extensive quantitative instrumentation, including measures of teachers’ self-efficacy and attitudes toward DI, with the DI-Quest instrument, together to understand teachers’ DI practice.

7. Conclusions and implications

This study provides a novel, valid and reliable instrument for future research of DI in mainland Chinese contexts. In this regard, the findings of this study have confirmed the importance and significance of the DI-Quest in non-Western countries, which will support further comparative studies between mainland China and Western countries. The current study also offers implications for educational officers to concentrate on the professional advancement of teachers with regard to DI, as (1) teachers’ flexible grouping, output = input, and teaching experiences influence their DI practice positively and significantly; (2) the role of ethical compass in teachers’ DI practice is negative. Thus, a feasible approach to actualizing DI is through further assistance, such as professional advancement. Specifically, teachers are expected to undertake training programs and learn how to organize various forms of grouping and evaluation strategies to enhance their DI practice and meet students’ learning needs. To gain proficiency in such skills, teachers must learn when and where to offer differentiated instructions and feedback ( Lambert, 1999 ; Lawrence-Brown, 2004 ). According to Hall (2002) , assessment plays an essential role in DI, and it requires teachers to have a deep understanding of their students; that understanding also functions as the starting point for the diagnosis of students’ differences in readiness, interest, and learning styles. Therefore, through a measure of pre-assessment, teachers can adapt their teaching to respond to students’ learning status and assist students accordingly ( Tomlinson, 2001 ; Hall, 2002 ).

Moreover, to ensure that teachers’ perceptions in terms of ethical compass are oriented to students, rather than the curriculum, it is essential that teachers partake in regular discussions and collaborations about learners’ differences, curriculum adaptation, teaching objectives, and/or subject knowledge ( Tomlinson et al., 2003 ; Woolfolk, 2010 ). Following exchanges of experience, teachers may adjust their curriculum-oriented beliefs and accept the varied characteristics of their students, thereby connecting their perceived insights to classroom reality ( Eisenberger and Shanock, 2003 ; Hattie, 2005 ). In this regard, school leaders should support and encourage teachers to adopt DI by cultivating an inclusive learning atmosphere. Furthermore, the significance of developing professional skills for teachers in accordance with actual teaching experience is reiterated by Bandura (1977) . Teachers who have personally experienced the advantages and accomplishments of DI can put that experience to good use; it is extremely significant to consider reflections on previous teaching experiences, as well as interaction with peers ( Wertheim and Leyser, 2002 ; He and Levin, 2008 ).

To conclude, this study has validated the DI-Quest instrument in a mainland Chinese school context and has explored the extent of teachers’ DI practice by addressing their DI philosophies and principles. The CN-DI-Quest appears to be a promising instrument for future research, and retains the five-factor structure of the original and Hong Kong versions, with good reliability and validity. Chinese educators may consider how best to use this instrument to understand teachers’ perceptions of DI and to improve their DI skills through school-based DI professional development programs. Furthermore, the research method in this study (structural equation modeling) can be implemented in various school contexts, to explore the influence of teachers’ philosophies, principles, teaching experiences, class size, and school location on their DI practice.

Data availability statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Author contributions

MB conceived the idea of this study, collected data online, processed data by using SPSS and MPLUS, and wrote the full manuscript. KS was a promoter who was responsible for mentoring and reviewing the whole process of writing this article. CZ worked as the co-promoter for editing the original draft. All authors provided the critical feedback and approved the final manuscript.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Keywords: differentiated instruction, teachers’ practice, psychometric properties, DI-Quest instrument, Chinese secondary schools

Citation: Bi M, Struyven K and Zhu C (2023) Variables that influence teachers’ practice of differentiated instruction in Chinese classrooms: A study from teachers’ perspectives. Front. Psychol . 14:1124259. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1124259

Received: 14 December 2022; Accepted: 10 February 2023; Published: 06 March 2023.

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Copyright © 2023 Bi, Struyven and Zhu. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Meijie Bi, [email protected]

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Differentiated Instruction

In this 2014 photo, 6th graders Willyum Oliver and Michael James (from left) discuss a math performance task during class at Whittemore Park Middle School in Conway, S.C.. The software students are using helps teachers at Whittemore Park differentiate instruction.

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Planning for Differentiated Instruction: Empowering Teacher Candidates in STEM Education

Mohammed estaiteyeh.

1 Faculty of Education, Brock University, 1812 Sir Isaac Brock Way, St., L2S 3A1 Catharines, ON Canada

Isha DeCoito

2 Faculty of Education, Western University, 1137 Western Road, N6G 1G7 London, ON Canada

Associated Data

Raw data is available for transparency purposes.

Differentiated instruction (DI) is an inclusive method of instruction by which teachers provide multiple possibilities for learning based on students’ backgrounds, readiness, interests, and profiles. Acknowledging student diversity in Canadian classrooms, this study explores STEM teacher candidates’ (TCs’) preparation to implement DI in a STEM curriculum and pedagogy course in a teacher education program. The course is enriched with DI resources and training focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). The course efficacy in enhancing TCs’ implementation of DI is explored through the following research questions: (1) What is the impact of the course on TCs’ implementation of DI, (2) How do TCs develop curricula to be inclusive of DI strategies, and (3) What successes and challenges do TCs encounter when developing DI-focused curricula? The study adopts a mixed-method approach, in which data sources include pre-post questionnaires and semi-structured interviews. Participants are 19 TCs enrolled in the second year of the teacher education program at a Canadian university. Findings suggest that the course empowered TCs to integrate DI principles and strategies in their coursework. This success reiterates the importance of opportunities aimed at enhancing teachers’ preparation to incorporate DI in their practices. The findings call for adopting similar approaches in pre-service and in-service teachers’ training to ensure that DI principles and strategies are deeply rooted in teachers’ practices. The study informs teacher educators about integrating EDI in teacher education programs’ curriculum and overall planning.


