Differentiation –The Way Forward
Published on August 11, 2016

Differentiation –The Way Forward

Differentiation –The Way Forward

“Fair means that each student is doing the activity best suited for his or her learning. It does not mean every student is doing the same learning activity.”

Why do we need differentiation?

The mission statement of most educational institutions always aims high and sets out to challenge every student to excel. However students enter the classroom with vastly different needs and readiness levels for learning, so aiming high for all cannot mean the same instruction and work for all and this is the reason why differentiation is a necessity in any classroom.

Schools are naturally expected to be fair to all the students but fairness in a school does not mean giving everyone the same assignment to complete within the same time period. Instead, it means looking at each student's needs and learning goals, and planning ways to meet those goals in a way that is most appropriate for that student. Differentiated instruction is simply providing instruction in a variety of ways to meet the needs of a variety of learners.

Students often perceive that it isn't fair for the teacher to have different expectations for different students. They often feel that they should all be doing the same thing. It is important for the teacher to establish the fact that each student is a unique individual and has different learning needs and thus they will be working at different tasks.

The “Why” Of Differentiation

Differentiation does not mean labeling the students as ‘low achievers’, ‘average achievers’ and ‘high achievers’, instead it is a way of drawing out the best from each student so that they achieve their highest potential. Differentiated instruction could be based upon the students readiness, interest or learning style.

Readiness is a student’s entry point relative to a particular understanding or skill.  To help a student to grow, we must begin where the child is. Some children, particularly those who have had early learning opportunities, begin school with well-developed skills and considerable understanding of various topics; other students arrive as true beginners and need basic instruction and additional practice

Interest refers to a child’s affinity curiosity, or passion for a particular topic or skill. The advantage to grouping by interest is that it allows students to attach what they have been learning in class to things that  they already find relevant and interesting and appealing in their own lives.

Learning profile or style has to do with how students learn.  Learning style is defined as the way that information is processed. It focuses on strengths, not weaknesses. There is no right or wrong learning style; most children show a preference for one of the following basic learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic/ manipulative. It is not uncommon to combine the primary and secondary learning styles.

What is meant by multisensory teaching?

Multi-sensory teaching is simultaneously –visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-[tactile] -to enhance memory and learning. Links are consistently made between the 3pathways in learning - visual (what we see), - auditory (what we hear), and -kinesthetic-tactile (what we feel).

Visual learners learn by watching. They call up images from the past when trying to remember. They picture the way things look in their heads. Forty percent of secondary students fall into this category. Visual learners prefer to see information such as pictures, diagrams,  cartoons, demonstrations, Picture words and concepts they hear as images, Get easily distracted in lectures with no visual aids, are overwhelmed with intense visuals accompanied by  lecture and benefit from using charts, maps, notes, and flash cards when studying.

Auditory learners tend to spell phonetically. They can sometimes have trouble reading, because they don't visualize well. These students learn by listening and remember facts when they are presented in the form of a poem, song or melody. Only 10 percent of secondary students learn best auditorily, but 80 percent of instructional delivery is auditory.

Auditory learners prefer to hear information spoken, Can absorb a lecture with little effort, may not need careful notes to learn., often avoid eye contact in order to concentrate, may read aloud to themselves and like background music when they study.

Kinesthetic learners learn best through movement and manipulation. They like to find out how things work and are often successful in the practical, in the arts, such as carpentry or design. These students make up 50 percent of secondary students and have difficulty learning in a traditional setting. Kinesthetic learners prefer touch as their primary mode for taking in information, In traditional lecture situations, they would write out important facts, create study sheets connected to vivid examples, role-playing can help them learn and  remember important ideas and may benefit by using manipulatives.

The ‘What’ Of Differentiation       

The teacher who has just been introduced to the concept of differentiation can plan her strategies based on her understanding of her students by either modifying the content, the process, the  product or even the environment in which students learn.

