Amidst growing diversity in our classrooms and the forthcoming shift towards Subject-Based Banding, the philosophy of differentiated instruction has been gaining traction within Singapore’s education fraternity. A teacher-educator explains the importance of students’ voices in a differentiated classroom and how they can facilitate the development of a thriving learning community.
To help diverse students achieve intended learning goals, teachers will have to develop competencies to differentiate instruction in a mixed-ability classroom. But would professional expertise alone suffice in enabling them to cater to the needs of different learners?
According to Dr Lucy Oliver Fernandez, an Assistant Dean with the Office of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning, student voices can also play a central role in supporting teachers’ efforts to understand students’ needs and maximize learning for all learners.
Using Students’ Perspectives to Inform Differentiation
The concept of student voice centres on learners’ unique perspectives about their experiences with schooling, learning and teaching. Throughout her career in education, Lucy has often thought about how educators could invite students to participate in discourses about their educational experiences.
“Students’ perspectives are important because they not only experience our curricula and educational policies first-hand, but can also have varied experiences with the same curriculum,” Lucy explains. “Their perspectives can thus enrich our understanding about the relationship between teaching and learning as well as reveal information about students’ needs and possible gaps between the intended, implemented and experienced curriculum.”
Furthermore, when teachers understand how different students experience the curriculum, they are also better equipped to make informed decisions with regard to differentiating instruction for their students.
“After all, if DI is about adapting to student variance to maximize learning for all learners, inviting students to share on their learning experiences and how teachers can support them can make differentiation more robust,” Lucy elaborates.
“[Students’] perspectives can thus enrich our understanding about the relationship between teaching and learning as well as reveal information about students’ needs and possible gaps between the intended, implemented and experienced curriculum.”
– Lucy, on the role students’ perspectives can play on teaching and learning
Avenues for Student Voices
During her stint as a secondary school teacher, Lucy made time for breakfast with her students to find out how she could cater to their learning needs and make the curriculum more accessible for different learners.
“I invited two students at a time to meet me for breakfast in the school canteen on particular days in a week and engaged them in discussions about the lessons we have had,” she shares. “At these sessions, I also sought my students’ views on whether they found my teaching approaches to be effective and the areas in which they require additional support.”
Lucy was also cognizant about the need to hear from all students when she initiated these meet-ups. “Some students are less outspoken, or prefer to approach teachers in smaller settings so these sessions gave them the opportunity to voice their perspectives and be heard.”
Lucy’s efforts to hear from every student paid off and over time, she observed that her classes blossomed into collegial and supportive learning communities. “From both an academic and socio-emotional standpoint, students appeared better off as they felt a sense of belonging and were helping one another improve,” she adds.
Informal meetings are, however, just one of many avenues in which teachers can gather inputs from students. “Other strategies that teachers may use include surveys and questionnaires, which can be based on an aspect of teaching or learning that teachers would like to focus on.”
Dialogue between Students and Teachers
While students’ inputs are central to efforts to engage them in their learning, there needs to be discernment and negotiation from all parties involved.
“It is also not about a teacher agreeing with every student’s view or acceding to every student’s request,” Lucy adds. “Rather, student voice is a dialogue about teaching and learning between students and teachers and in this conversation, both parties engage with one another.”
Additionally, after inviting students to share their perspectives, educators need to show that they appreciate students’ feedback and that teachers have heard what students are saying by responding to them.
“One way for teachers to do this is to initiate a dialogue with students on the feedback they have received and make decisions together so that both parties can move forward,” shares Lucy. “In doing so, students would also be assured that teachers value their inputs and thus not regard efforts to solicit their inputs as perfunctory exercises.”
“It is also not about a teacher agreeing with every student’s view or acceding to every student’s request. Rather, student voice is a dialogue about teaching and learning between students and teachers and in this conversation, both parties engage with one another.”
– Lucy clarifies on the definition of dialogue between students and teachers
An Opportunity for Educators to Grow
Making time to gather students’ perspectives did not just help Lucy understand the needs of different students and the pedagogical approaches that they find effective; they also gave her insights about herself as an educator.
“The conversations I shared with my students also prompted me to think about how, as a teacher, I could enact the curriculum differently and incorporate different strategies into my practice to support their growth and development as learners,” Lucy shares.
Inviting and accommodating students’ perspectives can, however, be challenging for teachers given the limited curriculum time. Nevertheless, Lucy encourages fellow educators who may be uncertain but interested in incorporating students’ voices into their practice to take small steps and trust their professional judgement.
“Even within a planned curriculum, there are spaces for teacher discretion, where the teacher can consider inviting students to share their inputs and make informed decisions together,” Lucy explains.
Furthermore, as classrooms and schools become more heterogeneous, students’ perspectives can strengthen teachers’ efforts to maximize learning for all students in a differentiated classroom.
“Accommodating diversity in our classrooms may require teachers to think and work in new ways, but it is also an opportunity for the fraternity to grow professionally and become better educators,” concludes Lucy.