La différenciation pédagogique (DP) est une méthode d’enseignement inclusive selon laquelle les enseignants offrent plusieurs possibilités d’apprentissage en fonction du milieu dont sont issus les élèves, de leur réceptivité, leurs champs d’intérêts et de leurs profils. S’appuyant sur le fait qu’il existe une diversité d’élèves dans les salles de classe canadiennes, cette étude explore la préparation des aspirants enseignants (AE) des STIM à la mise en application de la DP dans un cours du curriculum et de la pédagogie des STIM au programme de formation des enseignants. Le cours est rehaussé par le biais de ressources en DP et d’une formation axée sur l’équité, la diversité et l’inclusion (EDI). On explore comment l’efficacité du cours peut servir à améliorer la mise en pratique de la DP par les AE à l’aide des questions de recherche suivantes: 1) Quel est l’impact du cours sur la mise en œuvre de la DP par les AE, 2) Comment les AE élaborent-ils des programmes qui intègrent les stratégies de DP, et 3) À quelles réussites et difficultés les AE font-ils face lorsqu’ils élaborent des programmes axés sur la DP ? L’étude adopte une approche méthodologique mixte, dans laquelle les sources de données comprennent des questionnaires « avant-après» et des entrevues semi-structurées. 19 AE inscrits en deuxième année du programme de formation des enseignants d’une université canadienne participent à l’étude. Les résultats indiquent que le cours a doté les AE de moyens d’intégrer les principes et les stratégies de la DP dans leurs travaux de cours. Cette réussite réitère l’importance d’avoir des occasions qui contribuent à améliorer la préparation des enseignants pour intégrer la DP dans leurs pratiques. Les résultats appellent à l’adoption d’approches similaires dans la formation initiale des enseignants et celle des enseignants sur place afin de s’assurer que les principes et les stratégies de la DP sont profondément enracinés dans les pratiques des enseignants. L’étude renseigne les formateurs d’enseignants sur l’intégration de l’EDI dans les programmes d’éducation des enseignants et dans la planification générale.


Schools in Canada are well known for student diversity. One of the main reasons behind this diversity is the increase in the number of immigrants. For instance, the number of new immigrants who arrived in Canada between 2016 and 2021 was 1,328,240, with more than 450 ethnic or cultural origins existing in 2021 (Statistics Canada, 2022 ). According to Statistics Canada ( 2017 ), two in five Canadian children had an immigrant background in 2016, meaning they are foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent. By 2031, nearly half (46%) of Canadians aged 15 and older could have an immigrant background. These demographic factors also reflect diversity in socio-economic status (SES), cultural differences, and linguistic abilities.

Together, these societal changes directly affect the student composition of classrooms, rendering them very heterogenous spaces, especially when considering additional differences among students in their interests, individual needs, unique learning profiles, and academic achievement levels (Campbell, 2021 ; Tomlinson et al., 2003 ). Accordingly, curricula in Canadian classrooms are moving toward inclusive design, an approach that considers diversity with respect to students’ ability, language, culture, race, sexual orientation, creed, gender, and lived experiences (Malloy, 2019 ). Novel plans have been established across provinces to incorporate inclusive practices such as Ontario’s Education Equity Action Plan ( 2017 ) that supports school boards to develop equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) education policies and effectively implement classroom practices that “reflect the needs and diverse realities of all students” (p. 16). The plan hints at incorporating culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995 , 2014 ) and culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2010 ). Moreover, the plan aims to strengthen inclusive teaching, assessment, and resources, and provide professional development (PD) and support focused on equity and inclusion for teachers.

Despite these plans and policies, there remains much work to be done. Rezai-Rashti et al. ( 2015 , 2017 ) highlight the invisibility of race and antiracism in Ontario’s policies and call for addressing the underlying structural and systemic imbalances. This outcome can be achieved through mechanisms that hold educational institutions accountable and provide the required resources to ensure the implementation of said policies. In harmony, the Ontario Ministry of Education reports that the recommended improvements did not fully provide equitable outcomes for all students, and further actions are required to overcome persistent systematic barriers, biases, and inequalities (Campbell, 2021 ). With respect to science education, Mujawamariya et al. ( 2014 ) critically analyze the content of Ontario’s science curricula for Grades 1 to 10 and maintain that small recent progress has been made to support multicultural science education. The authors highlight how antiracist content remains poorly integrated into Ontario science curricula, how minority students are excluded, and how the text is still dominated by a Western rather than an inclusive paradigm. In harmony, Madkins and Morton ( 2021 ) argue that teacher candidates (TCs) must be prepared to disrupt anti-blackness in science and mathematics education by developing their political clarity. Madkins and Morton define political clarity as the understanding of structural and school inequalities and engaging in equity-focused science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching.

At the classroom level, the written organizational plans must identify the role of teachers and their responsibility in attending to the needs of their students. The literature recommends that teachers be more involved in the processes of improving inclusive curricula, materials, and their support for students (Tomlinson et al., 2003 ). Thus, it is fundamental to target the knowledge base of pre-service teachers as they embark on teaching careers in classrooms that reflect heterogeneous student populations. This measure will enable them to utilize transformative inclusive teaching strategies, such as differentiated instruction (DI) (Egbo, 2012 ). This research attempts to walk the EDI talk in schools by promoting TCs’ views, understandings, and implementation of DI as an equitable and inclusive teaching philosophy.

Research Rationale

Differentiated instruction is an adaptive method of instruction by which teachers provide multiple possibilities for learning based on students’ backgrounds, readiness, interests, and profiles (De Jesus, 2012 ; Tomlinson, 2001 ; Valiandes & Tarman, 2011 ). According to Tomlinson et al. ( 2003 ), the role of educators needs to focus on how to differentiate rather than if they should differentiate . Yet, the literature on DI shows lack of regular implementation by teachers in their classrooms (DiPirro, 2017 ; Robinson, 2017 ; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010 ), thus providing additional rationale for the need to enhance teacher preparation in this regard. Additionally, research on DI implementation and teacher preparation in Canadian classrooms specifically is scarce despite the aforementioned context and policies (Whitley et al., 2019 ). Manavathu and Zhou ( 2012 ) maintain that the implementation of DI in Canadian classrooms faces many barriers. For example, they highlight how teachers feel unprepared to accommodate English language learners (ELLs) and how ELLs are less likely to enroll in senior biology courses due to the language complexity. Accordingly, Manavathu and Zhou call for the development of linguistically appropriate science course materials and consideration of students’ individual sociopsychological influences to enhance their science learning. Additionally, D’Intino and Wang ( 2021 ) emphasize that Canadian teachers need more support to be able to differentiate their instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Specht et al. ( 2016 ) indicate the specific need for secondary school level TCs’ training on inclusive teaching strategies, since they show lower self-efficacy in relation to inclusive teaching compared to their elementary school counterparts. Finally, DI applications in STEM education at the secondary school level are limited, since most of the research has been conducted on DI in languages and mathematics for primary and middle school (Kamarulzaman et al., 2018 ; Maeng, 2017 ). Thus, the current research is warranted as it addresses teacher education in Ontario, specifically how to differentiate instruction by engaging TCs in developing DI-focused STEM curricula.

