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

The Pros and Cons of Differentiated Instruction in CTE

August 4th, 2021 | 8 min. read

Mike Cescon

Mike Cescon

With past experience in teaching, a couple of degrees in writing, and an upbringing immersed in medical jargon, Mike is positioned well to hear out the most common questions teachers ask about the iCEV curriculum. His goal is to write content that quickly and effectively answers these questions so you can back to what matters - teaching your students.

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There’s no denying it: implementing differentiated instruction is a huge leap to take for your CTE class. Successfully differentiating your course means putting in a lot of time, effort, and creativity that many teachers feel they’re unequipped to do. 

After all, how can you be sure there’s a benefit to be gained? What exactly does differentiated instruction bring to the table? Will it help your students, or will it only hinder them? What are the many variables you have to keep in mind to ensure it goes well? 

As a CTE curriculum provider, we’ve heard all of these questions from teachers over the years. When it comes to differentiated instruction, many teachers want to educate themselves before making a decision. 

In this article, you’ll discover answers to four common questions CTE teachers ask about differentiated instruction:

  1. What Is Differentiated Instruction?
  2. What Are the Pros of Differentiated Instruction?
  3. What Are the Cons of Differentiated Instruction?
  4. Is Differentiated Instruction Right for Your Classroom?

By the end of this article, you’ll better understand the pros and cons of differentiated instruction so you can determine whether it aligns with your teaching style.

What Is Differentiated Instruction?


Differentiated instruction is when you adapt and diversify your teaching style to fit each student--regardless of ability. When you do this, you ensure each student is learning in the way that best fits them.

This teaching strategy can take several forms, but generally involves providing the learners in your class with several avenues for learning course material, depending on their preferences and needs. 

Generally, there are four aspects of classroom instruction that teachers can differentiate: 

  1. Content - Teachers can customize the specific content a student consumes to align with that student’s understanding of the course material. 
  2. Process - Teachers can change how material is delivered to best appeal to a student’s preferred learning style. 
  3. Product - Teachers can assess student understanding in various ways depending on what comes most naturally to each student. 
  4. Learning environment - Teachers can tweak the physical and social atmosphere of the classroom to best support their students and facilitate their learning. 

For many teachers, differentiated instruction makes perfect sense as an educational philosophy. 

After all, students come from diverse backgrounds, have different levels of interest, motivation, or ability when it comes to certain topics, and may even learn material best in different ways. Therefore, a framework flexible enough to teach students via the methods most effective for them seems like a complete benefit to the classroom. 

What Are the Pros of Differentiated Instruction?


There are several solid benefits to incorporating differentiated instruction in your classroom. Many teachers swear by this teaching philosophy for a reason, and believe that the improvements it makes to their classrooms far outweigh the drawbacks. 

It Allows Students to Learn in Their Own Ways, at Their Own Pace

By differentiating your classroom, you tailor each student’s experience to ensure they learn in the best way they can. 

This is undoubtedly the most important reason CTE teachers incorporate differentiated instruction in the classroom. Instead of relying on a single lecture or set of assignments with which every student is tested, when you differentiate, you customize your classroom so that each student learns in the most effective way for them, and at a pace they’re comfortable with. 

In practice, this could mean having some students read from a textbook, while others complete hands-on practice. Or maybe you have some students take an assessment at the end of a unit, while others complete a creative project. 

However it may look in your classroom, many teachers believe that allowing students to learn in their own ways is the key to an ideal learning environment.

It Increases Student Engagement

Differentiated instruction is an effective way to make sure your students are engaging with your course material. 

After all, differentiation is a strategy intended to help you tailor your course to best fit each of your students’ preferred interests and learning methods, and this naturally leads to students feeling more engaged. 

For instance, if you have a student who hates tests but loves to write, you could offer an alternative writing assessment for them at the end of a unit. That way, instead of dreading taking a test--and disengaging from the class because of it--the student might feel excited over their writing assignment and pay closer attention in class to make sure they do it well. 

In a more general sense, when you differentiate, you might also have a wider spread of course material to draw from--textbooks for some, lectures or PowerPoints for others--which means you will have enough daily variety to break up the monotony of the classroom. 

With the vast array of material differentiation provides--and the fact that you’re customizing the course to appeal best to students--it’s no surprise that it helps with student engagement.

It Grants More Flexibility and Creativity for Teachers

For teachers who love developing lesson plans and need a framework that will be adaptable day to day, differentiated instruction provides lots of potential for both creativity and flexibility. 

While some teachers prefer saving time when it comes to prepping for class, others love nothing more than pouring their creative energy into lessons and ensuring each day is as well-rounded and comprehensive as possible. 

