By Heng Tang Tang
Montessori, Lesson Study, Singapore Math: What do they have in common with differentiated instruction? They are educational and professional development approaches that have been borrowed from abroad and translated into new educational contexts. Education borrowing and translating have seen renewed vigour worldwide in the past couple decades given the movement of people and ideas with globalization. These are but a few of many other educational and policy ideas that have travelled across contexts.
Relevance to Differentiated Instruction
In this issue focused on differentiated instruction (DI), I’d like to take readers one step back to contemplate DI vis-à-vis the U.S. context. DI is typically associated with the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, a scholar based in the University of Virginia, and has been gaining immense popularity in Singapore.
In short, DI is defined as an educational approach where teachers intentionally modify curricular, teaching, learning and resources to honour the range of students’ readiness levels, interests and learning profiles to maximize their learning opportunity and capacity (Tomlinson, 2014). The approach embraces five core principles:
- instruction that responds to student variance
- quality curriculum
- assessment that informs teaching and learning
- environment that encourages and supports learning
- leading students and managing routines
Teachers can differentiate four classroom elements—content, process, product, environment/affect – according to three broad student traits: readiness, interest and learning profile.
How DI is Typically Approached in Singapore
In interacting with teachers, colleagues from the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore and I have observed some unique ways in which DI is interpreted in the Singapore context. Mary Anne Heng and Lucy Fernandez observed that it is seen as a “teaching strategy where the focus is on the instructional process, namely, activity-based instruction for student engagement” (2017, p. 105) and “DI tends to be carried out in a fragmented and isolated manner” (p. 106), omitting the goals of the overall curriculum.
Indeed, in my own experience, schools contacting me for professional development support often request for a three-hour workshop focusing on “DI strategies” that teachers can implement. In my research investigating 10 teachers’ implementation of DI in primary and secondary schools, I’ve also observed that DI tends to be carried out in a “fragmented” manner, limited to one-off activities and seen as a frill to be added on – when there is sufficient time – as opposed to being an essential part of daily teaching.
Additionally, I found that when teachers in my research differentiate, they tend to focus more on assessing readiness than interest and learning profile. Likewise, when teachers tailor instruction to students’ variance, teachers tend to design content, process or products according to student readiness, and rarely interest and learning profile.
My research also revealed that teachers find it challenging to appreciate each child as an individual and encourage student independence. Students are rarely given choices or opportunities to self-direct or self-assess their learning. Also missing are conversations around student differences and reasons for differentiating. Yet, appreciating differences and centering students are cornerstones in Tomlinson’s DI.
In privileging readiness, I applaud teachers’ focus on supporting students’ academic achievement, regardless of their differences, as it reveals a deep accountability to students’ academic journeys.
As an ex-secondary school teacher who was once tasked to differentiate, I identify with the challenges teachers face in knowing each individual student and devolving epistemic control to them. When teachers shared with me the challenges they face in implementing DI, including, just to name a few, structural (class size of 40, inflexible classroom furniture and space), educational (standardized high-stakes exams, insufficient lesson planning time) and cultural (concerns with control, hierarchy, individualism, pragmatism) concerns, these feel not unfamiliar (Heng & Song, In-Press).
Yet, I also ask myself: How have we omitted other ways of knowing students and allowing them to fulfill their human potentials? Have we, as educators, reduced our value of students to merely their academic achievement? How does this reflect the assumptions that we have about teaching, learning, and our students?
Concessions and Tradeoffs in Educational Borrowing
As we borrow educational ideas, like DI, from abroad, some elements may be lost in translation. DI is premised on a philosophy that sees diversity as valuable and normal and that privileges equity over equality. It comes from a society where individualism, choice, independence, and diversity are celebrated, and where classrooms are more intimate and structures less standardized.
As a society, we may be more comfortable with hierarchy and communalism, lean more towards teacher- versus student-centeredness, and uncomfortable with offering different choices to our students. Therefore, it is understandable when we struggle with certain aspects of DI in Singapore.
In borrowing educational ideas from abroad, we could benefit from deep contemplation of the sociocultural, educational and structural environments from which ideas originate and are transplanted into. Further, thinking through and having dialogues as an educational fraternity about the potentials, limits and consequences of our educational decisions are necessary.
For instance, in choosing to adopt DI as an instructional strategy targeting readiness and downplaying conversations/activities to encourage appreciation for differences, we may need to account for potential self-esteem concerns or resentments amongst students downstream.
If we choose to embrace DI and its attendant philosophies, we may need to ask ourselves if we have the requisite educational and sociocultural conditions to support this or are we ready for students who may become more individualistic over time. Ultimately, each choice of educational approach is associated with concessions and tradeoffs.
These are not easy questions to answer. In an age of globalization, societies are constantly being made and remade through education and vice versa. I do not offer easy solutions to readers of this SingTeach issue nor do I offer specific recommendations of what is right or wrong. Instead, I’ve invited contributors to share how they have approached DI in their own ways in Singapore to expand our understanding of DI and consider a defensible approach to DI.
“As we borrow educational ideas, like DI, from abroad, some elements may be lost in translation. DI is premised on a philosophy that sees diversity as valuable and normal and that privileges equity over equality.”
– Heng Tang Tang, National Institute of Education
Charting Our Own Path(s) Towards Differentiation
In this SingTeach issue, NIE faculty Mary Anne Heng shares about clinical interviews and dialogues as ways to deepen understandings of our students just as Lucy Fernandez emphasizes the need to privilege students’ voices as educators contemplate DI. Letchmi Devi Ponnusamy, Vasilis Strogilos and Levan Lim – researching on DI in Singapore – further illuminate how DI can be implemented for high-ability learners as with children with special educational needs, illustrating the versatility of differentiation.
To showcase DI implementation, teachers Andrew Teo and Audrey Chan share the efforts they have made to serve diverse learners in their classrooms, while Pasir Ris Primary School reflect on their whole-school DI journey over the past few years. These perspectives are included so that we can create a more nuanced picture of DI and to invite readers to begin dialogues around how we can continue to chart our own path(s) towards helping our students attain their maximum potentials, academic and beyond.
Heng, M. A., & Fernandez, L. (2017). Re-examining differentiation: Big ideas and misguided notions. In K. H. K. Tan, M. A. Heng & C. Lim-Ratnam (Eds.), Curriculum leadership by middle leaders: Theory, design and practice (pp. 104–124). New York, NY: Routledge.
Heng, T. T. & Song, L. (In-Press). Educational change intersects educational transfer: How teachers in Singapore perceived the challenges of differentiated instruction. Journal of Educational Change.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.