Research Objectives and Questions

This research focuses on intermediate-senior STEM TCs’ teacher preparation, with an emphasis on their implementation of DI. The study highlights the impact of integrating DI-focused strategies in a STEM curriculum and pedagogy course in teacher education at a Canadian university by addressing the following questions:

  • What is the impact of the course on TCs’ implementation of DI?
  • How do TCs develop curricula to be inclusive of DI strategies?
  • What successes and challenges do TCs encounter when developing DI-focused curricula?

Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

Methods to differentiate instruction: cpp-rip framework.

Differentiated instruction is not a single strategy but rather an approach that affords many strategies (Watts-Taffe et al., 2012 ). Establishing a systematic approach to differentiation is important to make it more attainable for teachers to implement (Levy, 2008 ). In practice, DI can happen through modifying the content (what is taught), process (how learning is structured), and product (how learning is assessed), in addition to the physical learning environment (Tomlinson, 2001 ). These modifications are achieved through adaptation of the existing curriculum, development of lessons and resources, and implementation of teaching and assessment strategies (Beasley & Beck, 2017 ; Mitchell & Hobson, 2005 ; Tomlinson, 2014 ; Willis & Mann, 2000 ).

The content—knowledge, understanding, and skills—is what students are expected to learn. The process describes the methods designed throughout the lesson to reinforce students’ understanding of the content. The product refers to how students demonstrate their learning by means of assessment tools. It is how students show what they have come to know, understand, and are able to do after an extended period of learning (Tomlinson, 1999 ; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010 ). It is important to mention that these dimensions of DI are highly interconnected rather than independent (Watts-Taffe et al., 2012 ). Although there are core principles that guide the use of DI, its implementation depends on the individual needs of students in a particular classroom (Chamberlin & Powers, 2010 ). Tomlinson et al. ( 2003 ) indicate that when teachers differentiate the content, process, and product of teaching, three main factors must be considered as the basis of this differentiation: (1) students’ readiness which mainly reflects academic achievement levels, (2) students’ interest or choices, and (3) students’ learning profiles including their cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. This DI implementation framework, the content, process, product – readiness, interests, profiles (CPP-RIP) is utilized in this paper to analyze TCs’ implementation of DI.

Despite the fact that there is no single formula or method to apply DI (Valiandes & Tarman, 2011 ), specific teaching strategies include varying the learning pace for different students, curriculum compacting and chunking, varying the difficulty levels of tasks for different students, flexible grouping and learning centers based on student interests and/or learning needs, cooperative learning strategies, tiering activities, providing various levels of support and scaffolding to different students based on their readiness, using different modalities of teaching, and utilizing formative and diagnostic assessments to keep track of students’ progress (Birnie, 2017 ; Blackburn, 2018 ; Tomlinson et al., 2003 ). In conclusion, the hallmark of differentiating instruction is that it allows students to feel accepted by viewing their differences as assets that will strengthen the whole educational setting (George, 2005 ).

Teachers’ Implementation of DI

The literature on teachers’ implementation of DI reports that most teachers are aware of the practice, but many do not regularly implement it in their classrooms (DiPirro, 2017 ; Niccum-Johnson, 2018 ; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010 ). Niccum-Johnson ( 2018 ), for example, evaluated the consistency of 175 elementary teachers in Illinois in implementing DI. The results showed that only 60% of the teachers consistently used the elements of DI. Moreover, the study noted that teachers with a bachelor’s degree implemented DI more consistently than those with a master’s degree, while the years of experience had no effect. Robinson ( 2017 ) contradicted this inference and concluded that new teachers practiced the operational definition of DI more closely than veteran teachers who integrated DI into their daily activities more often. Santangelo and Tomlinson ( 2012 ) demonstrated that teacher educators did not implement a comprehensive model of differentiation. In line with this finding, Kendrick-Weikle ( 2015 ) stated that teachers differentiated the process component of their instruction, but they did not differentiate the contents and the products to the same extent. The study also noted that female teachers and teachers in larger schools were more familiar with DI and used accompanying strategies more often than male teachers, and teachers at smaller schools, respectively.

On the other hand, the implementation of DI in Canadian classrooms, especially in Ontario, is insufficiently researched. Limited studies exist, with most of the research conducted in Quebec and published in French (e.g., Moldoveanu et al., 2016 ; Paré & Prud’homme, 2014 ; Prud’Homme, 2007 ). Research has also been conducted with French language teachers (Guay et al., 2017 ; Roy et al., 2013 ) to support inclusion practices in Quebec, and in music classes (Kizas, 2016 ) and language arts in elementary schools in British Colombia (Tobin, 2007 ). Finally, a study conducted in elementary classrooms in Ontario showed that the instructional practices in public schools appeared to be cumulative rather than differentiated and that academically at-risk students received less DI than others (McGhie-Richmond et al., 2007 ).

Wan ( 2016 ) highlights that differentiating instruction is more complex in reality than it appears. Teachers could not cater to learners’ diversity as seamlessly due to the lack of practice utilizing differentiation strategies. Teachers in the study were afraid that differentiating, particularly assessment, was not fair to students in an exam-oriented environment. These findings reiterate the importance of teachers’ readiness and preparation to practice DI frequently and proficiently.

Challenges to Implementing DI

Several challenges that hinder teachers’ implementation of DI are documented, including (1) curricular requirements; (2) extensive teacher workload and lack of time; (3) limited curriculum resources; (4) lack of administrative support; (5) perceived complexity and difficulty; (6) class size and individual needs of students; and (7) insufficient number and quality of PD programs (de Jager, 2017 ; Park & Datnow, 2017 ; Turner & Solis, 2017 ; Wan, 2017 ). To capture the complexity of differentiating instruction, van Geel et al. ( 2019 ) use the cognitive task analysis to show what kind of knowledge and constituent skills are needed to be able to adapt instruction to the needs of the students. The results of the research identify six categories of teacher skills: (1) mastering the curriculum; (2) identifying instructional needs; (3) setting challenging goals; (4) monitoring and diagnosing student progress; (5) adapting instruction accordingly; and (6) general teaching dimension. This model serves as the basis for designing curricula and teacher PD initiatives. Moreover, research has shown the necessity and importance of PD initiatives for pre-service (Dack, 2018 ; Goodnough, 2010 ) and in-service teachers (Dixon et al., 2014 ; Nicolae, 2014 ; Pincince, 2016 ) to enhance their self-efficacy, understanding, and implementation of DI (e.g., Griful-Freixenet et al., 2021 ; Maeng, 2017 ; Nicolae, 2014 ; Paone, 2017 ; Rollins, 2010 ; Taylor, 2018 ; Wertheim & Leyser, 2002 ).