For the latter group, differentiated instruction is unmatched in providing you the opportunity to design interesting and creative lessons for your students. In many ways, when you differentiate, you’re really teaching several lessons at once--one for each diverse group of learners in your classroom. 

When it comes to flexibility, differentiation provides room for unexpected changes or shifts within the classroom. For example, students who aren’t learning well by reading a textbook could instead learn from videos or PowerPoints. Similarly, students who panic at the thought of writing an essay could instead complete a hands-on art project to demonstrate what they’ve learned. 

Differentiation naturally casts a wider net within the classroom, which allows teachers to get creative with their lesson plans, or be flexible with how their students learn.

What Are the Cons of Differentiated Instruction?


Despite these benefits to differentiation in the classroom, it’s still not a teaching strategy that appeals to everyone. In fact, there are significant drawbacks to differentiated instruction that are enough to stop teachers from using it in their classrooms. 

It Takes Extra Time and Effort to Implement

Let’s face it: teaching is a hard job. Between developing units and lesson plans, giving lectures, and spending hours each week reading and grading assignments, it’s a wonder you have time to do anything else. 

If you’re already pressed for time or swamped with work, differentiated instruction might not be the right teaching strategy for you. 

Differentiation works best when instructors have the time and energy necessary to deeply consider the needs of each of their students so they can tailor their classrooms to fit those needs. 

Many teachers are simply too busy to accomplish this, and might be better off sticking with more traditional teaching styles. 

It’s Less Adaptable to Larger Class Sizes

Many CTE teachers are facing increasingly larger class sizes. If that's true for your program, you may find it difficult to differentiate your classroom for each student's needs

The more students you have, after all, the more difficult it is to give each of them the thought they deserve when tailoring the classroom to fit their needs.

More than likely, you’ll have to divide students into small groups based on ability or preferred learning style, and then tailor your lessons to them, instead. 

While this strategy might work for classes of twenty or so students, for larger class sizes, differentiating can become too unwieldy. 

It Can Be Difficult for Inexperienced Teachers to Use

Many teachers don’t use differentiated instruction--in fact, most probably don’t. This is key to remember because it means there is naturally less of a support system in place if you choose to differentiate your classroom. 

It’s common for new CTE teachers to consult other teachers for advice on running a classroom, engaging their students, finding the right course material, and more. Beyond that, there are already thousands of online resources to help new teachers try their hand at traditional instruction. 

However, if you run a differentiated classroom, you’re more likely to be on your own when it comes to finding what works best to help your students learn. Many teachers you talk to will probably have far less experience differentiating their classrooms, and that means there will likely be fewer resources available online to guide you through it, too. 

If you rely heavily on the advice of fellow teachers to help you plan and manage your class, differentiated instruction might hinder you, since fewer teachers use it every day in the classroom.

Its Effectiveness Isn’t Scientifically Proven

While there is some scientific evidence that differentiated instruction is an effective teaching strategy, the fact remains there hasn’t been a large body of research conducted on it yet. 

For many teachers, this can be a deal-breaker. After all, differentiated instruction takes a lot more time and effort to implement than traditional instruction, and it can be disheartening to put in all of that work for no apparent benefit to students. 

While teachers who use differentiation often swear by it, the bottom line is that the lack of evidence supporting its effectiveness is a drawback. 

If you want to stick to tried and true teaching methods outright proven by science to work, then differentiated instruction probably isn’t the right choice for you.

Is Differentiated Instruction Right for Your Classroom?


Differentiated instruction is a bold, complex teaching philosophy that can feel overwhelming to explore. Some teachers love it and claim it revolutionized their classrooms, while others hate it and point to the lack of scientific evidence proving its effectiveness. Still more are just lost when it comes to differentiation, unsure where to begin with researching it. 

In this article, you’ve learned some of the pros and cons of differentiated instruction and the kinds of teachers best equipped to implement it: 

For teachers who are prepared, differentiation can be an exciting, creative experiment to conduct within the classroom. 

It grants more flexibility, and may further engage your students and help them learn in the unique ways that work most effectively for them. 

However, for those who lack the time or teaching experience, it might be best to stick with more traditional teaching methods. 

Successful differentiation requires extra time, effort, and research to accomplish, and those already stretched thin likely won’t have the energy to dedicate to it. More than that, it isn’t optimized for large class sizes, and doesn’t have much scientific evidence to prove its efficiency. 

If you don’t mind these drawbacks, however, and are up to the challenge that differentiation offers, then the next step for you is to find strategies to implement it in your classroom. To get started, read this article on the 9 Best Differentiated Instruction Strategies for CTE!

This article will provide you with actionable ways to get started on differentiating your class, offering guidance on flipping your classroom, creating pods, and more!

Discover the 9 Best Differentiated Instruction Strategies for CTE