One-to-One Layered Curriculum: Differentiation in the 21st Century

Starlynn R. Nance University of Central Missouri

     As usual, Mr. Lockwood enters the classroom with a spring in his step and a smile on his face greeting his 7th grade students. He usually makes a figure eight around the classroom saying, “thank you, Julie, for having your AR book out. Thank you, Joe, for having your notebook out and working on the bell ringer,” which gets the students organized for the day and ready for social studies. However, today in class, instruction will look different. For one, all students will participate in one-to-one technology (their school is not one-to-one) and two, students will choose their own adventure (CYOA) for the Ancient Egypt unit. Students are coupled together, each checking out a computer from the cart borrowed from the library in back of the classroom. Mr. Lockwood enthusiastically tells the students they are going on an adventure and to get to the end destination, they must CHOOSE their own way to learn! The students are confused but excited to see how this new unit will play out. Differentiated Instruction Mr. Lockwood is about to engage his students in differentiated instruction through layered curriculum. Differentiated instruction was developed by Carol Ann Tomlinson and can be defined “as an approach to teaching in which teachers proactively modify curricula, teaching methods, resources, learning activities, and student products to address the diverse needs of individual students and small groups of students to maximize the learning opportunity for each student in a classroom” (Tomlinson, et al. 2003). Mr. Lockwood is demonstrating the basic level of differentiation, shaking up the curriculum to fit his students’ needs and moving away from a unitary approach of teaching (Tomlinson, 2017). Described as a Little House on the Prairie one room schoolhouse situation, differentiated instruction uses whole-class, small-group and individual instruction to teach the curriculum. In a 2003 article titled Differentiated Instruction in Response to Student Readiness, Interest, and Learning Profile in Academic Diverse Classrooms: A Literature Review, Tomlinson and colleagues found that teachers do not adjust their instruction to the needs of the students in order to reach a diverse population of learners (p. 131). Instead teachers will switch instructional strategies throughout the lesson but all students will do the same activities no matter their ability.  As stressed over and over throughout Tomlinson’s publications, differentiation is not individualized but allows the teacher to use multiple avenues for students to learn, “attending to students as individuals” (Tomlinson, 2017, p. 3). One way Tomlinson suggests that teachers focus on differentiation is through tiered lessons. Through tiered lessons “everybody works with essential knowledge and skills but at different degrees of difficulty or different levels of complexity” (Wu, 2013, pg. 130). Enter Layered Curriculum.

Layered Curriculum

     A layered curriculum is differentiated through tiers and “integrates the three keys: choice, accountability and increasingly complex thinking” (Nunley, 2003, pg. 35). This type of differentiation allows the teachers to change delivery of instruction, student product and content throughout an entire unit. Organized into a four-step process, Nunley (1996) discusses it in a publication from the Science Teacher. Her first step is the unit sheet consisting of various assignments with point systems attached to the assignments. Second, she then divides her curriculum into layers C, B and A and uses Bloom’s Taxonomy to create the layers and assignments. The letter represents the letter grade and score range a student could receive on that certain layer. Roughly, C layer represent basic knowledge and comprehension, B layer represents application and A layer is critical thinking. After assignments are completed Nunley explains that she would speak to each student about their assignment giving them an oral evaluation. She does not give them a paper/pencil test at the end of the unit. The last step is the learning stations. These learnings stations consist of audio lectures, physical props, TV shows/documentaries, etc. Throughout the layers, students are given choices and different avenues to learn the content from the curriculum. In the unit, differentiation occurs through process, product and content. Using Nunley’s layered curriculum, three separate empirical studies (Gun, 2013; Kilincaslan & Simek, 2015; and Uzum & Pesen, 2019) showed that when students engaged in layered curriculum their motivation and attendance increased but also academic achievement increased with respect to a controlled group.

21st Century Layered Curriculum

     Thinking about the definition of differentiated instruction from Tomlinson and the four-step process of Layered Curriculum from Nunley, how can Mr. Lockwood have the same outcomes as the empirical studies from layered curriculum? Taking inspiration from Nunley (1996) when she stated, in layered curriculum “technology should be used whenever possible” (pg. 55), Mr. Lockwood and Dr. Nance go on their own adventure to create a one-to-one differentiated layered curriculum of Ancient Egypt. They had to manipulate the fourstep process to adjust for 21st century skills, district requirements, data collection, a common curriculum map and common assessments. The result was a one-to-one Google Site that included all the parts discussed by Nunley but placed in different order to adjust to Mr. Lockwood’s building and district requirements. The new four-step framework was implemented in a 7th grade world history class and called Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA). The unit lasted about 6-7 days of a block scheduling AB schedule.

