The goal of every teacher and every educational institution is to impart education effectively to all students. However, even in the ideal classroom setup, the students have varying aptitudes and interests in the subject. They learn differently and at different paces too. A one-size-fits-all teaching strategy is easy for teachers but fails to be effective in today’s classrooms. As a result, some students may excel while others lag behind. It is easy to see why. For example, a student who learns experientially finds it difficult to understand concepts explained in a lecture format. Differentiated instruction as a teaching method is an efficient alternative because it caters to students with diverse needs.
What is Differentiated Instruction/Teaching?
Teacher and Author Carol Ann Tomlinson is known as the pioneer of differentiation in teaching methods. In her own words, this is a way of teaching that keeps the ‘child in mind’. Differentiated instruction offers multiple ways of presentation for the student to assimilate lessons. In effect, the learning goal for the classroom remains unchanged, but the instruction method considers the student’s preferences, skills, interests, and vulnerabilities.
The teacher may adopt teaching methods suited best to her class so that all students choose a suitable learning mode and enjoy better outcomes. For example, the teacher may:
- break up the classroom into smaller groups of students with similar interests/skill sets/ challenges.
- introduce activities that target all senses instead of one or two.
- adapt activities to each student’s strengths (one student writes, one makes a visual representation while another provides oral correspondence).
- use one-on-one sessions to understand the comprehension level of each student.
- use visual aids, videos, or similar tools to communicate with all students.
Educational leaders view differentiation as a progressive approach to modern-day education strategies. With this approach, no student is left behind.
Differentiation in Action
In a classroom where the teachers practice differentiated instruction, this is what ideally happens:
- The teachers first evaluate each student.
- They understand the skills and challenge areas each student has.
- They identify the learning outcomes for each based on the curriculum.
- They create different teaching processes so that students can achieve the learning outcomes in the way most suited to him/her.
Tomlinson and many other educational leaders identify four aspects of the whole learning experience that go into making differentiated instruction effective:
- Content: What the student has to learn in terms of concept, skill, or overall knowledge in line with the curriculum.
- Process: What activities the student performs to learn the concept, knowledge, and skill.
- Product: What the students offer as output to show how much or how well they have assimilated and can implement the instruction.
- Learning Environment: The atmosphere and tone of the classroom and how conducive learning is for the entire student body.
The test of any teaching approach lies in its impact on student achievement. In the case of differentiated instruction, there have been studies to see how and what kind of changes take place in student performance. In an English class where differentiation was implemented, low achievers improved their academic scores significantly while high achievers remained stable. Another study that covered three different high schools for sampling also reaffirmed the same findings: low and medium achievers benefited from differentiation.
Advantages of Differentiation
Because it caters to diverse student needs within the classroom, differentiation is an effective approach to education. The significant advantages of the method are:
- No student is left behind since each one can learn at his/her own pace, following a method that suits them best.
- The student experience is far better as this improves student engagement in class.
- The approach acknowledges that every student has a unique learning style. It addresses the student’s needs more accurately than traditional lecture-mode teaching methods.
- Both qualitative and quantitative assessments are used to evaluate the child’s success in learning a concept.
- Accurate assessment of the child’s learning is possible because the testing methods align with the child’s abilities.
- Every aspect of the child’s potential is targeted and honed to improve his/her success rate.
- Overall growth of the child takes place because this method utilizes numerous skills in the best way.
- The risk of students dropping out from lack of interest reduces significantly from having various learning pathways, one of which may engage the child and encourage participation.
- Teachers also benefit by getting the opportunity to explore their creativity in designing lesson plans that cater to diverse students.
- Lessons have extensive variety because teachers draw from varied course materials and tools to create their teaching aids.
- The lessons are customized to students. So, the understanding between student-teacher and the participation of both is much higher.
- There is leeway with these lessons to support unexpected changes in the classroom, which means lesson disruption is low.
- Presenting the same lesson in various ways improves retention for all the students and deepens understanding.
- Differentiation integrates well into the digital transformation of present-day classrooms. Technology aids this approach and makes it easy to create varied lesson plans to cater to different student groups.
However, differentiation has its downsides, as follows:
- Teachers are often at a loss to understand how exactly to implement differentiation in their teaching plans.
- Implementation requires a lot of effort and time from teachers.
- Similarities between individualized teaching and differentiated instruction often have teachers confused.
- The approach fails if the child is not assessed correctly.
- It is challenging to implement if the class size is large.
In summary, differentiation is the process of understanding the student’s needs, skills, and challenges and matching them with teaching strategies. By adapting the teaching method to the students, teachers ensure that a diverse student body achieves the learning outcomes. No student is left behind! This system leverages each student’s unique learning abilities and inherent persona to ensure more effective learning.
Dr. James McLaughlin, DBA, MEd