Content is what we want students to- know (facts and information) - understand (principles, generalizations, ideas)  be able to do (skills).

Content is differentiated when you pre assess students’ skill and knowledge, then match learners with appropriate activities according to readiness; you give students choices about topics to explore in greater depth; you provide students with basic and advanced resources that match their current levels of understanding.

Process is the “how” of teaching.  Process refers to the activities that you design to help students think about and make sense of the key principles and information of the content they are learning.  Process also calls on students to use key skills that are integral to the unit.  When differentiating process, students are engaged in different activities, but each activity should be directed to the lesson’s common focus on what students should come to know, understand, and be able to do.  All students are engaged in meaningful and respectful tasks.

The process of learning for any student is how they will interact with the curriculum content to arrive at personal understanding.  Teachers can make modifications to effectively differentiate curriculum process by encouraging  higher levels of thinking so that students  apply information to new situations, use it to develop new ideas and use it to develop new products and use  a variety of methods to maintain students’ interest and accommodate different learning styles.

Products are the way students show what they have learned or extend what they have learned.  They can be differentiated along a continuum:

          - simple to complex

          - less independent to more independent

          - clearly defined problems to fuzzy problems

 The environment in which people learn best is another consideration in assessing learning styles;

While tradition tells us to have a quiet room, well lit with a straight back chair, some children learn best in a more chaotic environment;

 Loud music, laying on the bed, and a dimly lit environment may be the best study situation for others;

Outdoors - field trips, nature trails may also enhance the learning environment.

Students may be grouped by interest but may also have activities set at different readiness  levels of complexity (questioning levels/abstract thinking processes) resulting in varying products that employ students' preferred learning styles (auditory, visual or kinesthetic). Thus the content is being differentiated by interest, the process is being differentiated by readiness (complexity of thinking skills required) and the product is being differentiated by student learning style preferences. This multiple differentiation has the added advantage of making presentations much more interesting than it would be if all groups do everything in the same way and each presentation was simply a repetition of the former one.

Basic Elements of Differentiation

The important elements of differentiated curriculum, instruction, and assessment therefore include:

Teaching using all of the senses, learning styles, and modalities;

Thematic units that combine math, science, literature, history, geography, writing, and the arts;

Integrating the arts into all aspects of the curriculum;

Hands-on projects with differentiated products and performances;

Pre-assessment, formative assessment and, data analysis that drives all aspects of instruction;

Individualized instruction and work depending upon how each student learns;

Flexible grouping based on skill levels and individual student needs.

The Tools of Differentiation

Most teachers are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy as it has been an important component of their repertoire of teaching strategies. It was originally designed to identify the various levels of questioning ranging from the basic knowledge and understanding to the more complex operations of synthesizing, evaluating and more recently creating. This model of thinking is now widely used to assist in the design of assignments and tasks that address different levels of readiness.  However this model is not an endeavor to label students based on the level of competence at each stage because children who are good with knowledge and understanding, may also be good at higher order thinking by creating in some other situation and gifted learners could very well master the lower order thinking level of recall of information. Bloom’s Taxonomy can be used as a basic framework by teachers to create discussion questions, homework assignments, tests, and projects to offer adequate challenges to the students.

Tomlinson’s Equalizer is a tool that asks teachers to consider how to modify lessons and student work across nine different dimensions. These dimensions include:

Foundational to transformational ,concrete to abstract ,Simple to complex ,Fewer facets to multi-facets ,Smaller leap to greater leap ,More structured to more open ,Clearly-defined problems to fuzzy problems ,Less independence to greater independence and Slower pace to quicker pace .

Clearly, the great benefit of this tool is that it helps teachers think about ways to differentiate classroom learning across a wide range of student learning differences and needs. Rather than simply thinking in terms of “high ability” and “low ability,” it addresses characteristics of learners.

-         A writer, thinker, published author, and an educationist, Dr. Farooq Ahmad Wasil, is GLOBAL HEAD low cost schools, GEMS Education, