I decided to take my Man cap shopping. My Man has this favourite cap. He’s had it for years. It’s done the rounds. Camping, hiking, touring. It’s gone to soccer when my sons were little. I think that’s when he bought it, as my 7-year-old’s coach! (He’s now 22). It’s pretty mangy, and I felt it was time for a new one. It’s not his only cap – we bought a new one in Canada last year when we were there for a wedding. But this one is his favourite.

The problem is, his head is big! I mean the circumference of his head is 62cm. Dr Google tells me the size of an average man’s head is 53-58cm. This means my Man’s head is 4cm bigger than the largest average! You know where this is heading right? We cannot find him a cap! Every one of the ones we pick up says “one size fits all”. And of course, that’s fine if you are average. But, we’ve already established, that my Man is NOT Mr. Average!

One size does not fit all

What becomes very clear – in hats and caps, one size does NOT fit all. But this set me thinking, that it is the same in education – one size does not fit all there either. As teachers, we must learn to individualise the curriculum to meet the diverse learning needs of our students. One term we use to describe this process is to differentiate the classroom curriculum, the process of adapting our classroom work to individual differences.

The idea of differentiation, catering for individual differences, has been part of the lexicon of teaching for some considerable time (Snyder, 2009). The earliest reference to it that I have been able to locate is an article by Carleton Washburne (1953), who describes how differentiation works in a classroom, by giving special help to some students, whilst enriching the classroom for others. But is that all there is to it?

Sometimes, when describing a concept, it is easier, to begin with, what it is not. In this case, differentiation is not about an ILP for every student. I think we would all agree, that is impossible! There is no way that we can make that happen for every student in the classroom. It would kill us as teachers. It is also not, as Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) point out, a set of specific teaching strategies to follow, you can’t be shown how to do it, there is no easy guide, and it isn’t something you “do or do not”. All of those are myths and misconceptions. So, if we know what it is NOT, then, what is it?

What’s in a word?

Differentiation is a sociological curriculum response to the education of children with additional needs. Sociological responses see the need for educational interventions as the outcome of social processes, rather than something inherent in the child. Sociological curriculum responses comprise a broad range of interventions using the curriculum, the effect of which is to move a classroom to a more inclusive environment, it treats every child as part of a whole classroom environment (Clough & Corbett, 2000).  

Differentiation, then, refers to the need to adapt and tailor the teaching environments and our practices as teachers to create appropriately different learning strategies and experiences for our different students, in the context of the whole classroom. it is, says Carol Tomlinson, a way of thinking about teaching and learning, a “means of “shaking up” what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn” (Tomlinson, 2017). It

Differentiation is in fact a set of principles, a way of thinking about teaching and learning in your classroom, the result of trying things out, reflecting and resetting. It is about planning your classroom curriculum in such a way that you consistently address student differences. And differentiation is about the curriculum, the content, the processes, the product and the learning environment, and how these are considered together to create an inclusive classroom.

What is exciting is that differentiating the classroom will be unique for every teacher and every group of students! Remember that. It is important to understand that what I do to differentiate my class is different from what you will do. And what I do this year, will be different to what I do next year with a new class!

Differentiation and the Australian Curriculum

The Australian Curriculum does not use the term differentiation. It uses the term adjustments exclusively, to describe the actions teachers should take to adjust the learning focus of the age-equivalent learning area when personalising the learning for their students (ACARA, 2019). Adjustments are a measure or an action that teachers take to provide equitable opportunities for students to participate in their education, according to individual student needs.

The term adjustment finds its footprint in a psycho-medical legacy, which sees the special educational needs as arising from children’s own characteristics (Clough & Corbett, 2000). Implicit in this is that as teachers we will make an adjustment from the norm, implying there is a normative standard that must be adjusted. The design of the Australian Curriculum is still around what a ‘typical’ child should be able to understand and do (ACARA, 2013, p. 22), thus relegating some children, generally those with additional needs, to being atypical (Price & Slee, 2018).

Buying a cap

To get my Man a cap, we ended up at a slightly pricier skate shop. Why there? Because they recognised that there are individual differences, and in their community, they cater for all, not just the average. He even had a choice! Colour, style, price.

As teachers, we also have this option. We have a choice to make – do we adjust, working with the individual student and their needs? Or, do we differentiate, working with the classroom as a whole, the child in its community? You can guess what my option would be!

Where next?


 I don’t just want to leave you here – wondering how to go about it. I have written several posts previously on differentiation, which you can check out on my website here. However, my book, Curriculum Journeys – Towards Inclusion (A Journey through the World of Curriculum Frameworks for the inclusive education of ALL Students), gives more detail on the process of planning for an inclusive classroom. Framed as a journey through curriculum frameworks, the book takes you, the practising teacher, through seven different planning frameworks for developing a 21st Century inclusive classroom learning environment, one where all students can learn. You can find it on Amazon now!


Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2013). The Shape of the Australian Curriculum. Retrieved from Sydney, NSW: http://docs.acara.edu.au/resources/The_Shape_of_the_Australian_Curriculum_v4.pdf

Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2019). Student Diversity. Retrieved from https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/resources/student-diversity/

Clough, P., & Corbett, J. (2000). Theories of inclusive education: A students’ guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Price, D., & Slee, R. (2018). An Australian curriculum that includes diverse learners: The case of students with a disability. In A. Reid & D. Price (Eds.), The Australian Curriculum: Promises, Problems and Possibilities (pp. 3-18). Deakin, ACT: Australian Curriculum Studies Association.

Snyder, D. (2009). A Brief History of Differentiated Instruction. ASCD Express, 4(25).

Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom: ASCD.

Featured photo image by Kaycee Ingram on Unsplash

Differentiation – If the cap fits!
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