Differentiate to take advantage of diversity in the classroom, using digital technology (or not!)

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A joint dossier from Carrefour education and L'École branchée

Each student is unique. Each student learns in a different way. There is no greater heterogeneity than that experienced in a classroom. Moreover, the diversity of students has increased over the years. It is the result of multiple factors (socioeconomic, sociocultural, linguistic, psychosocial, gender, learning). And even if we tend to group students by specialized program, heterogeneity remains very present in each class. The pandemic has even given us an additional way to be aware of it.

Faced with these observations, it is illusory to think that a single way of teaching will suit all students. It therefore seems logical to adapt to the diversity of students in order to promote the development of each person's full potential and better meet the needs of the whole.

This is where educational differentiation comes into play. 

Educational differentiation is clearly identified as the main lever to bring all students to educational success, in the Quebec school training program as well as in the Policy on the evaluation of learning, and has been for several decades. However, it is a concept that remains poorly understood and that has encountered many difficulties in implementing it in schools, especially in secondary schools. 

Even today, its implementation is generally arbitrary and often the result of individual initiatives. Too many educators still believe that making educational differentiation means aiming for individualized and personalized teaching for each student. Others believe that this is a strategy where the teacher simply diversifies his teaching practices.

However, in differentiation, there is above all the posture of flexibility adopted by the teacher, the fact that he accepts that all students can learn and discover differently, that he sets up a context favorable to learning. learning for all. It is also the idea that it can help them to know themselves as learners and thus guide them towards the choice of the methods which suit them.

With this dossier, École branchée and Carrefour education wish to shed light on what educational differentiation is and should be. We want to provide ideas (choice of interventions and digital tools) so that the concept finally materializes in our schools.

We spoke with three experts on educational differentiation in Quebec: 

  • Mélanie Ducharme, educational advisor in evaluation and responsible for the certification of studies at the Center de services scolaire de Laval; 
  • Mélanie Paré, professor at the University of Montreal, researcher on inclusive education and passionate about educational differentiation; 
  • Mylène Leroux, Professor and Associate Researcher at the Interuniversity Research Center on Training and the Teaching Profession (CRIFPE), Université du Québec en Outaouais.

They present a definition of pedagogical differentiation and give examples to deploy it in the classroom.

The role that technological tools can play in differentiation is also discussed in this file using other sources of information, in particular references from Marie-Josée Marineau-Harnois, advisor at the RÉCIT national service in special education.

“Differentiation is not a bank of strategies, but rather a way of thinking about teaching and learning. "

- Carol Ann Tomlinson (2016)


  1. A definition of educational differentiation
  2. The 4 axes of educational differentiation
  3. What need does differentiation meet? 
  4. How to make the differentiation without increasing its task?
  5. And what will be the benefits for the class?
  6. Educational Differentiation vs Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  7. Differentiation and pandemic
  8. What more does digital technology allow?
  9. How can digital tools be used?
  10. How to choose the right tool?
  11. How to deploy pedagogical differentiation in a school?

1- A definition of educational differentiation

From the outset, the three education specialists with whom we spoke wanted to specify that the Quebec Ministry of Education uses the term pedagogical flexibility in order to deal with pedagogical differentiation. For their part, they opt for the term educational differentiation since it is the one that is used in all other writings around the world. We have therefore chosen to use the same term as they used in this dossier. 

There is no universal definition of educational differentiation, but several criteria allowing it to be characterized.

In one opinion of the Higher Education Council, he describes it as "a flexibility" that the teacher can use when he offers choices to the student during learning and evaluation situations.

According to Mylène Leroux and Mélanie Paré, differentiation is defined as follows:

  • Know and accept the individual characteristics and heterogeneous needs of students;
  • Offer teaching that suits the diversity of learning processes expressed in the classroom to bring each student to the maximum of his or her potential;
  • Take into account the context of the class-group in order to have common objectives;
  • Show flexibility in teaching by using a variety of means to accommodate these differences and advance each student.

