Foundations and Current Issues of Early Childhood Education/Chapter 3/3.2
Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that assumes there is a diversity of learners in every classroom and that all of those learners can be reached using different techniques and materials according to each student's ability (Bowers 2006). This approach increases learning for all students, regardless of academic skill level or background. Using differentiated instruction, educators adapt content, process, and product according to student readiness, interest, and learning profile. “When a teacher differentiates instruction, he or she uses the best teaching practices and strategies to create different pathways that respond to the needs of diverse learners” (Staff Development for Educators 2006). Fundamentally, differentiation is the effort teachers apply to respond to the diversity among learners within their classrooms. Teachers can differentiate instruction with an individual student, within a small group, or with a whole class. Contrary to what many people think, differentiating instruction does not mean that teachers provide separate, unrelated activities for each student but does mean they provide interrelated activities that are based on individual student needs for the purpose of ensuring that all students come to a similar grasp of a skill or idea (Learning Point Associates 2007). Unlike individualized instruction, where teachers focus on the specific needs and skills of each individual student, differentiated instruction concentrates on the needs of student clusters (Starr 2004).
In a typical classroom, students vary in their academic abilities, learning styles, personalities, interests, background knowledge and experiences, and levels of motivation for learning. If teachers want to maximize their students' individual potential, they will have to attend to these differences. Carol Tomlinson (2007) asserts that research shows that students are more successful when they are taught based on their own readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles.
Another reason for differentiating instruction relates to teacher professionalism. Skilled teachers are conscientious about students' diverse learning needs. Differentiated instruction enables teachers to open up learning opportunities for all students by offering varied learning experiences. It also allows teachers to put best practices into a meaningful context for learning, while adding new instructional strategies to their repertoires. Differentiation also helps teachers to understand and use assessment as a critical tool to drive instruction. It gives administrators, teachers, and students an instructional management system to more efficiently meet the demands of high stakes testing. Finally, this approach helps teachers meet curriculum requirements in a meaningful way for achieving students' success (Staff Development for Educators 2006).
Differentiation meets students where they are (Holloway 2006). Learning what students already know about a particular topic is vital for teachers in making instructional plans in a differentiated classroom. Therefore, in implementing a working differentiation plan into a classroom, a teacher’s first priority is learning what prior knowledge and experiences his or her students posses. From there, teachers can then differentiate their instruction within several classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile. Four of these classroom elements include: learning environment content, process, and products (Tomlinson 2004). Learning Environment The learning environment is how a classroom works and feels. At the elementary level, differentiating within the learning environment involves making sure there are places in the room for students to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite collaboration. It also means that teachers provide various instructional materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings. In addition, teachers have to remember to set clear guidelines so that independent work matches individual needs, as well as develop routines that allow students to know how or where get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately. One of the most important factors in creating a differentiated learning environment involves helping students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly (Tomlinson 2004).
Content is the information that students need to learn and how they will gain access to information. At the elementary level, teachers may differentiate instruction for content through the use of reading materials at varying readability levels. For students with reading problems, teachers may present ideas through both auditory and visual means: they may put text materials on tape or use reading buddies. In addition, teachers may use spelling or vocabulary lists at the readiness levels of their student clusters. Finally, teachers using the differentiated instruction approach meet with small groups as a method to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners (Tomlinson 2004).
The process of learning involves the activities in which students engage in order to make sense of or master the content they are learning. At the elementary level, differentiating instruction within the process of learning often requires teachers to be creative in their methods of planning and instruction. Most often, differentiating teachers can use tiered activities through which all learners work with the same central understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity. In addition, they offer manipulatives or other hands-on activities for students who need them to facilitate learning. Teachers using differentiating instruction also tend to provide learning centers that encourage students to explore areas of the class topic of particular interest to them. Some teachers also develop personal agendas, task lists written by the teacher, containing both work for the entire class and work that addresses students’ individual needs. These are completed either during a specific time or as students complete their work if it is early(Tomlinson 2004). Teachers do often find it necessary to vary the length of time individual students may take to complete an assignment in order to provide additional support for struggling learners or to encourage more advanced learners to pursue a topic of interest in greater depth (Holloway 2006).
The products of learning are the culminating projects that ask students to rehearse, apply, and extend what they have learned while studying a unit. At the elementary level, teachers using differentiation can be creative with this element of learning. Some teachers may give students options as to how they wish to express required learning; including such options as: creating a puppet show, writing a letter, or developing a mural with labels. Other teachers may choose to use rubrics that match and extend students' diverse skill levels. Within this approach teachers may choose to allow students to work alone or in small groups on their products, just as they would throughout the process, encouraging students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain specified required elements (Tomlinson 2004).
