A child’s uniqueness is something to be celebrated. When that uniqueness translates into diverse abilities and learning styles in the classroom, however, teachers are faced with a dilemma.
They can “teach to the middle” and hope to reach as many children as possible. Or they can face the challenge of diversifying their teaching-or to use the latest mantra in education-differentiating instruction.
Differentiating instruction seems to be the new wave of the future, with educators everywhere pointing to it as the most effective approach in the quest to reach every single student.
Differentiated instruction begins with the belief that teachers should adapt instruction to student differences. Rather than marching students through the curriculum in lockstep, teachers should modify their instruction to meet students’ varying readiness levels, learning preferences, and interests.
Differentiating instruction helps teachers avoid the anxiety and boredom that result from “one-size-fits-all” classrooms, writes Carol Tomlinson, author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding To The Needs Of All Learners.
When assignments are consistently too hard, students become anxious and frustrated. When tasks are consistently too easy, boredom results. Both these responses weaken a student’s motivation, and eventually, harm achievement as well, explains Tomlinson.
The differentiated classroom is one where teachers strive to tailor their instruction to individual student needs. They try to provide the right level of challenge for gifted students, for students who lag far behind grade level, and for everyone in between.
An impossible task? Not really. As one proponent of differentiation put it, “Each time you provide a student with extra help, more time, or a modified assignment, you’re differentiating instruction. All good teachers, whether they realize it or not, differentiate to some degree.”
Interestingly, the concept itself is far from novel. Back in the days of the one-room schoolhouse, when students ages 6-16 learned together, differentiated instruction was the norm.
What Are The Strategies?
Teachers who differentiate instruction rely on a number of strategies to make it feasible.
“There’s not one miracle thing that works for every child,” says Patricia Weaver, an education consultant from East Hanover, N.J who canvassed schools across the nation to study methods in differentiating. “You need a range of strategies.”
Some of the most common strategies include flexible grouping, which means grouping on the basis of diverse criteria. Sometimes students will be grouped by common interest (e.g. all are interested in learning about spiders), sometimes according to their level of ability, and other times according to their preferred learning style, whether audial, visual or kinesthetic.
Grouping is essentially a must, those who have tried differentiation agree. “If you don’t use flexible grouping, it’s almost impossible to differentiate instruction,” Weaver says. Trying to vary instruction without grouping students is simply too “unwieldy.”
Teachers can vary whole-class instruction by teaching small groups or individual students, Tomlinson suggests.
A Peek Into The Differentiated Classroom
Teachers from kindergarten to 12th grade are making use of these strategies in their classrooms, experts say.
In one school, the first grade teachers use supplementary reading activities to strengthen reading skills. On Mondays, they read stories to the entire class but break the class into groups according to reading levels for the next two days.
On Thursdays, the whole class as a unified group reviews the story once more, to measure improvement and reinforce learning.
To help students of differing abilities improve writing skills, some teachers have experimented with “peer tutoring” groups. In the groups that were surveyed, children read their work aloud and help one another with spelling and editing as they create their own books. A writing activity that utilizes a differentiated approach in one school is the monthly class newsletter, for which the children write stories independently on topics of their choice.
Students love to see their names in print, teachers attest, and the pride they take in having their work “published” provides strong incentive to participate in future writing projects.
In another school, a 4th grade teacher differentiates math lessons by providing opportunities for some children to learn with manipulatives, some with the aid of a computer, while still others work best with “old-fashioned” pencil and paper.
“I have one student who uses a laptop computer all the time because of a writing disability,” one teacher noted.
At another school in the Midwest, a teacher of 7th graders learning about the cell uses mixed-ability groupings. Each of five students in a mixed-ability group might research a different cell part by gathering information from books at her own reading level. Then groups split up so that all students with the same cell assignment compare notes and teach one another.
Finally, students return to their original groups so that every member of each group can report to the others about the other cell parts. “It’s the coolest thing in the world to see a lower-ability kid teaching a higher-ability kid what he’s learned,” said the teacher. “This approach to differentiation helps motivate all students to push themselves just a little further.”
Diversifying In Math
Because 4th graders must memorize multiplication facts and not everyone has the same skill at memorizing, one teacher asks her students, “How do you think you could learn this best?”
She finds that the activities students prefer usually indicate how they learn most efficiently, so she often lets them choose whether to draw, write, use flash cards with a partner, or create three-dimensional models.
A teacher in North Carolina uses multi-leveled assignments to engage her 5th graders at all levels of ability. When she begins the unit on perimeter, area, and volume, she first presents a short lesson to the whole class. Together, she and the students measure various sizes of cereal boxes so that everyone is clear about definitions and processes.
Then, in groups of two, students receive activity packets. The more concrete learners receive packets with worksheets that guide them in measuring their own desks and classroom furniture, calculating the perimeters, areas, and volumes of things they can actually see and touch.
Other students with greater abstract reasoning skills are guided in designing their own bedrooms. This more complex assignment elicits students’ creativity in defining the dimensions of an imaginary bedroom and in creating scale drawings.
Students also calculate the cost and number of five-yard rolls of wallpaper borders needed to decorate their rooms. From catalogs, they select furniture and rugs that will fit into their model rooms.
Can Yeshivas Implement Differentiation?
Asking teachers to differentiate instruction raises a host of issues- time, classroom management and grading, among others. In a yeshiva that suffers from a shortage of teacher aides, as well as the extra funds necessary to vary textbooks and other teaching materials in the classroom, how can teachers be encouraged to move in this direction?
“The key word is ‘training’. You don’t learn to differentiate instruction in a one-afternoon workshop,” Tomlinson emphasizes. “It’s a multi-faceted process that takes time to master.”
Then too, an administrator has to become knowledgeable about differentiation, both the philosophy and the classroom implications, and to be devoted to its implementation. A principal whose vision includes the conviction that “no child will be left behind” is likely to explore every possible avenue in the quest for sufficient resources to train his staff.
Some forward-thinking yeshiva principals employ someone trained in differentiation to work with teachers in their “traditionally” run classrooms. The specialist in differentiation coaches the teacher on how to modify assignments and tailor her curriculum so that even in a traditional setting, a certain amount of diversification of instruction is offered to students in need of it.