Source: Leroux and Paré, (2016 6a p.8). Better meet the diverse needs of all students, Chenelière Education

For Mélanie Ducharme, educational differentiation must above all serve the educational success of students, by putting in place strategies to allow everyone to achieve constant progress. In particular, it makes it possible to reach students in their various interests and to keep them more motivated. The notion of progress has also been widely studied as a factor of success in students, in particular through the many works of John Hattie, whose École branchée recently reported the words following a conference given to school administrators in Quebec. 

In short, educational differentiation is aimed at all students. It does not modify the level of difficulty of the tasks to be accomplished nor the criteria for evaluating the skills targeted or the requirements to be fulfilled. It is planned by the teacher and fits into all aspects of the classroom. It is mainly about offering choice and variety to students. 

Pedagogical differentiation should not be confused with adaptation or modification (see image below), which are aimed at segments of students. 

Adaptation takes the form of accommodation for students with special needs according to their intervention plan, but it does not in any way reduce the expectations of these students (e.g. the student may have a little more time for an activity, to have access to an isolated room or to have the possibility of using correction software).

The modification, on the other hand, involves changes that reduce expectations in relation to the requirements of the Québec school training program for students with special needs (e.g. reading instructions or text to a student at the time of a reading assessment, light task or situation different from that offered to the whole group).

In this dossier, we focus on the differentiation aimed at all the students of the same class.

Source: Inspired by Higher Education Council

2- The 4 axes of educational differentiation

Educational differentiation can take many forms in a classroom. It must therefore be planned in order to apply it more effectively.

These choices may affect:

  1. content (what the student learns) (eg: choice between several novels for writing a literary review, different writing topics);
  2. structures (learning and evaluation environment) (eg: varied schedule, individual, team or collective work, work plan);
  3. the processes (means by which learning and evaluation are carried out) (eg: tool boxes (memory aid, checklist), variety of tools, type of instructions given);
  4. the productions (eg: oral presentation, debate or presentation, presentation medium).

Source: Inspired by CADRE21

The examples given represent avenues of differentiation. There is no manual. And be careful! It is not a question of making differentiation for all axes, warn the three specialists. The teacher will have to make choices among these. “We must aim for quality rather than quantity,” says Mélanie Ducharme. 

And this is where the needs of the students come into play. In fact, any differentiation process should start with an analysis of their needs, they say.

3- What needs does differentiation meet? 

"All the differences between the pupils do not pose the same challenges in the school environment, because all are not of the same nature", one reads in the opinion of the Superior council of education. 

To guide their teaching strategies, teachers must consider the needs of the students. Because, while the level of student engagement may depend on their expectations and personal tastes, it is also linked to their school experience and the psychological needs they seek to satisfy. 

Most researchers retain three basic needs: skills, autonomy and affiliation. Others add the need for security and significance. These psychological needs are generally organized in a pyramid fashion, similar to Maslow's pyramid, as shown in the image below. When they are not satisfied, avoidance, disturbing behaviors or signals can arise.

Source: Inspired by Figure 4.5 in Archambault and Chouinard, (2016). Towards an educational management of the classroom, 4th edition, Chenelière Education

“It is impossible to meet the individual needs of each student. We must therefore aim to meet the general needs of the group. To do this, the teacher must take the time to take a look at his group at the start of the school year. Yes, the exercise will have to be repeated every year, ”says Mylène Leroux.

The teacher's observations will allow him to get to know his group well, to take an objective look at its heterogeneity, and therefore to note the needs which are more present and which seem to have priority. The teacher can then determine his overall intention of differentiation. The assessment can be redone at mid-year to see if the needs have changed.

For some groups the need for socialization (or affiliation) will be stronger (have you ever heard a teacher say that their students are constantly talking?), For others it will be autonomy or security. 

Based on their intention, the teacher can choose strategies and tools that will be used with the whole group. At times, the strategies will meet one need or another better, but ultimately they will reach all students. For example, students will work in teams or in pairs at certain times. They will have the choice of the order in which they will complete a work sequence. They will be able to submit a work in written, oral (audio or video) form.