Differentiating instruction does not mean that teachers provide separate, unrelated activities for each student but does mean they provide interrelated activities that are based on individual student needs for the purpose of ensuring that all students come to a similar grasp of a skill or idea
For educators who are interested in utilizing differentiation within their own classrooms, it is both helpful and vital to partner with someone knowledgeable and skilled in this approach. In addition, there is a great deal of information available on the internet. Two such resources are: “Preparing Teachers for Differentiated Instruction: What the Research Says” written by John H. Holloway and found on the NEA website, and “How to Differentiate Instruction” which can be found on the Teachnology Tutorials website. Both of these sites offer insight and research-based ideas for instruction and planning of differentiated lessons.
Bowers, M., “In Chesapeake, Parents Push for More Challenges for Gifted”, The Virginian-Pilot, May 15, 2006, http://content.hamptonroads.com/story.cfm?story=104467&ran=35639 Holloway, J. H., “Preparing Teachers for Differentiated Instruction: What the Research Says”, National Education Association, 2006, http://www.nea.org/teachexperience/diffk030908.html
Learning Point Associates, “A Teacher’s Guide to Differentiating Instruction”, Learning Point Associates, January 22, 2007, http://www.centerforcsri.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=412&Itemid=5
Staff Development for Educators, “Differentiated Instruction”, Staff Development for Educators Inc., 2006, http://differentiatedinstruction.com/
Starr, L., “Differentiated Instruction”, Education World, 2004, http://www.education-world.com/a_curr/strategy/strategy042.shtml
Teachnology Tutorials, “How to Differentiate Instruction”, Teachnology Tutorials, http://www.teach-nology.com/tutorials/teaching/differentiate/planning/
Tomlinson, C A., “Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades”, ERIC Digest, 2004, http://www.ericdigests.org/2001-2/elementary.html
Multiple Choice Questions
1. Differentiated instruction assumes
a. students all learn in the same manner. b. teachers should teach the same material in the same way. c. there is a diversity of students in every classroom. d. students should all pass a written test to prove mastery.
2. Differentiating instruction
a gives administrators, teachers, and students an instructional management system to more efficiently meet the demands of high stakes testing. b. allows teachers to put best practices into a meaningful context for learning. c. helps teachers meet curriculum requirements in a meaningful way for achieving students' success. d. all of the above
3. In differentiation, assessment is
a. in the form of a written test. b. unnecessary. c. a critical tool which drives teacher instruction. d. a critical tool used to prove mastery.
4. In differentiating instruction within content, a teacher may
a. develop routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately. b. use rubrics that match and extend students' diverse skill levels. c. use tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills. d. use reading materials at varying readability levels.
5. In differentiating within the process of learning, a teacher may
a. provide materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings. b. develop personal agendas, task lists written by the teacher containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners. c. use spelling or vocabulary lists at the readiness levels of their students. d. give students options as to how they wish to express required learning.
How can the use of differentiated instruction eliminate the necessity of placing students in classes based on academic skill level?
Differentiated instruction assumes that a typical classroom is made up of students who differ in their academic abilities, learning styles, personalities, interests, background knowledge and experiences, and levels of motivation for learning, and therefore helps teachers to shape student learning based on student readiness, interest, and learning profile. Within this approach, teachers meet with small groups, or clusters, of students as opposed to a whole group teaching method. This allows teachers to specifically tailor their instruction based on the needs of each student cluster, thus allowing them to teach the same information to slower students as well as those who are more advanced. This means they may use it as a method to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of more advanced learners. In order to accomplish this seemingly difficult task, experienced teachers will design their classrooms to include areas where students may work quietly and without distraction, as well as areas designed for student collaboration. Skilled in this approach, teachers will present ideas through both auditory and visual means, use reading materials at varying readability levels, and use spelling or vocabulary lists at the readiness levels of the students using them. They will also make use of tiered activities, offer manipulatives to student clusters who require them, and provide learning centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the unit which are of particular interest to them. Finally, using differentiation, teachers will be creative with the final products of student learning. Some students will show their learning in a creative manner, such as a play or puppet show, while others will be given other options. Through employing these methods, teachers can reach slower learners as well as more advanced learners within the same classroom, thus eliminating the need to place students in classrooms based solely on academic skill level.