Correspondingly, research on exemplary differentiated STEM resources is scarce especially at the secondary school level. Thus, the aforementioned challenges of available curriculum resources, required time, and perceived difficulty are justified. This study addresses those challenges and the lack of PD related to DI. In this study, TCs engaged in designing and developing differentiated curriculum materials in STEM subjects. Successes and challenges of similar teacher preparation initiatives to enhance TCs’ familiarity and implementation of DI are highlighted. Additionally, specific strategies to differentiate instruction in secondary STEM classes are showcased.

Reflective Practice

Pollard and Tann ( 1997 ) describe reflective teaching as how teachers investigate their practice. Farrell ( 2015 ) defines reflective practice as “a cognitive process accompanied by a set of attitudes in which teachers systematically collect data about their practice, and while engaging in dialogue with others, use the data to make informed decisions about their practice” (p. 123). Hubball et al. ( 2005 ) maintain that when teachers engage in reflective practice, they question what they do, what works and what does not, and what rationales underlie their teaching and that of others. In harmony, Brantley-Dias et al. ( 2021 ) emphasize the crucial role of reflection in professional growth. By reflecting, teachers or TCs would engage in a cognitive process in which they understand an experience and make informed decisions for new actions. In this study, TCs engaged in reflective practice by reflecting on their actions consistently throughout the course. TCs reflected on various concepts throughout their learning as well as on each assignment they developed. Combined with feedback provided by their peers and the instructor, the study highlights how these forms of reflective practice contributed to their views, conceptions, and implementation of DI.


Research design.

The study adopted a mixed-method approach (Creswell & Creswell, 2018 ), specifically a case study (Yin, 2014 ). Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected. Data sources include (1) pre- and post-course surveys exploring TCs’ views, understandings, and implementation of DI; and (2) semi-structured interviews detailing TCs’ implementation of DI in the course and in their practicum. Figure  1 summarizes the timeline of the course, and data sources and collection.

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Course components and data collection timeline


A total of 19 TCs (9 males; 10 females) participated in the study. Participants were enrolled in a STEM Curriculum and Pedagogy course in the second year of the teacher education program at a university in Ontario, Canada. All TCs teach STEM subjects in the intermediate-senior divisions (Grades 9, 10, 11, and/or 12), including general sciences, biology, math, physics, chemistry, health and physical education, and computer studies. In terms of educational background, three TCs have a master’s degree while 16 TCs hold a bachelor’s degree.

Overview of the Course Design

Differentiated instruction principles and strategies were integrated through seminars, assignments, and resources using an explicit and reflective approach (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000 ). In the first session of the course, TCs’ prior understandings and views of DI were gauged through an online survey and a few diagnostic activities, including prompts using interactive presentation tools. Afterwards, in the first 2 weeks of the course, the course instructor collaborated with the researcher to provide a seminar on DI and EDI. Throughout the 12-week course, the instructor provided the TCs with resources to integrate DI and included tailored tasks requiring the application of DI principles and strategies, without changing the nature of the tasks that had been already planned for this course (DeCoito, in press ). As such, TCs completed three major curriculum development projects: (1) creating case studies around socio-scientific issues (SSI) (DeCoito & Fazio, 2017 ), (2) developing digital video games (DVGs) (DeCoito & Briona, 2020 ; Estaiteyeh & DeCoito, 2023 ), and (3) creating digital curriculum resources websites (DeCoito & Estaiteyeh, 2022 ).

TCs were requested to explicitly address DI in their coursework. Assignment rubrics included effective integration of DI as one of the success criteria. The instructor and researcher provided feedback on TCs’ work on a regular basis by recommending how to improve or maintain certain aspects of their assignments. TCs were also engaged in constant reflections on their progress and hence advancing their knowledge and skills in DI implementation throughout the course. Moreover, TCs presented their work to their peers, and provided and received peer feedback.

Data Sources

The pre-survey, composed of five open-ended questions, was administered online on the first day of the course. This survey explored TCs’ views and prior preparation with respect to DI. The post-survey, administered online on the last day of the course, included 43 5-point Likert scale items (1 = strong disagreement to 5 = strong agreement) and four open-ended questions. It explored TCs’ understanding and implementation of DI in the course, and their evaluation of the effectiveness of the course with respect to DI.

The Likert scale items were adopted from surveys (Roy et al., 2013 ; Santangelo & Tomlinson, 2012 ) that were tested for content validity and reliability. Santangelo and Tomlinson’s ( 2012 ) survey addressed teacher educators’ perceptions and use of DI practices, whereas Roy et al.’s ( 2013 ) DI scale included items related to instructional adaptations and assessment strategies in DI. On the other hand, the open-ended questions in both the pre- and post-surveys were developed by the researcher based on the research questions, the course tasks, and the literature. In total, 19 consenting TCs completed the pre-survey and 17 of them completed the post-survey.

Semi-structured Interview

Two months after the course ended, TCs were invited to participate in a 1-hour semi-structured online interview to follow-up on their responses in the pre/post-surveys and their course work. The interview explored in greater depth certain elements of the survey and course work, such as details of how TCs understood and implemented DI, and/or how they would implement it in their future practices. This interview was used to clarify, detail, and increase the trustworthiness of the other data sources. In total, six TCs participated in the interview.