“Differentiation is an organized, flexible and proactive approach that allows teaching and learning to be adjusted to reach all students, and especially to allow them to progress to the maximum. To say that educational differentiation is “an organized approach” suggests that this approach does not leave learning to chance. It is thought, reflected. Yet it is “flexible and proactive” to adapt to the varied and changing needs of students. The ultimate goal, it should be remembered, is the progress of the pupil. "


4- How to differentiate without making your task heavier?

CADRE21's self-training thus formulates the principles of educational differentiation.

Mylène Leroux does not hesitate to compare the educational differentiation with the preparation of meals. “You can improvise every day, but it gets better when you plan. For me, planning for educational differentiation is like preparing meals for the week. It takes time to spend on Sunday, but for the rest of the week, we reheat the meals and save time. It's a different way of investing your time, ”she says. 

Hence the importance of properly identifying the needs of students at the start of the school year. It will take time at this point, but save precious minutes for the rest of the school year. 

“Like many other aspects of teaching, especially assessment, it all starts with planning. A month after the start of the school year, the teacher should be able to draw a good portrait of his students. He can then identify their strengths and challenges and then set his intention for the rest of the year. He then wins by making a game plan. We plan to save time afterwards, ”adds Mélanie Ducharme. 

Teachers who are unfamiliar with the concept of differentiation may begin to differentiate by observing different areas of interest, learning needs or learning paces identified in their students. The important thing is not to fall into "doing it piecemeal" or improvised. “You have to free yourself from any cognitive overload when you can,” says Ms. Ducharme. 

“Each morning, the students choose their activities from the programming board. They can work alone, in pairs or in small groups. The teacher circulates to provide support to the students and suggest challenges, additional material or ideas to help them progress in the subjects affected or their personal challenges. "

Source: Higher Education Council

5- And what will be the benefits for the class?

The effects of differentiation will vary depending on the original intention. Among the repercussions commonly mentioned, we note a bond of trust and respect which is established between pupils and teachers, pupils who put in more effort and are more attentive; declining avoidance or inconvenience behaviors. In general, specialists agree that teachers considerably reduce the time devoted to classroom management. 

“With pedagogical differentiation, we establish in the classroom a climate of respect where the students feel (and see) that the teacher really cares about their needs, that he is listening. A child whose psychosocial needs are met will have fewer opportunities to disturb or be bored, ”explains Mélanie Ducharme. 

Also, a teacher who differentiates in order to meet a need for autonomy of his students will lead them to have greater self-confidence, a teacher who differentiates by allowing students to work in a team will meet their need to socialize, but also to learn to collaborate, underline for example Mylène Leroux and Mélanie Paré.

All three make a direct link between educational differentiation, motivation and academic perseverance. “By allowing students to make choices, to be more independent, to live in diverse situations, the teacher is sure to allow them to progress as well. He makes them experience successes and he guides them towards success. They will be more engaged in their learning ”, argues Mélanie Ducharme.

“On a daily basis, I work in workshops and this allows me to differentiate my teaching. It greatly promotes the development of autonomy and problem solving, in addition to fostering mutual aid and self-esteem in the students. "- Marie-Josée Blanchette, teacher.

6- Pedagogical Differentiation vs Universal Design of Learning (UDL)

Before taking a more concrete approach to educational differentiation, let's take a moment to compare it with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that we also hear a lot about. The AUC works on the premise that school curricula unintentionally erect barriers to learning for students, and then those barriers must be broken down.

According to official AUC guidelines, this aims at pedagogical practices that offer flexibility with regard to the means of presenting information, reacting or demonstrating knowledge and skills and active participation of students. They reduce barriers to education, provide appropriate accommodations, supports and challenges, and nurture high expectations of achievement for all students, including those with disabilities and limited language skills. teaching.

It looks strangely like educational differentiation. But is it the same?

