In a typical classroom of 40 students, how can teachers ensure that students have their learning needs met? With diversity becoming a norm in most classrooms today, a one-size-fits-all approach to learning and teaching seems inadequate. In this article, a group of education researchers share how differentiated instruction can be applied in the Singapore classrooms to meet the diverse needs of all students.
How Teachers in Singapore Differentiate
Through differentiating content, process, product, and the environment, teachers attempt to address students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles.
Tiered assignment is commonly used to address students’ readiness in the Singapore classrooms, observes Assistant Professor Heng Tang Tang from the Policy, Curriculum and Leadership Academic Group at NIE. It allows students to work at a level appropriate for them as they progress towards or beyond baseline goals.
“Students who feel less ready are seated nearer to the teacher working on foundation questions, receiving more attention from their teachers. Students who feel more ready, meanwhile, are seated further working on more complex questions. Extension activities, like having students set, answer, and mark each other’s questions, are offered.”
Other ways in which differentiation has been observed include “teachers offering students the option to learn via different modalities, such as iPads, graphic organizers, and games, or incorporating students’ interests into manipulatives, examples, or texts that teachers use in class”. Taking into account student’s learning preferences and interests, Tang Tang explains, can encourage student engagement and ownership of their learning.
Tang Tang rues that teachers tend to primarily focus on students’ readiness, at the expense of interests and learning profiles. “While it is understandable that teachers feel accountable to their students because of the high-stakes examinations students have to take, we have to be careful of only differentiating for readiness as it can unintentionally create in-class streaming”. She suggests that teachers keep an open mind towards students, use flexible grouping and create opportunities for different students’ strengths to shine.
Clinical Interview as Formative Assessment
To apply differentiated instruction meaningfully in the classroom, teachers must, first of all, take students’ learning seriously. NIE Associate Professor Mary Anne Heng says that clinical interviews are a powerful means to challenge teachers’ assumptions about teaching and learning.
“Clinical interviews seek deeper understandings into students’ thinking and learning processes that underlie students’ performance in school,” Mary Anne explains. For example, teachers could pose open-ended questions to students such as: “Can you tell me what you were thinking when you gave this answer?” This will help teachers uncover students’ misconceptions so as to address learning gaps that may not be obvious even to experienced teachers.
“A correct response on a test question may simply be a rote response, masking a student’s partial or incorrect understanding of a concept, and so to learn what is hidden in students’ minds, observation is not enough,” she elaborates. Clinical interviews are a form of formative assessment that go beyond class tests and examinations. Her work with experienced teachers shows that clinical interviews provide teachers with new eyes and minds to see and understand the complex nature of teaching and learning.
“Clinical interviews seek deeper understandings into students’ thinking and learning processes that underlie students’ performance in school.”
–Mary Anne, on how clinical interviews can help teachers understand their students better
Dialogue and Collaboration to Overcome Challenges
Often with time as a constraint, many teachers struggle to meet the needs of the various groups within their classes. One way to overcome this is to build a more conducive environment for differentiation by identifying and effecting structural changes that will encourage teachers to collaborate.
“Ring-fencing time for individual and group lesson planning as well as structuring collaborations and open classrooms can help teachers gain new ideas, develop baseline resources and provide them with intellectual and emotional support. At the same time, an open-minded, risk-free and non-hierarchical environment needs to be established so that teachers can speak their mind,” Tang Tang shares.
Collaboration is also part of what Mary Anne terms “critical deliberation”. This involves teachers, in their community of practice, acquiring a common language to talk about and understand differentiated instruction, reflecting on their teaching as well as what they can learn from students’ responses to their teaching.
“To meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, teachers will need to work together to acquire new understandings and adopt more sensitive student-centric approaches to teaching and learning,” she emphasizes.
Strengthening the Support Given
A common misconception about high ability learners is that they do not need much support and that any allocation of resources to help them takes away from others. The time and resource invested in differentiating for high ability learners actually strengthens the teachers’ “differentiation muscle.” Hence, it would help, says NIE lecturer and researcher Dr Letchmi Devi Ponnusamy, to have “teacher advocates” for high ability learners.
“These advocates, when certified and trained, can activate conversations about instructional strategies that motivate and stretch not only the high ability students, but most learners in diverse classrooms. However, they should also be given sufficient scope to tailor the curriculum according to the learners’ needs,” she explains.
Having more flexibility in the types of modification used for Special Educational Needs (SEN) in the mainstream classroom will also greatly benefit students with disabilities.
Associate Professors Vasilis Strogilos and Levan Lim, who used to do research together at NIE, shares, “Our research study, Differentiated Instruction as a Means to Inclusion (DIMI), provided resounding evidence that contextual constraints such as class size, a common standardized curriculum and high stakes examinations are critical impediments to the diverse learning needs of students with SEN.”
They propose that there should be more emphasis on mixed-ability grouping, an exams-free pedagogy – especially for those with SEN – and more modifications used in the mainstream class.
With so many considerations to be made, creating an ideal environment for differentiation is challenging. Time and effort are required to re-culture expectations of teaching and learning, in addition to structural changes, reminds Tang Tang. Ultimately, teachers need continuous assurance and support from educational leaders in their journey towards differentiating their classrooms.
“Our research study, Differentiated Instruction as a Means to Inclusion, provided resounding evidence that contextual constraints such as class size, a common standardized curriculum and high stakes examinations are critical impediments to the diverse learning needs of students with SEN.”
–Vasilis and Levan, on the various factors that impede the learning of students with SEN