Data Analysis

Quantitative data from the surveys were analyzed using Microsoft Excel. Descriptive statistics were performed including calculating counts, averages, standard deviations, percentages, and differences between pre- and post-results. Additionally, inferential statistical tests were performed using SPSS. The Spearman correlation test was performed to explore the relationship between different ordinal variables, i.e., different 5-point Likert items (Connolly, 2007 ). On the other hand, qualitative data from open-ended survey questions and interviews were analyzed using an inductive process for some questions and a deductive process for others (Creswell & Creswell, 2018 ). The inductive analysis builds patterns, categories, and themes by organizing the data into more abstract units of information (Creswell & Creswell, 2018 ). Participants’ responses were inputted into NVivo 12 where initial codes were developed using word clouds based on the frequency of words in TCs’ responses. Subsequently, the codes were grouped into themes, finalized, and interpreted to draw conclusions (Gall et al., 2005 ). Thematic coding (Stake, 2020 ) was performed to provide an in-depth analysis of the responses of all participants, which was used later to calculate the frequency of responses in relation to each theme. This inductive process was used to analyze responses related to TCs’ prior preparation and challenges encountered. On the other hand, responses related to how TCs implemented DI were analyzed deductively according to the CPP-RIP framework explained earlier.

Results and Discussion

Tcs’ prior preparation.

Participants were asked about two specific documents to understand TCs’ prior exposure to important policy publications about EDI and DI issued by the Ministry of Education in Ontario. One out of 19 TCs indicated that they had read the Education Equity Plan ( 2017 ), while three out of 19 TCs indicated reading the Differentiated Instruction handbook (EduGains, 2010 ) and/or its accompanying online resources.

Furthermore, to explore TCs’ readiness and prior preparation, they were asked in the pre-survey to reflect on any PD they have had that would assist them to teach through an EDI lens in their classes and to evaluate the effectiveness of these PD opportunities. Out of 15 respondents, eight TCs stated specific coursework that included EDI-related topics such as Indigenous education, special and inclusive education, or/and STEM methods course in year 1 of the program. Five TCs noted that their year-1 practicum experience helped them explore EDI principles and applications. On the other hand, three TCs mentioned specific PD workshops related to the topic. Concerning the effectiveness of the above opportunities in helping them teach through an EDI lens in the future, ten TCs responded, with six of them agreeing that these opportunities were effective and four stating they were not. Out of the six TCs who indicated their experiences were effective, four mentioned the practicum to be specifically helpful. This finding highlights that TCs’ exploration of the concepts of EDI and DI mostly happens in a practical way in their practicum rather than in their courses or through additional PD. On the other hand, the four TCs who said that their experiences were not effective in helping them teach through an EDI lens pointed out that what they learned was irrelevant to their specific classes:

The strategies I learned for differentiated instruction were largely inapplicable to my most recent practicum, or at least I was ill-prepared for translating them to an online environment. (Gabe, Pre-survey) It would be more effective to see them (the strategies) in action in real life. (Jan, Pre-survey) The reasons for this (ineffectiveness) were the “busy work” associated with the special education course and the emphasis on elementary education. I am a high school teacher candidate. (Roy, Pre-survey)

Teacher candidates' responses on the interview at the end of the study corroborated these pre-survey findings. All six interviewees stated that they had experienced a form of DI in their coursework and/or teaching prior to the STEM curriculum and pedagogy course. Five of them mentioned taking courses related to DI (two of which mentioned special education courses), while four TCs said they had experienced DI in their practicum. Yet, five of the interviewees indicated that this exposure to DI was not quite effective. For instance, Roy said:

Before, I had the first practicum experience. And I did not add actually as much differentiated instruction. I had some that I implemented being like, just introductions of like videos for English language learner students, in addition to other course content but that was mainly guided by my associate teacher rather than it was my own. Some of the courses touched on it. We had a course on special education, touch on differentiation... We also had an Indigenous education course which touched on it briefly, although like in all of them it’s not super super in depth I believe in the ways you do it, it’s more just, we learned like what it is, to look at how we could apply it… (Roy, Interview)

These findings illustrate that TCs had varying levels of exposure to DI principles in some of their courses and their practicum experiences. Yet, the effectiveness of these opportunities is debatable. As argued by some TCs, the previous courses did not provide STEM-specific and high school–specific skills. Moreover, the emphasis on DI in mostly special education courses reinforces teachers’ misconception that implementing inclusive practices such as DI is only for students with exceptionalities (DiPirro, 2017 ; Whitley et al., 2019 ). This notion defeats the goal of integrating DI under all circumstances. On the other hand, practicum experiences, referred to by the majority of TCs, are related to the environment of specific schools and the efforts of specific mentoring teachers, and hence are not consistent among all TCs. Finally, most TCs have not read the Ministry published documents which suggests that programs need to work on this aspect as the documents are designed for the context of Ontario schools. The lack of engagement of TCs with the documents also reflects a gap between policy and practice. Overall, the preparation of TCs for DI requires improvement so that they consistently acquire specific knowledge and skills that enable them to utilize DI principles and strategies in teaching STEM subjects in Ontario classrooms.

These results also reiterate to a certain extent D’Intino and Wang’s ( 2021 ) findings from the theoretical analysis of the coursework offered in Canadian universities, indicating that the current coursework is not sufficient to prepare TCs for DI. Findings also corroborate Massouti’s ( 2019 , 2021 ), Rezai-Rashti and Solomon’s ( 2008 ), and Specht et al.’s ( 2016 ) conclusions related to the need for enhancing TCs’ preparation focusing on EDI practices in teacher education programs in Canada. Moreover, the fact that the majority of TCs were referring to DI based on their practicum experience highlights the importance of practical fieldwork and calls for further coherence between coursework and the practicum (Dack, 2019 ; Massouti, 2019 ).

TCs’ Reflection on their DI Implementation

In the post-survey, TCs reflected on their implementation of DI in the course tasks. Figure  2 shows the percentages of TCs who agreed or disagreed with various statements regarding their DI implementation. Most TCs agreed that their DI implementation was extensive (13 out of 17 TCs). The vast majority of the TCs indicated that they (1) differentiated the content (15 out of 17 TCs) by offering choices, extending the knowledge of advanced learners, providing support to students with difficulty, presenting the content at varying levels of complexity, reflecting students’ interests, eliminating curricular material for some students, and adjusting the pacing of instruction; (2) differentiated the process (15 out of 17 TCs) by offering multiple modes of learning, varying the instructional strategies, using flexible grouping, using independent study, and using interest centers; and (3) differentiated the product (16 out of 17 TCs) by varying the types of assessments, providing students with choices to express their understanding, providing tiered assignments, and utilizing rubrics that match varied ability levels.

