Kung Fu Panda understands differentiation's secret ingredient

I love that scene in Kung Fu Panda. It is the end of the movie, and the team, including Po, have just defeated Tai Lung the fearsome snow leopard. Po is about to leave the village when his adoptive father, Mr Ping reveals to him the secret of his Secret Ingredient Soup. “The secret ingredient is nothing”, says Mr Ping in a rush. “Wait, wait,” says Po, “it’s just plain old noodle soup, you don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?” “You don’t have to,” answers Mr Ping. “To make something special you just have to believe it’s special”.

Of course, the message of the movie, highlighted in the lack of secret ingredients and the blank dragon scroll, is that there is no secret recipe or formula for success. It’s going to be up to you, and your hard work. Differentiation is like that too.

The differentiation secret ingredient

I think the problem with differentiation is that it has become seen as a catch-all cry for teachers. “Here, let me show you how to differentiate”, people say, as though it is something that we “do or do not” (borrowing from another famous movie). As though it is something magic that we can somehow implement and make everything in our classroom work. The result of this attitude, this conception of differentiation, is a growing criticism that it is somehow seen as a panacea.  A cure-all for that ails classrooms and if teachers ‘do’ it correctly they will be successful.

But let me disabuse you – like Po, it is time to learn, there is no secret ingredient. No silver bullets. No magic scroll. No shortcuts. Differentiation, says Tomlinson, is 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” (Carol Tomlinson, 2017, Chapter 1).

That’s it. It’s work, hard work. You as the teacher working hard to make things work for ALL your students. Differentiating the curriculum refers to the need to

  • tailor the teaching environments and our practices as teachers to create an inclusive classroom
  • planning your classroom curriculum in such a way that you consistently address student differences by creating appropriately different learning strategies and experiences for them, in the context of the whole classroom, and
  • trying things out, reflecting and resetting.

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! (You can read more about this here)

Differentiation’s secret ingredient is YOU

I take it back. There is a secret ingredient. Differentiation’s secret ingredient is you, the teacher. The teacher in the classroom, and your willingness to make the classroom work, to seek success for all your students. But, like Po, you are never alone. There is a team of people waiting to help you. I have spoken about some of these previously, Frank Williams, Benjamin Bloom and his team, June Maker, and Carol Tomlinson. Let me introduce you to another framework to help you differentiate your classroom as you move towards creating an inclusive environment.

The Sandra Kaplan Differentiation model

Sandra Kaplan, like others, was interested in creating a curriculum that was qualitatively different for gifted and talented students. Her model presents another way of thinking about teaching and learning in the classroom. She presents 3 principles for appropriately differentiating curriculum. According to Sandra, for teachers to plan a differentiated curriculum, planning should

  • Be centred on a theme, big idea or universal concept – this ensures all students are included. The creation of ‘difference’ happens in the content, process and product. Where the process should be skills-based, focused on productive thinking, research and what she termed the basic skills.
  • Be individualised for each student with additional needs. Make sure that students have a qualitatively different experience to support their learning and ultimate success in the classroom. And,
  • Reflect students’ characteristics, abilities, interests and values in all areas of the planned curriculum.

This is a very brief overview of the principles that form the foundation of her model. How it works out in practice is beyond the scope of this short post. But at the heart of her model is the student. And their experience of an appropriate curriculum to enable and support their learning. That is at the heart of differentiation.

And that is at the heart of almost every teacher – differentiation’s secret ingredient.

A closing comment

I was much heartened recently to read the interim report of the NSW Curriculum Review, Nurturing Wonder and Igniting Passion. In Chapter 8 of the report, Reforming the structure of the curriculum, the authors call for the creation of a more flexible curriculum.

A curriculum that is not based on year levels but on a sequence of levels of increasing knowledge, understanding and skills. Where the focus is on students’ progress, not which grade they are in. Not restructuring the school, but the curriculum. And where teachers monitor the strengths and weaknesses of students across the years of school (p. 91).

And a curriculum where teachers’ professional judgements are trusted. Teachers who know their learners and their diverse needs best. Instead of a curriculum that is based on specific content and length of time to teach it, a curriculum framework that enables teachers to “establish the points students have reached in their learning and to identify appropriate next steps” for them to take (p. 85).

This is at the heart of differentiation. It’s not really a secret ingredient. It’s just good teaching practice.


Kaplan, S. N. (1974). Providing programs for the gifted and talented: A handbook. Los Angeles, CA: Office of Education, Washington, DC

Kaplan, S. N. (1986). The grid: A model to construct differentiated curriculum for the Gifted. In J. Renzulli (Ed.), Systems and models for developing programs for the gifted and talented (pp. 461-484). Mansfield, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Also! Available now…

My latest 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!

The Secret Ingredient
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