“This is the hot topic in the research world! Exclaims Mélanie Paré. Several schools of thought currently coexist, she says. Is the AUC part of the differentiation? Is it rather the other way around? Or are they just complementary? “There is no scientific consensus at the moment. "

She comes forward with her own interpretation. “Both the AUC and the pedagogical differentiation aim for a more inclusive education. They take into account the diversity of students which must be taken in the broad sense and not as individuals. Differentiation is based on meeting the needs of students. The AUC is based on the identification of obstacles to learning with the objective of removing them and giving access to learning to all students. It strikes me as more of a problem-solving method. " 

For example, still according to the guidelines of the AUC, school material should always be available in several forms and media (such as paper and digital, and, what is more, a so-called accessible digital medium). In this sense, the AUC goes beyond differentiation. It aims for universal access to knowledge (a bit like the access ramps intended for people with reduced mobility aim for universal access to buildings).

On the other hand, the AUC could be experienced in the following way: writing can be an obstacle for a student when the time comes to express himself correctly. In the context of a job where the evaluation of the writing skill is not necessary, it could then be possible for him to render the final production orally, for example. At that point, it becomes differentiation. 

Based on the image below, we could therefore say that the AUC will break down the barrier entirely, while the differentiation will aim more for equity (but could go as far as universal access in some cases).

Source: Higher Education Council, (2017, October). For a school rich in all its students, Notice to the Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports.

We will not discuss the concept of AUC further in this dossier to avoid mixing up the concepts. To learn more about the AUC, CADRE21 offers a self-study full on this.

7- Differentiation and pandemic

It is impossible to write an education dossier without addressing the impacts of the pandemic for a year. "The pandemic has certainly highlighted the need for educational differentiation," says Mélanie Ducharme. Indeed, with the distance, the differences between the pupils, without necessarily being greater, become more visible.

For example, distance education sometimes emphasizes the home environment of students (for better or for worse). For some teachers, this has led to an awareness of the diversity of students' experiences, of their family context.

“Teachers have probably started to differentiate with the context of online education, naturally and without naming it. In some cases, they did so as a reaction. I hope they will now take the step of planning it for the future. Even if distance education becomes less frequent, this practice must continue in the classroom, ”she adds. 

Indeed, as Mélanie Paré also mentions, the teachers quickly realized, during the online course sessions, that it was very difficult to retain the students in a masterful presentation. They began to focus on short presentations, to diversify the ways of presenting content (online quiz, video capsule, etc.), to put students in action (in sub-groups, or breakout rooms, or in self-employment), etc. They have developed different strategies to keep students interested.

In some cases, the tasks assigned to the students may have been different depending on the electronic device on which they attended the class. This was a constraint imposed by the context, but could also become a source of inspiration to differentiate.

“We are witnessing an incredible acceleration in the use of digital technology in education. This made it possible to change practices which should remain for the future, ”summarizes Mélanie Ducharme.

8- What more does digital technology allow?

Differentiation is not necessarily digital. Offer a choice of activities, a work plan, schedule work time in the form of a workshop, alone or in groups; all of this can be done in the classroom or online, with or without a digital tool. 

On the other hand, Mélanie Ducharme does not hesitate to say it: “Digital technology has opened up a universe of possibilities. There are more options. Digital tools make it possible to collect students' productions in even more varied forms. They give the teacher latitude ”.

The most frequent example concerns the productions of the pupils. Some oral presentations, instead of standing in front of the class, can be recorded at home as a video capsule (with Flipgrid for example). These capsules can sometimes be presented in front of the class and other times simply viewed by the teacher. 

The various digital tools allow students, among other things:

  • to progress at their own pace;
    • Scratch (programming);
    • Exerciser, like LearningApps (additional tasks for those who finished before, all disciplines)
  • to socialize;
    • Video conferencing platform breakout rooms (breakout rooms);
  • to move from the abstract to the concrete;
    • Geogebra (mathematics);
    • Minecraft (social universe);
    • CoSpacesEDU (all disciplines combined)
  • meet additional challenges;
    • Expert student in the class of a particular tool.

