Category Archives: Learning theory

Does Differentiated Instruction belong in higher education?

The arguments for…

  1. In higher education, learners are predominantly adults with a clearer idea of what they wish to learn compared with children. According to the adult learning theory devised by Malcolm Knowles in the 1960s that popularised the term ‘andragogy’ (vs ‘pedagogy’), one characteristic of adult learners’ motivation is the willingness to learn when the subject matter is relevant to their perceived needs. In this regard, differentiated instruction (DI) offers an advantage in that, amongst the repertoire of DI strategies are some which differentiate content of learning for individual students. As an example, following a pre-test of relevant knowledge, lecturers can ‘curriculum compact’, i.e. excuse a learner from studying particular content because they have already exhibited sufficient mastery, thus buying time for them to acquire other knowledge. A second DI strategy that applies here is the ‘learning contract’, the negotiation of which factors in a student’s needs and interests. So, DI does offer a range of techniques to tailor courses for individual adult learners.
  2. At colleges, polytechnics and universities, student populations are often highly diverse. Besides readiness, interest and learning profiles (Tomlinson, 2005), there are numerous other factors that distinguish students from each other:
  • nationality
  • physical disability
  • specific learning disorder, e.g. dyspraxia
  • age
  • gender
  • socioeconomic status
  • ethnicity
  • religion
  • mode of study, e.g. part-time
  • etc.

In this situation, it can be argued that the question is not whether such diversity should be catered for but how it should be catered for, and DI is a rare example of a systematic yet versatile response that is available to higher education lecturers.

  1. Educators in higher education can draw confidence from the insights gained by researchers who have looked into the impact of DI in school-level education. There have been positive findings about the effect of DI on motivation, for example. (For a list of key findings about DI, see my blog entry on the topic.) Although it may be retorted that primary and secondary level education is not sufficiently relatable to higher education, it is interesting to note that in other areas, research discoveries from elementary and high school education are highly respected at university level, e.g. Black & Wiliam’s seminal work on the effectiveness of formative assessment.
  2. There have been some experiments with DI at tertiary level with positive results. As an example, Ernst & Ernst (2005) reported that “students generally responded favorably to the differentiated approach, reporting higher levels of intellectual growth”.

The arguments against…

  1. Another assumption about adult learners in Knowles’ andragogy theory runs counter to the one of the main tenets of differentiated instruction. Adult learners, says Knowles, need to be self-directed in their learning whereas in DI, the person making decisions about learning is usually the instructor, with some input from learners. Since DI was developed for younger learners, the element of control by teachers is stronger than one would expect to encounter in university settings.
  2. There have been some experiments with DI at tertiary level with negative results. In the same paper, Ernst & Ernst (2005), flags were raised about the increased time commitment needed to implement DI and it was reported that “instructor’s concerns related to the fairness of the approach”.
  3. There are alternatives to DI such as Universal Design for Learning and the increased use of Technology Enhanced Learning in order to accommodate individual learning differences.
  4. Compared with school teachers, university lecturers may not always know their students that well. This is because student cohorts may be large, contact hours may be lower, and students may go AWOL from time to time. If the lecturers are not that well informed about the learners, then any attempt at differentiated instruction would be based upon assumptions. By contrast, primary/elementary school teachers will have much greater opportunity to find about their learners and therefore apply DI more meaningfully.

So, what to do? Adopt or ignore DI?

As I have proposed in another blog entry, entitled Can differentiated instruction lead to self-directed learning?, I suggest that DI could serve as an interim measure in higher education. There may be many university students who are already self-directed but, given the increased access to higher education compared with a generation ago, it is reasonable to suppose that a more directive approach such as DI could be appropriate on occasion and for particular learners.


Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

Ernst, H.R. & Ernst, T.L. (2005) The promise and pitfalls of differentiated instruction for undergraduate Political Science courses: Student and instructor impressions of an unconventional teaching strategy, Journal of Political Science Education, 1:1, 39-59.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2005) How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.


Why I hate “knowledge sharing”!!

In recent years, I’ve witnessed the term “knowledge sharing” being used in educational institutions. At numerous schools and universities I have been invited to, required to attend, and even facilitated “knowledge sharing” sessions.

Having grown to detest this term, I thought it was about time to explain my feelings in a blog post. Be warned though, I am not attempting to share with you!! As this is not a dialogue, it’s really up to you to construct knowledge by reference to my input and your schema.

What’s so bad about sharing?

Firstly, before you think of me as a mean-spirited fellow, I’m not averse to sharing per se. I would quite happily share with you my last piece of chocolate cake, or other food, or even the cold that I have at the moment. It’s the use of the term “knowledge sharing” in particular that gets my goat.

Why does this term annoy me?

Partly, it’s the euphemistic nature. If I’m asked to attend a briefing, a meeting or a seminar then I’m fine. Those terms are emotionally neutral to me. However, a “sharing session” sounds so horribly sweet. How adorable that someone is willing to share!! Gag! As far as I’m concerned attending such a session is still a work task. Any attempt to make the event sound more attractive by giving it a pleasant name actually makes me feel worse.

Where did the term “knowledge sharing” originate?

I believe it’s from the Business discipline of Knowledge Management which is an approach to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of company personnel, and then hopefully whole organisations. If you’re interested in reading more about it, one of the popular writers about knowledge sharing and management is David Gurteen. See

Why has it gained such popularity in the education arena?

It has probably done so because, rightly or wrongly, many educational establishments have adopted quasi-business models of practice. A vocabulary set has accompanied these models – such terms as “performance management” and “knowledge sharing”.  Unfortunately, this term has been adopted unquestioningly by many educators who, through their own studies of learning theory, should know better.

What characterises a “knowledge sharing” session?

In my experience nothing much, really. I imagine Knowledge Management theorists envisage something more like an interplay of ideas between professionals, informing but also encouraging each other to think from multiple perspectives and thereby gain valuable insights and a more holistic approach to their work. Which would be nice. Unfortunately, in my experience, sharing sessions in schools and colleges are more like briefings or lectures than seminars, with little in the way of interaction, just passive listening to the person invited to “share”.

Why is it inappropriate to use the term “knowledge sharing” in an educational setting?

The assumption by someone coining the term “knowledge sharing” must be that knowledge is something objectively real that can be passed intact and unchanged from one person to another. During the twentieth century, thanks to researchers such as Dewey, Montessori, Vygotsky and Piaget and supported by more recent findings in neuroscience, the idea that knowledge acquisition results from straightforward transmission from one human to another is passé.  “Sharing” is simply the wrong metaphor. Knowledge is not given or received; people construct their own meanings.

Thanks for listening to my rant!