In any class, there will always be a mix of different abilities. But if you think differentiated instruction is about just giving different worksheets to different students according to their different abilities, you’re only half-right.
Many think differentiated instruction is about teaching students of diverse abilities. A common way of doing that is to diversify the tasks and activities we give to students of different abilities. But there’s more to it than that.
Differentiation is about meeting the needs of our students, says Dr Letchmi Devi Ponnusamy. It’s an instructional strategy, but it’s also a bigger philosophy behind the way we teach.
“It’s not about getting the learner to know all the facts or information,” explains Letchmi. Differentiation is about helping our learners to make sense of what and why they need to know something. And that’s just the starting point.
Effective teaching should address three fundamental needs of our students: their level of readiness, interests and learning preferences (Tomlinson, 2001).
Ready, Get Set, Learn!
What are our students supposed to learn? Teachers will readily point to the learning outcomes in the syllabus. But how ready are they to learn what you are teaching?
There are many ways a teacher can differentiate what is taught: by changing the content, process, product or environment. For example, if you think of a topic as a cake with multiple layers, you can tier the content in three layers: basic, intermediate and advanced.
The same idea applies to process skills: Students who need more structure can be given step-by-step instructions to follow, while those who are more independent can work it out for themselves.
Teachers tend to “tier” their lessons according to their students’ ability to understand the content. But they should consider their students’ level of readiness to learn as well. The best way is to find out directly from learners where they’re starting from.
Letchmi suggests doing a “pre-assessment” right from the start. “When you walk into a class, you should try to get a sense of what the children know about a particular topic.”
It could be a simple quiz, or an essay about what they have already learned. Don’t just ask them verbally, but collect or record the information, she advises. Another way is to gather the work that learners have done previously.
“Differentiation is really about knowing the learners’ capabilities so that you can stretch their learning a little bit more,” Letchmi emphasizes. That’s why it’s important to know what they already know.
May I Interest You in Some Learning?
At the start of each school year, teachers often ask students: So what did you learn last year? Why not try something different and ask them: Why are you learning this subject?
Knowing why students want to learn and what they hope to achieve will tell you a lot about how much attention they’ll give to what you’re teaching.
“Teachers need to be aware that children walk into a classroom having different types of interests,” Letchmi reminds us. “You’ve got to give them opportunities to explore things that they like to explore and tie it back to the topic you’re teaching.”
– Letchmi Devi Ponnusamy, Early Childhood and Special Needs Education Academic Group
It may not always be possible to do this in all lessons, but helping students to see what the content can offer them helps to drive their interest in learning. That’s when they begin to steer their own learning, which is an important 21st century skill for students to master.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not just about individual interests. “The classroom is also a social environment,” says Letchmi. It’s a good place for students to learn that they and their peers are interested in different things and there needs to be a balance.
So if they want to have a debate during a Science lesson, instead of having just one topic, students should get the chance to suggest issues they’re interested in, and get like-minded classmates to join their group.
“You need to be able to balance between giving children time to work on their own interests, and time to work on social interests too as well,” advises Letchmi.
How Would You Prefer to Learn?
The third aspect is learning preferences or learning style. Some students learn better by doing, while others prefer to let the teacher talk them through a lesson. (Howard Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences is useful in helping us understand how students learn differently. Read our previous article on “Engaging Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom“.)
– Letchmi on addressing students’ interests
It’s not always easy for teachers to discern each student’s learning style. Even when you have that figured out, it’s not easy to plan a lesson to cater to all the different learning preferences in a class.
Letchmi advises teachers to work on students’ level of readiness and interests first. But knowing their learning preferences is still useful.
“Planning a lesson just on learning preferences is not a good idea, but taking that into consideration is important because then you can understand why John, who’s sitting in a corner, is not so focused on you when you’ve been talking for the last 20 minutes.”
Perhaps John is not an “auditory learner”. A teacher who understands this can try to engage him in other ways instead of dismissing him as being unmotivated.
Meeting Diverse Needs
“If you just take those three aspects – readiness, interest, and learning preferences – you’re looking at three different ways by which children can differ. You can go and multiply that by the number of students you have,” says Letchmi. That’s the number of ways your students are different from each other.
That’s enough to befuddle even the most experienced teacher. How can we possibly accommodate the needs of everyone?
Differentiation is data-driven, notes Letchmi. A teacher who is doing differentiated instruction constantly takes in information about the learners and then fine-tune their teaching to suit the learners’ needs.
“You really have to gather information about your learner and one tricky part about teaching today is teachers are dealing with so many things. Getting the information and organizing it in some way is a really difficult process.”
But take heart, teachers, it’s not mission impossible. The more experience you have in working with different learners, the easier it becomes to recognize their needs and to meet them.
Over time, you will build up a trove of first-hand knowledge about your students and become a truly dynamic teacher.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate lessons in mixed ability classrooms (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Pearson.