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TCs’ post-survey responses on DI implementation in the course ( n  = 17)

Most TCs agreed that they allow students to play a role in designing/selecting their learning activities (14 out of 17 TCs) and assessing their own learning (13 out of 17 TCs). The majority of TCs agreed that they use diagnostic assessment (14 out of 17 TCs), formative assessment (16 out of 17 TCs), and summative assessment (16 out of 17 TCs); and that these assessments inform subsequent teaching (all 17 TCs). Fifteen out of 17 TCs stated that they evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching adjustments, while 14 of them stated that they evaluate students based on their improvement and growth during the semester with respect to their initial academic levels. Finally, on the use of technology, 16 out of 17 TCs stated that they use technology as a tool for DI, and 14 out of 17 TCs stated that they use technology for assessment in DI specifically. Overall, the results show high levels of TCs’ implementation of DI in all aspects. This finding highlights the positive impact of the course on TCs' pedagogical skills related to DI, and hence an adequate preparation of teachers to implement EDI principles in their future classes. These findings parallel the literature on the importance and positive impact of teacher training on DI understanding and implementation for both pre-service and in-service teachers (Dixon et al., 2014 ; Goodnough, 2010 ; Nicolae, 2014 ; Pincince, 2016 ).

To investigate further, results of the Spearman correlation test indicate the relationship between TCs’ level of DI understanding and their implementation in the course work. For example, the post-survey results indicate a significant positive correlation between TCs’ familiarity with at least three methods to differentiate the content and their implementation of at least three methods of content differentiation in their course work (rs = 0.62, p  = 0.009). Additionally, results of the Spearman correlation indicate a significant positive correlation between TCs’ familiarity with at least three methods to differentiate the process and their implementation of at least three methods to differentiate the process in their course work (rs = 0.69, p  = 0.002). Similarly, results of the Spearman correlation indicate a significant positive correlation between TCs’ familiarity with at least three methods to differentiate the product and their implementation of at least three methods to differentiate the product in their course work (rs = 0.72, p  = 0.001). These findings reiterate the positive correlation between TCs’ understanding of DI and its implementation (DiPirro, 2017 ; Suprayogi et al., 2017 ; Whitley et al., 2019 ).

TCs’ Incorporation of DI Strategies in Their Coursework

Teacher candidates described in the interview how they differentiated instruction in their course work. TCs elaborated on how they differentiated the content, the process, and the product. TCs also discussed how they attended to EDI aspects especially respecting diverse cultural backgrounds, genders, and non-Western views. Furthermore, in the post-survey TCs indicated which assignment(s) in the course was/were the most relevant for differentiating instruction—nine out of 13 TCs selected the curriculum resources websites, four TCs stated the case studies, and two specified the DVGs. One TC, Erin, said it was all three assignments:

Every lesson and assignment created is relevant to differentiate instruction. I achieved through offering choices, extending knowledge of advanced learners, providing supplemental support, reflecting student’s interests, etc. (Interview)

Teacher candidates described their ability to develop resources that are inclusive of DI strategies and reflected positively on the various tasks:

Case Studies

In the first assignment, TCs developed curriculum by creating case studies of SSI (Fig.  3 ). TCs demonstrated proficient integration of DI principles, with TCs differentiating the process most, followed by the product of learning yet showing a need for more training in content differentiation in order to attend to students’ needs, backgrounds, and academic levels.

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Sample cover page of a case study about hydroelectricity

In the interview, TCs explained how they developed case studies, taking different perspectives on the SSI into consideration, how they prepared materials with varied difficulty and readability levels, and how their lesson plans included multimodal teaching strategies. TCs said:

I made sure to incorporate lots of different levels of readings for my students so if I was assigning an article, I made sure that I checked out what reading level that article was and gave different levels and different options. And I also included a lot of different perspectives. And, like, we looked at issues on different scales so not just local, but also on a global scale. So, that was good! (Erin, Interview) We tried to do it (the case study) through different modes of learning and assessment. We used like a forum, kind of setting for our assessment where students would talk to each other, and they’d like exchange ideas. Specifically, always tried to use different methods of teaching, not just like direct instruction but also a collaborative group work, think pair share, stuff just different ways for students to augment their understanding. (Michael, Interview)

On the relevance of case studies for differentiating instruction, TCs said:

The case study was the most relevant to me for differentiated instruction. The various ways to conduct research (KWL, Cornell framework, consequence map, etc.) are all useful tools that can benefit different learners and providing students with these resources can assist them in conducting research in ways that work for them. (Gabe, Post-survey) I believe the case study assignment was the most relevant to differentiate instruction. We did this through offering multiple ways for students to engage with the content and complete their assignments. (Roy, Post-survey)

Digital Video Games (DVGs)

TCs developed DVGs with a simultaneous focus on DI and technology-enriched resources (Fig. 4 ). In differentiating the content, DVGs included increasing levels of difficulty highlighting scaffolding and varied pacing based on students’ readiness levels. In terms of process differentiation, the DVGs included multimodal representations; yet they are to be combined with other teaching strategies to ensure adequate differentiation. In terms of product differentiation, DVGs offered the room for diagnostic assessment before the game commences through guided questions as well as formative assessments and feedback throughout the levels. Additionally, the DVG offered space to represent various students’ backgrounds, genders, and physical abilities through avatars incorporated in the game.

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Sample DVG focusing on physics concepts—projectile movement

In the interviews, TCs explained how their DVGs were culturally relevant, and how their avatars were inclusive in nature. Moreover, they explained how the levels included in the game were suitable for addressing students’ varying academic achievement levels. TCs said:

I had concepts outlined in different ways and had students use the visual stimulus from the pictures on the periodic table. But not just differentiated instruction, I also had diversity and equity through descriptions of elements in the periodic table. I had the related cultural backgrounds in there. (Roy, Interview) I incorporated like a more universal approach by giving students the options to like to choose their avatars, and the gender of their avatar. (Erin, Interview) There are different settings for video game for different capabilities of students depending on where their levels were. (Michael, Interview)

On the relevance of DVGs, Robert said:

DVG (was the most relevant to DI due to its) differing levels of difficulty. (Post-survey)

Curriculum Resources Websites

In the curriculum resources’ websites (Fig.  5 ), TCs showed adequate to high inclusion of DI principles and strategies utilizing a wide array of creative tools. TCs’ work demonstrate that they were able to prepare lessons and compile numerous resources while integrating a DI framework. TCs addressed common student misconceptions, acknowledged students’ prior knowledge, utilized a wide variety of multimodal teaching strategies, and included various forms of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessment methods. TCs addressed student differences in academic achievement levels, interests, cultural backgrounds, SES, linguistic abilities, and special needs. TCs were also capable of linking their science topics to equity matters and social justice issues by highlighting real-life-related scenarios. In agreement with the analysis of their course work, the majority of TCs stated in the post-survey that the curriculum resources’ website assignment was the most relevant to differentiate instruction when compared to other assignments.