     The CYOA format includes a four-step process used for one-to-one layered curriculum differentiated instruction. It includes an introduction, the level tabs, assessment and technology. First, Students are introduced to the unit that is called Choose Your Own Adventure. They login to their Google Classroom to find a web address. All students proceed to the Google Site and stop at the homepage. The homepage gives specific directions to take a diagnostic or pretest on Google Forms. After all these are submitted, the students click on the level C tab. At this time, the teacher explains the concept of CYOA, the classroom expectations during CYOA and how to locate all levels, assignments, assessments on the Google Site. Second, the Google Site consists of a Homepage tab, Level C tab, Level B tab and Level A tab. On the front of each level are directions for that particular level, a Google Slides Screencast Informational Video, a Graphic Organizer, a Formative Assessment and CYOA Assignments. Students have written directions on each level that include points required, tentative due dates and step-by-step directions through each individual level (See Appendix A). For example, directions on each level read, “the graphic organizer, video(s) and formative assessment are required in every level of the CYOA and must be competed first. Remember, you must complete the graphic organizer while watching the video(s) (5 points) and make an 80% (5 points) before you can move forward to the adventure.” The teacher checks each formative assessment. If the student scores an 80%, then they move forward to their adventure. If the student makes below 80%, the teacher re-teaches on the spot. If the teacher is also satisfied with its graphic organizer and oral assessment, the student re-tests. If the teacher is not, the student will listen to the video(s) again and redo the graphic organizer. Then the student will retest to get the appropriate benchmark to move to the adventure. Levels B and A have a skills video with a graphic organizer along with the informational/lecture video and it’s graphic organizer. Two graphic organizers will be required for levels B and A. Each level also includes “How To” videos from Google Classroom, Google Suite and some assignment examples from YouTube. Each assignment is posted separately with total points required, assignment points and directions for the assignments. After students complete levels CA, a summative is given. The teacher facilitates and answers questions during the assignment phase constantly assessing the students. Third, students are assessed for the collection of data specifically for data teams and district requirements. The assessments used are diagnostic/pretest, formative assessments and summative evaluation. The diagnostic assessment is on the first day of CYOA and is taken on Google Forms. The formative assessments are quality questioning from the teacher and multiple-choice questions (objectives/targets) located on Google Forms. The formatives are built into each level and have a required benchmark. This allows the teacher to have one-on-one instruction with each student and use the Google Forms to follow the student’s progress through the unit. Fourth, technology is implemented throughout the CYOA using a Google Site. Using Google Sites is optimal for this type of instruction. All videos from screencasts to YouTube can be uploaded to the site. The students can complete all assignments through Google Suite and turn them into Google Classroom.

Colleague Reflection

     After the unit was complete, I sat down with Mr. Lockwood and debriefed. Because this was not an empirical study, the conversation is just two colleagues’ reflections of what transpired in the classroom. First, both of us thought it went well. The flow of the classroom remained the same and the students followed procedures without major incidents. The students’ interaction with each other was excellent. They relied on their partner for clarification questions and used their small group and sometimes an impromptu larger group to discuss the assignments and get help with content. Overall, the students enjoyed the choices they had in the different levels and liked that they could go back to the videos for help if they needed it. They enjoyed the “How To” videos because they could go at their own pace to learn the skill and could rewatch as many times as they needed to get it right. It looked like the students were taking responsibility for their own learning and Mr. Lockwood liked watching his classroom environment change to student-centered. We also agree with the empirical articles that layered curriculum increased motivation and academic achievement. Mr. Lockwood saw significant progress from the diagnostic test to the summative test. The students took a survey about CYOA and they overwhelmingly liked how it was done in the class, and they had freedom to go at their own pace. The problems that occurred were all technological and could be fixed in a matter of minutes. There were not problems with the differentiated instruction layered curriculum philosophy that Mr. Lockwood brought to his classroom. Overall, Mr. Lockwood is happy with CYOA and will be implementing it in more units in his classroom this next school year. I also want to add that Mr. Lockwood and I cannot take credit for the clever title of CYOA. That was borrowed from as were many of the assignments the students completed. His website is amazing, and I hope you go visit it when you put your CYOA together.


    Differentiation is not individualized lessons for each student but looking at the needs of your students and offering different pathways to learn the objectives/content so each student can achieve success. Layered curriculum is tiered differentiation that can accomplish the goal of giving students different avenues to learn in the classroom. Moving layered curriculum to one-to-one is optimal for students to learn new skills but also to be able to move at their own pace and enjoy a major advantage of individual instruction with the teacher most days of the week.                   

Appendix A      


Gun, E.S. (2013). The reflections of layered curriculum to learning-teaching process in social studies course. International Journal of Instruction, Vol. 6, No. 2, 87-98.

Kilincaslan, H. & Simsek, P.U. (2015). Effects of curriculum layered and creative drama methods on 6th grade “Force and Motion” unit on achievement, attitude and detention. Education and Science, Vol 40, No. 180, 217245.

Nunley, K. (1996). Going for the goal: Multilevel assignments cater to students of differing abilities. The Science Teacher, 63 (6), 52-56.

Nunley, K. (2003). Layered curriculum brings teachers to tiers. The Education Digest, 69 (1), 31-36. Roughton, Kevin (2019). CYOA. Retrieved from

Tomlinson, C.A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C.A., Brighton, C., Hertbert, H. Callahan, C., Moon, K.B., Conover, L. & Reynolds, T. (2003). Differentiating instruction in response to student readiness, interest, and learning profile in academically diverse classrooms: A review of literature. Journal for the Education of the Gifted. Vol. 27, No. 2-3, 119-145.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2017 ). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Uzum, B. & Pesen, A. (2019). Do the learner centered approaches increase academic performance? Effect of the layered curriculum on students’ academic achievement in English lessons. International Journal of Instruction, 12 (1), 1585-1608.      

Wu, E.H. (2013). The path leading to differentiation: An interview with Carol  Tomlinson. Journal of Advanced Academics, 24 (2), 125-133.

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