The Teacher's Role in a Differentiated Classroom

Under the policy of inclusive education, diverse students, such as students with special educational needs (SEN) and non-Chinese speaking (NCS) students, are commonly seen in Hong Kong's classroom. In a differentiated classroom, differences in students' abilities and learning styles can bring a great challenge to teachers. To better engage diverse students in the learning process, effective teachers not only accept and embrace their varied cultural heritages and different learning backgrounds; but also wear different hats in supporting them. Tomlinson (2001, 2014), an expert educator in differentiated education, explored the teacher's role in a differentiated classroom and made interesting analogies among the teacher's role, the coach's role, the diagnostician's role and the conductor's role in an orchestra.

The Teacher as the Coach

A good coach presents clear goals and instructions not only for a team, but also for each individual in the team. Similarly, for a class of students who learn in different ways and at different paces, there is no one-size-fits-all goal. Therefore an effective teacher has to understand the individual diversity, set realistic goals and modify instructions to meet individual needs. Emotional complexity in students with different cultures and abilities is one of the factors that generate lower academic expectations for themselves. To support these students, teachers can play the coach's role to actively give directions and feedback in order to help them build confidence, improve areas of weaknesses and polish areas of strengths.

The Teacher as the Diagnostician 

Effective teachers in a differentiated classroom work like diagnosticians. The teachers have to find out the symptoms, the characteristics and the needs of individual students, for prescribing the best possible instructions for them. It is common to observe that even students of the same race display different cultures; and similarly, students with the same disability show a wide range of symptoms. Therefore, teachers in a differentiated classroom have to understand, appreciate, and build upon student differences. Then they have to adjust content, process and assessment in response to students' readiness, interests and learning profiles for maximising their growth and success. Therefore, teachers should consider students' individual differences while developing the lesson plan. Teachers have the potential to fuse mastery, mentoring, improvisation, communication and creation during the performance.

The Teacher as the Conductor of an Orchestra

The conductor of an orchestra helps musicians make music in an orchestra, rather than making the music himself. In a real classroom, some students with SEN may not be good at reading and writing while some NCS students may not be good at Chinese. They may feel uncomfortable working in a group. The role of the teacher as the conductor of an orchestra is to polish the performance of each individual student for making a good quality of the whole task. During the learning process, a meaningful performance and active motivation of each student can be found.

The Case of Singh

The case below demonstrates how a teacher supported his students in a differentiated classroom by taking different roles to make learning happen.

Singh, a higher diploma student in IVE, was a Hong Kong born and raised Indian. He spoke fluent Cantonese, yet weak in reading Chinese and Chinese slang. Interestingly he liked humming Cantonese songs, though he did not quite comprehend the meaning. This gave people around him an impression that his Chinese was not a problem. However, learning in a Chinese class with other local students in a new semester, Singh's Chinese was insufficient for him to survive well. Mr Ng, the Chinese teacher who overestimated Singh's Chinese standard and comprehension ability, giving the same instructions and support to the whole class when assigning comprehension and writing tasks. Singh was sometimes unsure of what to do next and felt uncomfortable, sweated and even pain during his learning process. Worse still, Mr Ng often joked to the class using some local slang. Singh found that he was the only one who did not understand and did not laugh. He was upset, feeling isolated with low-esteem in learning and low motivation to mingle with his classmates as well.

Fortunately, Mr Ng noticed Singh's difficulties in learning very soon when a group project started and he decided to intervene immediately. Playing the role of a diagnostician, Mr Ng patiently interviewed Singh to understand his Chinese ability in reading, writing, listening and speaking; and identified his needs in Chinese learning. Instructional handouts with visual images were then provided to Singh whereas appropriate, to support his learning. On one hand, Mr Ng used less slang in the class; on the other hand, he introduced some YouTube videos about local slang to Singh for his language enrichment. Singh was touched by Mr Ng's support in the class and motivated by the humourous slang videos. Unexpectedly, he found more fun and useful videos to learn Chinese in YouTube by himself!

In the group project, Mr Ng provided guidance and suggestions to the group on job allocation based on members' strengths, like the conductor of an orchestra who facilitates different members to play their good parts. Singh was encouraged to contribute himself by doing the verbal presentation which he was good at. Other group members were also pleased with the job allocation, as their individual strengths were also recognised.

To help Singh with the presentation, Mr Ng arranged several rehearsals with him. In the rehearsals, Mr Ng acted as a coach by actively giving him feedback for improvements, particularly on the choice of words and the meaning of phrases; and more importantly, his words of encouragement to Singh gave him confidence. At the presentation day, Singh won his group members hearts by his effort and fabulous performance.

All in all, the three analogies are provided for your reflection on the roles of the teacher in a differentiated classroom. You are encouraged to create your own signature for your lesson and explore your own metaphor as well. Feel free to share with us in the future.


Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. 2nd ed. Virginia: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. (2014). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. 2nd ed. Virginia: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.


在融合教育的政策下,在本地的課室中,不難發現擁有個別差異學生的蹤影,例如有特殊學習需要學生和非華語學生,他們都有自己的獨特性和文化特色。學生的學習能力和學習風格差異,往往帶給教師極大的挑戰。為了幫助各學生更投入差異化的課堂,高效能教師不止要接納他們的多元文化及學習背景,更要「身兼多職」來全力支援他們。差異化教學的專家Tomlinson (2001, 2014) 提出三個有趣的比喻來探討教師在差異化課堂中所扮演的角色,包括教練、診斷師和樂團指揮家。







Singh 的個案


香港專業教育學院高級文憑學生Singh,是一位在香港出生及成長的印度人。他能操流利的廣東話,但他的中文閱讀能力卻很弱,並對中文俚語的認識不多。有趣的是,雖然他不太明白粵語歌詞的意思,但他却喜歡哼唱這些歌曲,給人中文能力不錯的印象。Singh在新學期與其他本地學生一起上中文課時,由於他的中文能力有限,所以遇到很大困難。吳老師是Singh的中文老師,他高估了Singh的中文水平和理解能力,所以當他給予閱讀及寫作練習時,他對所有學生作出的指導和協助也「一視同仁」。在學習過程中,Singh有時候會因為不確定要做什麼而感到不安、冒汗,甚至疼痛。更糟的是,吳老師經常用一些本地的俚語跟學生開玩笑。Singh 留意到他是班中唯一一個不理解、不懂笑的同學,因此他感到沮喪和被孤立,在學習中更感自卑,亦沒有動機與其他同學交往。






Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. 2nd ed. Virginia: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. (2014). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. 2nd ed. Virginia: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.