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Sample of a STEM curriculum website content page

TCs explained in the interviews how they created new digital resources and amalgamated available materials, while taking DI into consideration. Their resources are multimodal, reflect students’ cultural diversity, cater for different academic and linguistic levels, and integrate technology effectively. TCs said:

I just included research from different countries, so we’re not just focusing on North America, but we also talked about research focusing on Asia and also focusing on Europe. I also included resources where females are talking about their experiences in STEM or their experience in the field. For the lesson plans, students research about different cultures and countries in term of medicine, technology… I tried to reflect just not just the North American view. (Pam, Interview) For those resources, I just made sure like I had good lots of options to my students like I incorporated something called a RAFT project so students could choose the role and the audience, and the format, that kind of thing for all their assignments that they were submitting, And I also made sure that I was delivering the content in different ways. So, like I said before I was making sure I just had a PowerPoint but, in this case, I had different ways to show the learning through like live demos or incorporating technology like Ozobot. So, they had multiple ways to join the classroom learning. (Erin, Interview) I did like a whole bunch of assessments that were differentiated, not just tests but also interesting assignments so fairly open ended that allowed students to showcase how they learned in a way that was comfortable for them, and also teaching in ways that weren’t just the direct instruction with using videos and demonstrations and group activities. (Michael, Interview)

On the relevance of the STEM curriculum websites, TCs said:

The curriculum resource assignment was the most relevant. I made sure to include a variety of instructional modalities, teaching strategies, and active learning strategies in my lesson plans. I made sure to incorporate EDI into my lessons, accommodate for different learning styles, as well as providing visual support in lesson materials. (Holly, Post-survey) For me, it is the curriculum resource website. Because it integrates all the DI through the whole package, that is, initiatives, motivations, lesson plans, activities and assessments. (Nellie, Post-survey) Curriculum resource website- developing resources and lessons lends itself to differentiated instruction more easily than specific tasks. (Jim, Post-survey) Curriculum resources website- accumulating a variety of resources that can be used to achieve different goals and support UDL/DI in the classroom. (Elizabeth, Post-survey) Curriculum resources website- because we could create our own lesson plans incorporating differentiated instruction, there was more freedom than the other two projects. (Karen, Post-survey)

Challenges Faced by TCs: the Noted Progress

In the pre-survey, several themes emerged from TCs’ responses on perceived challenges that may hinder their DI implementation. Out of 17 TCs, eight mentioned time needed for preparation; seven mentioned challenges related to resources; seven mentioned admin-related reasons such as support, funding, class size, and PD; five mentioned student factors such as engagement and interest or special needs; four TCs stated teacher knowledge or skills; three mentioned online teaching during the pandemic; and one mentioned curriculum mandates.

In the post-survey, TCs reflected on the challenges they faced while trying to implement DI in their course assignments. Two main themes emerged as challenges from eight TCs’ responses: (1) specific content knowledge or skills related to an assignment (mentioned by five TCs) and (2) unknown students in the case of course assignments or having too many differences to account for in one classroom (mentioned by four TCs). With respect to the specific content knowledge and specific task skills, TCs said:

Some topics lend themselves better to EDI principles whereas others are heavily rooted in science and minute processes (e.g., metabolic processes). (Meredith, Post-survey) It was very difficult to differentiate instruction within the DVG assignment, as it required a lot of external knowledge on how to do this effectively. (Roy, Post-survey) It was difficult in the DVG because we wanted to keep the game simple and still incorporate DI and EDI. (Karen, Post-survey)

Four TCs mentioned the challenge related to having too many differences to account for or in their case creating a course assignment for a hypothetical classroom where students are unknown. TCs said:

The challenge is to cater to everyone’s individual needs. Yes, there are things we can do to differentiate learning that benefits all students, but there will always be some students left unaccounted for, no matter what. (Erin, Post-survey) Difficult when you are not making it for a known group of students. You are unsure what to highlight and focus on for EDI. (Angela, Post-survey)

While the latter responses were written as a challenge, they actually represent a positive note. These statements reflect that TCs have shown appreciation and awareness of student differences, which is the core of DI principles. Finally, it is worth mentioning that in general the reported challenges are very specific in nature and are in contrast to those reported in the literature such as the lack of teachers’ knowledge or skills in DI, low teacher motivation, and lack of resources. The reported challenges are not profound so as to impact TCs’ implementation of DI.

Thus, when comparing TCs’ pre-course survey reflections about the expected challenges to those in the post-course survey, the previously emerging themes related to resource availability and TCs’ knowledge and skills implementing EDI strategies were not significant. The stated challenges at the end of the course revealed that resources and strategies provided in the course helped TCs surpass the perceived obstacle of preparing resources that reflect DI principles. This benefit is possibly due to the fact that TCs had gained practical experience creating such resources and advancing their pedagogical knowledge integrating DI strategies, which reiterates the effectiveness of the course in enhancing TCs’ DI conceptions and self-efficacy toward DI.

This research focuses on intermediate-senior STEM TCs’ teacher preparation emphasizing their implementation of DI in teacher education courses. TCs reflected on their improved ability to integrate DI practices in their STEM curriculum and pedagogy course assignments. This result highlights the positive impact of the course on their professional knowledge related to DI, and hence adequate preparation of teachers to implement DI in their future practices.

While some research studies show that novice teachers express less willingness to implement DI due to various challenges (Garrett, 2017 ; Rollins, 2010 ; Wertheim & Leyser, 2002 ), the STEM course with DI-focused elements highlights the importance of PD opportunities aimed at enhancing TCs’ implementation of DI. The STEM curriculum and pedagogy course adopted an intensive and explicit reflective approach in teaching about several elements, as well as DI through rounds of discussion, feedback on TCs’ course work, and scaffolded course tasks to ensure advancement in TCs’ understanding and skill mastery. The adopted strategies were rooted in socio-cultural learning theories and based on communities of practice through resource and expertise sharing. These results call for adopting similar training approaches in other courses in teacher education programs to ensure that DI principles and strategies are deeply understood and proficiently practiced by TCs. This finding is in accordance with research highlighting the importance of DI-focused training in teacher education programs on TCs’ understanding (Dack, 2018 ; Goodnough, 2010 ) and implementation of DI (Adlam, 2007 ; Wan, 2017 ).