The Architect level of the training Educational differentiation of CADRE21 also presents digital tools and examples of teachers applying the principles of educational differentiation in their class.

9- How can digital tools be used?

The digital tools are easily linked with the 4 axes of educational differentiation, in class as well as at a distance. Here are some examples. 

Other additional references are also presented at the end of this section.


  • Use the Internet to vary your search for information;
  • Use tools for planning and organizing ideas (ideator, word processor, etc.) (eg: Miro, Padlet, Jamboard, OneNote);
  • Record texts on audio media (eg: Vocaroo, Anchor, GarageBand);
  • Modify the layout of texts (size, color, addition of image, etc.); 
  • Offer additional material (videos, readings, websites, etc.) (eg: SCOOP !, eduMedia);
  • Encourage the use of help functions (eg: immersive reader, word prediction);
  • Provide opportunities to work in a team (produce collective content).

Process : 

  • Use different approaches (synchronous and asynchronous);
  • Offer support and feedback in different forms (written, oral, video) (e.g. Talk and comment, e-Comments, Flipgrid);
  • Respect the learning rhythms;
  • Promote the exchange of ideas and points of view (collaborative tools);
  • Use the interactive digital whiteboard to encourage different ways of learning;
  • Use the spell checker in order to promote student self-regulation;
  • Use voice or video recording tools to promote self-regulation, fluidity, flow, volume, etc. (eg: Flipgrid, Anchor, Audacity). 
  • Use the camera to engage students who are visual.


  • Give models of what is expected;
  • Present the evaluation grid as well as the criteria;
  • Triangulate learning traces (observations, conversations and productions);
  • Allow a variety of productions (digital media of the student's choice);
    • Use audiovisual tools: voice recording, images, photos, videos, etc .;
    • Use software tools: word processing, presentation, etc .;
  • Allow students to use the reading and writing help functions (depending on the teaching intention).


  • Appoint digital expert students in class;
  • Allow certain students to use various technological tools: laptops or mobile devices (even in the classroom); 
  • Set up a space in the classroom where devices are available;
  • Use virtual work rooms (breakout rooms);
  • Provide time for individual, sub-group and large group meetings;
  • Accept that the camera can be turned off on certain occasions (online).

10 - How to choose the right tool?

As the previous sections have just highlighted, there are many digital tools that can support the teacher in an approach of pedagogical differentiation. How to identify the platforms and applications that will meet your needs?

The educational intention

“There will be no better tool than the one that will help you achieve your initial educational intention,” note the three specialists. 

Here are some tips that may help you name this intention (once you have a good picture of your group):

  • What do I want to improve in relation to the learning experience of my students? (e.g .: making an aspect of my teaching more inclusive, eliminating a barrier or recurring difficulties, allowing students to socialize more.)
  • What active learning methods could I favor?
    • 1- Involve the student in his learning;
    • 2- Guide the student towards deep learning;
    • 3- Manage and stimulate interactions;
    • 4- Give the possibility of rapid and effective feedback; 
    • 5- Allow collaboration.

The reflection

Here are some questions that will help you to choose the tools to use:

1 – What is the expected production? (Tip: You can even build and distribute a model to your students.)

2 – Do I know of a digital tool that is well mastered by my students as well as by myself in order to meet the initial educational intention?

3 – If I need to know about new resources that will meet my need, who or what can I consult? What are my options? 

4 – Do my students and I have the time to appropriate a new tool?

5- Is it possible to offer my students the choice of the tool of their choice to make a production? 

The choice 

When several possibilities of digital tools are available to you, other questions arise. We can then speak of points of vigilance that help to make choices. They are educational, functional, technical, legal and ethical.

On this subject, we invite you to consult this collaborative document which presents each aspect in detail. 

Above all, do not hesitate to turn to your colleagues, ICT or RÉCIT advisers in your area so that they can share their strategies, the tools they use, etc. with you. And why not involve the students in some cases? Allowing them to express themselves in the process of differentiation will increase meaning and their engagement. 

