Using these pre-assessments will give teachers an idea of where they are starting with their students at the beginning of the year. In The New York Times, Dr. Susan Demirsky Allan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Michigan, explains, “Nothing is a magic bullet, but if you start from where the student is, looking at his or her potential, then the likelihood of meeting that student’s academic needs increases enormously.”
Why do we need differentiated instruction?
Speaking to teachers of young children, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reminds us that it is the responsibility of schools to adjust to children’s developmental needs and levels rather than expecting children to adapt to an educational system that fails to address their individual needs and development. Therein lies the rationale behind teaching students through differentiated instruction. As I strongly advocate, “If he cannot learn the way we teach, we had better teach the way he can learn.”
In their book, Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe argue that, “Learning happens within students, not to them. Learning is a process of making meaning that happens one student at a time.” For this very reason, differentiated instruction is a successful tool in teaching individual students in their own individual ways.
In Howard Gardner’s model of multiple intelligences, a child who excels at math is not necessarily more intelligent overall than a child who struggles with it. The second child may be stronger in another kind of intelligence, and therefore may best learn the given material through a different approach or may excel in a field outside of mathematics. In his book, Multiple Intelligences, Gardner explains that rather than relying on a uniform curriculum, schools should offer “individual-centered education,” with curriculum tailored to the needs of each child. This “individual-centered education” is another form of differentiated instruction.
How can we incorporate differentiated instruction into our classrooms?
There are several techniques that are easily incorporated into a regular classroom, even one with only two or three hours of English instruction a day.
The jigsaw activity sets students up in groups reading or listening to different materials. The jigsaw is a learning strategy that divides the material to be studied into sections and makes individuals or groups responsible for learning and then teaching their section to the other students. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece, each student’s part, is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product.
A literature circle is a students’ equivalent in the classroom of an adult book club. The aim is to encourage student-choice and a love of reading in young people. Students have a certain amount of time to read a book and they decide as a group how much they will read for each session that the literature circle meets. During literature circles, students have clearly defined roles: acting as facilitators, making connections, doing simple research, and creating relevant illustrations. Many teachers choose to tape-record the student discussions in order to review and supervise the conversations.
A great resource for teachers looking for information on literature circles is Harvey Daniels’s text Literature Circles. Daniels’s book details strategies, structures, tools, and stories that show you how to launch and manage literature circles effectively. It also includes twenty examples from teachers who practice literature circles in their own classrooms.
Once teachers have recognized which students are stronger or weaker, they may arrange the classroom in way that is conducive to differentiated instruction. When working with partners, if the classroom is set up methodically, the students can work in same-ability and mixed-ability groups.