The Pros and Cons of Differentiated Instruction in CTE Blog Feature
Sarah Layton

By: Sarah Layton on December 6th, 2018

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The Pros and Cons of Differentiated Instruction in CTE

Blended Learning | Career and Technical Education (CTE) | Differentiated Instruction | Teaching Strategies

Do you ever consider the pros and cons of differentiated instruction?

If you teach middle or high school career and technical education (CTE) courses, chances are you are incorporating some kind of differentiated instruction in your classroom.

The reality is that, unlike core courses, CTE and electives have a greater variety of individual learners at different levels.

We know that's true because in our daily mission to create curriculum to help CTE teachers, we get valuable feedback.

It's always been clear that we need to address the need these teachers have for curriculum resources that are easily to implement as varied instruction.

But while differentiated instruction is the perfect solution for some, it may not be for others.

Before we get into the pros and cons of differentiated instruction, let's review what the term "differentiated instruction" it means!

What Is Differentiated Instruction?

I'd be remiss in jumping into the pros and cons of differentiated instruction without first establishing some common ground about what differentiation is.

ASCD defines differentiated instruction as a "teacher's response to learners' needs guided by general principles of differentiation such as respectful tasks, flexible grouping, and ongoing assessment and adjustment."

ASCD goes on to explain that "teachers can differentiate via content, process, and product according to students' readiness, interests, and learning profile."

Wikipedia's definition of differentiated instruction says it "is a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing different students with different avenues to learning (often in the same classroom) in terms of: acquiring content; processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability."

And as ASCD describes, Wikipedia also makes the point that "teachers can differentiate through four ways: 1) through content, 2) process, 3) product, and 4) learning environment based on the individual learner."

So what are the pros and cons of differentiated instruction?

Benefits of Differentiated Instruction

Since I'm no expert on the pros and cons of differentiated instruction myself, I did some digging to see what the consensus is.

That brought me to the Asia-Pacific Economics blog.

First, let me say that I appreciated their description of what differentiated instruction means about teaching: "[differentiated instruction] means stepping away from teaching in a classroom in only one way, and incorporating different things for different learning styles and personalities."

They then listed these positive aspects of differentiated instruction:

  1. Each Child is Taught to Their Learning Style
  2. Each Students Has an Individualized Learning Plan
  3. Teacher Creativity
  4. No Child Left Behind
  5. Flexibility

My next stop was VisionLaunch which had listed these very similar pros of differentiated instruction:

  1. Kids get to learn in a way that makes information retention easier.
  2. It documents how each child will learn so that everyone stays on the same page.
  3. It eliminates teaching routines that become cumbersome.
  4. It provides teachers with a higher level of flexibility.

You can see that both sources agree that differentiated instruction allows for greater creativity and flexibility for the teacher and helps students with their individual learning.

Criticism of Differentiated Curriculum

After understanding what differentiated instruction is, it might be difficult to believe that there are both pros AND cons of differentiated instruction.

But just as I found very positive things, I also found considerable criticism. 

The harshest criticism is that many argue that individual learning styles, upon which differentiated instruction is based, doesn't exist.

Here's what Wikipedia gathered:

"Differentiated instruction, and its basis in learning styles, has been cited as being unsubstantiated in any empirical fashion by multiple sources in educational research. These sources include Mike Schmoker of Education Week, who states that in an interview with an architect of DI, she conceded "There [is] no solid research or school evidence" in support of DI.[17] In Educational Research, John Geake states, "the evidence consistently shows that modifying a teaching approach to cater for differences in learning styles does not result in any improvement in learning outcomes", and that implementing learning styles, citing VAK specifically, does "not reflect how our brains actually learn, nor the individual differences we observe in classrooms".[18] In Psychological Science for the Public Interest, Pashler et al. note, "the literature fails to provide adequate support for applying learning-style assessments in school settings. Moreover, several studies that used appropriate research designs found evidence that contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis...[W]e feel that the widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources".[19]"

You don't have to look too hard to find this criticism supported.

However, even if learning styles are more a preference than anything else, and NOT any impediment to individual learning, I think we can all agree that the the idea of differentiated instructions still has merit.

So let's assume that the learning styles debate aside, what are criticisms of actually carrying out differentiated instruction in the classroom.

Asia-Pacific Economics Blog pointed out these cons of differentiated learning:

  1. Tougher Work Load for Teachers
  2. Time Constraints
  3. Children Learn at Different Paces
  4. Lack of Schedule

And VisionLaunch lists these cons:

  1. It essentially creates a second full-time job for the teacher.
  2. Some children could prevent the class from moving on.
  3. There really isn’t a schedule to follow.
  4. It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher.

Notice that both point out the increased work for teachers. That's a real problem. Teachers are already overburdened with an impossible load of tasks to complete. No matter how you slice it, differentiated instruction is going to add to that workload, at least in the beginning. Be sure to check out both referenced articles for detailed descriptions of their pros and cons of differentiated instruction.

Pros and Cons of Differentiated Instruction: Student Engagement

I'd like to leave you with one more big positive in the discussion of the pros and cons of differentiated instruction that wasn't so readily discussed elsewhere — student engagement.

Our product manager, Ken Richard, took a moment to explain how he thinks differentiated instruction is "key to student engagement."

He recommends differentiating lessons by "mixing it up, so you want to use some lecture, you want to use some PowerPoints, you want to give the students some worksheets to fill out.The digital curriculum is a great resource."

See the full video here:



So while there is certainly some debate about the pros and cons of differentiated instruction, the concept has merit.

If you put aside the idea of learning styles aside, there are still many things to gain from mixing things up in your classroom.

Perhaps the greatest is the student engagement that can result.

On the other hand, creating and maintaining differentiated lesson plans can be a real time-eater for teachers.

But there are some great resources out there that can help you create that differentiated environment with much less effort and time.

You have the power to decide whether or not differentiated instruction is right for you, your students, and your classroom.

Start Differentiating Your Instruction!

Are you ready to try differentiated instruction in your CTE classroom?

It can be overwhelming to try new things that change how you traditionally prepare and teach your lessons. That's why we put together a list of the 9 best differentiated instruction strategies for CTE teachers!

Dive into the article to get started:

Discover the 9 Best Differentiated Instruction Strategies for CTE


About Sarah Layton

Sarah is a contributing author to the AES blog. She is committed to helping instructors and students succeed both in and out of the classroom.