Teacher candidates' coursework showed that they were able to design lesson plans and curriculum resources that are differentiated in content, process, and product, with higher proficiency in differentiating the process specifically. These results are reflected in the literature indicating that the content and product differentiation are less understood by teachers compared to the process (Rollins, 2010 ; Turner & Solis, 2017 ). It is important to note that the three assignments were helpful in different ways, which is also a scaffolding approach used by the TCs. TCs were trying different DI approaches in each assignment and choosing what was of particular relevance. For instance, the case studies enabled TCs to take diversity and different perspectives into consideration. DVGs are were of specific significance in differentiating the difficulty levels, scaffolding, and considering diversity and inclusion in race, gender, etc. On the other hand, the websites enabled TCs to apply all their acquired knowledge and skills about DI to create teaching and assessment resources. Both the wide variety and required depth of DI implementation in various course tasks ensured an adequate exposure of TCs to various forms of DI.

Finally, challenges encountered and anticipated by TCs are worth noting. When comparing TCs’ pre-course survey reflections about the expected challenges to those in the post-course survey, the previously identified themes related to resource availability and TCs’ knowledge and skills in implementing EDI strategies were not significant. In contrast to those reported in the literature such as the lack of teachers’ knowledge or skills in DI (Adlam, 2007 ), low teacher motivation (Garrett, 2017 ; Rollins, 2010 ; Wertheim & Leyser, 2002 ), and lack of resources (de Jager, 2017 ; Park & Datnow, 2017 ; Turner & Solis, 2017 ; Wan, 2017 ), the reported challenges do not reflect deep or profound obstacles that would impact TCs’ implementation of DI in the future. The stated challenges at the end of the course revealed that resources and strategies provided by the course helped TCs surpass the perceived obstacle of preparing resources that reflect DI principles.


This study provides rich description of TCs’ DI implementation in the course from several data sources, thus ensuring data triangulation. Yet, the major limitation pertains to TCs’ implementation of DI in their practicum and future practices. Future research can further explore this aspect by observing TCs in their practicum to provide them with feedback and attain a more comprehensive understanding of their practices and DI implementation. Moreover, one of the major challenges encountered in this study was the COVID-19 pandemic which led to the 12-week course being offered online. This shift required all course activities to be conducted online, which may have affected TCs in terms of face-to-face collaborations and social engagement as they researched and developed assignments. Additionally, in general, the pandemic added a huge burden on TCs and can thus be perceived as a stressor that may have affected the quality of work that TCs produced. Finally, the unique nature of the STEM curriculum and pedagogy course, offered to specific TCs who are enrolled in the STEM specialty, may affect the extent to which one can generalize from the findings presented in this study.


This research addresses the most pressing challenges that hinder DI implementation as reported by teachers, such as availability of resources (Adlam, 2007 ; Griful-Freixenet et al., 2021 ; Paone, 2017 ), required time for lesson planning (Adlam, 2007 ; Brevik et al., 2018 ; Paone, 2017 ), and ability to plan for DI (Griful-Freixenet et al., 2021 ; Kendrick-Weikle, 2015 ; Rollins, 2010 ). Thus, the course has addressed an important need for training TCs to enhance their understanding and implementation of DI (Casey & Gable, 2012 ; Rollins, 2010 ). One major challenge that warrants further research is training in-service teachers and TCs on differentiating instruction in online environments, given online teaching is gaining traction post-COVID-19 pandemic.

This research informs teacher educators and curriculum designers about practical measures to include DI practices in teacher education courses. This implication is timely as most teacher education programs are currently striving to integrate equitable and inclusive pedagogies in their curriculum and overall planning. The study shows that EDI practices such as DI must and can be woven into all requirements of teacher education programs, rather than restricting those principles to inclusive education or special education courses only. The study also informs heads of departments, policy makers, and school administrators about the successes and challenges of similar PD initiatives, in the hopes that more of these PD programs are implemented with in-service teachers to revitalize their teaching practices.

Data Availability


All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This research has acquired ethical approval from Western University Non-Medical Research Ethics Board (Project ID: 114831).

The authors declare no competing interests.

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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What Differentiated Instruction Really Means

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1. Focus on growth instead of loss

2. offer empathy, not interventions, 3. plan instruction that is equitable, not equal, 4. assume positive intent.

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  • The focus standard is clearly ­identified.
  • Learning intentions are clearly defined (these are the discrete skills and/or concepts derived from the standard).
  • The success criteria are clearly identified (these are the indicators that the student has mastered the learning intention. Collectively they indicate proficiency in the learning intention).
  • For the success criterion, there are formative assessments. Evidence from these formative assessments is then regularly used to inform instruction. And with that data we. . . .

Shame Blocks Learning

When students feel shame, it renders them incapable of learning and may likely lead to other adverse behaviors. When we pull students from their classes (whether for remediation or extension), we run the high risk of inducing shame in them. Instead, we can structure our lessons to provide additional instruction and practice to students at their readiness level while simultaneously exposing them to grade-level content and skills.

We assume that differentiation *must* have this or *must* have that when really differentiation only needs to include one thing: a clear focus on students’ academic and social-emotional needs.

Author Image

Reflect & Discuss

How can educators reframe the concept of “learning loss” to instead focus on growth?

Do you always assume positive intent in the classroom? How can you use these moments to more closely understand your students’ needs?

Do you agree that we need differentiation now more than ever?

Kornfield, J. (2018). Buddha’s little instruction book . New York: Bantam.

O’Connor, P. (June 2021). Empathy over ambush. Psychology Today, pp. 34–35.

Westman, L. (2020, May). Why we need differentiation now more than ever. Education Update, 62 (5).

differentiated instruction 2021

Lisa Westman is an author, speaker, and consultant who works regularly with school systems across the country to effectively implement student-driven differentiation, standards-based learning, and instructional coaching programs. Her presentations are designed to "keep it real," focusing on specific models and strategies that all educators can implement—and, more importantly, want to implement. She is passionate about teaching and learning, and she is dedicated to effecting change that positively affects both students and educators. Her recent publications include Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin Press, 2018) and Teaching with Empathy: How to Transform Your Practice by Understanding Your Learners (ASCD, August 2021).

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

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