Differentiated instruction involves more than just recognizing that every child’s needs are different; it is also about the practice of teaching with empathy. Pasir Ris Primary School shares more with SingTeach about their culture of care and their DI journey.
Having been a pilot school with the Ministry of Education for holistic assessment (HA), an essential component of differentiated instruction (DI), Pasir Ris Primary School (PRPS) is no stranger to HA practices. Nevertheless, when the school got on board with DI in 2015, its teachers and other stakeholders had to adopt a fundamental pedagogical shift.
Mdm Siti Nazrah, the Vice-Principal of PRPS shares that DI is a philosophy that fits into the school’s journey of enhancing the culture of care in the school. Elaborating further, she says, “Since 2015, our mission has been to restructure the culture of learning and enhance the culture of care in the school.”
Fostering a Culture of Care and Collaboration
PRPS’ journey with DI has seen the school working to strengthen the culture of care amongst its teachers and students. The school has set its sights on becoming a school where inclusivity is key.
Nazrah observes that when students work together in teams and groups, they will progressively become more confident and empathetic towards one another. She notes that teachers also consistently look out for group dynamics to ensure that no one is left out.
“If a student is not able to gel with their team members, we engage him or her in close conversation and listen with empathy. We try to fit them with someone they can work with so that everyone is engaged in the classroom,” Nazrah says.
PRPS’ culture of care extends to its teachers as well. A weekly one-hour professional development (PD) platform called Care and Share Forum (C & S Forum) seeks to enculturate empathy in teaching. Through this platform, teachers come together for discussions, share pedagogical practices and plan lessons together.
Mrs Polly Chew, Head of Mathematics department at PRPS, shares that she partners with a teacher who teaches at the same level to practise DI in her class. Based on her experience, she notes that the culture of collaboration and conversation has given more support and encouragement for key personnel (KP) to experiment with DI and take risks.
“The pitfalls they experience actually open up the opportunity for meaningful learning. They understand that their willingness to talk about failure can lead to improvements,” Nazrah adds.
Strong Leadership Support
“When KP and TLs opened their classrooms, and teachers observed the ongoing lessons informally, it resulted in richer conversations about how to enhance teaching and learning further.”
– Nazrah, on the positive impact of peer observations
Nazrah shares that in 2017, the Senior Teacher (ST) Council came into the picture as formal facilitators who created opportunities for teachers to engage in peer observations. It led to KP and teacher leaders (TLs) taking the lead in experimenting with DI in their classrooms.
“When KP and TLs opened their classrooms, and teachers observed the ongoing lessons informally, it resulted in richer conversations about how to enhance teaching and learning further,” Nazrah shares.
The ST Council meets regularly to plan for structures that can take place during the C & S Forum. Aside from giving teachers time to think through and answer reflection questions during the forum, the council also guides them in creating and sharing resources such as differentiated lesson packages and resource packs.
PRPS school leaders acknowledge that this journey of pedagogical shift takes time and they seek to reduce teachers’ apprehension through thoughtful support. In 2017, bold decisions such as putting on hold formal lesson observations for a year were made so that teachers could truly be focused on experimenting with DI and taking risks in the classroom.
As they progressed, however, a DI template that was meant to support teachers at the start of the DI journey was eventually removed. “When teachers become more confident and competent in implementing DI in their classrooms, they found that they could act independently without the template,” explains Mdm Jaspal Kaur, leader of ST Council. This signals the need for open dialogue with staff, trust of staff and a responsiveness to their feedback.
Teachers’ Professional Development
In PRPS, DI is not just for students, but also for teachers. The areas that teachers focus on during the C & S Forum are differentiated based on the needs of the subject, level and teachers.
Teachers are also given the choice to choose the PD activities they prefer during the annual PRPS Learning Fest by selecting from a buffet of concurrent sharing sessions that are led by their peers. It is also a day for teachers to celebrate their innovation in teaching and journey of learning together.
“In 2016, Dr Heng Tang Tang from NIE was roped in to deepen teachers’ understanding of DI. Her four PD workshops further cemented the practice of DI in PRPS’ curriculum,” Nazrah recounts.
New teachers are given training in DI during their induction at the beginning of the year and will later proceed to join the different PD groups in PRPS. “They understand that DI is a philosophy that PRPS embraces, and not a burden or add-on in teaching,” she adds.
Initially, teachers were resistant to practise DI in their classrooms. In the first year, only the KPs and ST Council were on board in the DI journey. Subsequently, other teachers were brought into the fold. Teachers faced challenges in managing their time between PD activities and teaching duties, especially when both happened during curriculum hours.
“On top of that, with the different forms of DI that exist in theory and practice, there is always a question of which DI is considered to be most appropriate. Teachers also have to decide how much to differentiate or how much choice should be given to students. Suffice to say, the path has not always been rosy,” Nazrah elaborates.
Parents too, need convincing about DI. She notes that some parents have raised concerns that their children are learning less through DI.
“We are trying to bank on the current focus where HA plays a bigger part in student learning. We want parents to understand that DI and HA work hand-in-hand to raise student engagement and support their development,” she says.
Despite the challenges faced, PRPS has not lost sight of its bigger aims. The school’s long-term goals focus on providing holistic education and raising student engagement through three domains—developing skilful teachers, embracing inclusivity and enhancing student well-being.
The culture of care is also here to stay. “Our school leaders always show care for teachers as well as students. As leaders, we will continue to open our ears to feedback given and inspire all to embrace new ideas and challenges,” Jaspal concludes.