11- How to deploy pedagogical differentiation in a school?

Pedagogical differentiation is generally approached as a practice that teachers deploy on an individual basis in their classroom. On the other hand, it can very well be implemented in a school in the form of an educational project. There is little documentation on this subject. However, the Higher Education Council (CSE) carried out a census of some projects a few years ago. 

The CSE presented, anonymously, ten Quebec schools that have successfully adapted to the diversity of students in a notice published in 2017 (from page 85 of the document). Based on their respective experience, he sought to identify favorable conditions which allow each student to progress to the maximum of his or her potential.

In all cases, the process began with the mobilization of the school team, based on an identified problem (violence, low success rate, arrival in secondary school, difficult cohort, absenteeism, too many students leaving class. , significant growth in the number of pupils from recent immigration, threat of closure, etc.).

“This collective mobilization has a positive impact on staff stability, the development of a feeling of belonging, self-esteem, a feeling of professional efficiency and motivation,” the report reads.

Other favorable conditions include:

  • Information is shared and everyone acts in the same direction. This consistency has a direct effect on the effectiveness of interventions. Systematic monitoring makes it possible to adjust the target when the expected result is not achieved.
  • The school team focuses its interventions on a specific learning object. Most elementary schools work specifically on literacy. Several have also looked at behavior. 
  • Knowing each student is a central element in improving practices. […] The sought-after portrait goes beyond the academic profile. We take a global look to see the child beyond the pupil. 
  • The members of the school team are able to work according to the common needs of the pupils rather than from the categories of pupils.
  • The teaching-learning practices deployed in these schools rely on the development of autonomy, self-regulatory capacities and cooperative work. 
  • The school administration plays an essential role in the mobilization of the school team. It is this who facilitates collaborative work, who does everything to reduce organizational obstacles and facilitate the implementation of initiatives. The Council speaks of participatory and shared leadership.  
  • Teachers benefit from flexibility with regard to school organization, their teaching task, the student's schedule, evaluation methods (e.g. use of different media to demonstrate learning, taking exams at different times or in different contexts that take into account the needs and capacities of the students).

“All the teams have observed tangible results following the changes made […] The school climate has improved through the adoption of more inclusive practices, the increase in collaborative activities and the adherence to common values. ”, We read in the report.

Among the positive impacts observed, we note:

  • Students develop a positive image of themselves. 
  • They are more motivated and more engaged.
  • An improvement in results in basic subjects (often those where efforts have been concentrated) and a reduction in school dropout.
  • The pupil acquires a more in-depth knowledge of his own learning processes in order to be able to find solutions adapted to his needs.

It is an environment where students feel safe. An environment where being different is okay. So the students allow themselves to “be what they are”.

- Deputy principal of a secondary school (source)


Pedagogical differentiation is an inclusive practice that makes it possible to take advantage of the diversity observed in the classroom. It makes knowledge accessible to everyone. In order to bring success to as many people as possible and to constantly help students progress, teachers benefit from knowing this practice better. 

At a time when pedagogical scenarios can change from day to day (in class, at a distance, etc.), differentiation appears to be an approach likely to maintain student engagement and motivation.

However, given the many ways in which it can be deployed, it remains unrecognized and too often applied to the piece. In order for pedagogical differentiation to become a lasting practice for teachers, they benefit from understanding it better. 

This file aimed precisely to demystify the educational differentiation and to give examples to deploy it in the classroom. He wanted to showcase how technological tools have multiplied and facilitated opportunities for differentiation.

The last word goes to Mélanie Paré: “Teachers recognize the positive effects of differentiation. They now need support to take the next step. Let us give them the necessary means so that they can implement it, gradually, but steadily. Let us give them a space-time to reflect and collaborate with their colleagues ”. 

In addition:

Main photo credit: Aaron Burden sure Unsplash

Dimension (s) of digital competence related to this article
8- Take advantage of digital technology as a vector of inclusion and to meet diverse needs

To see the Framework.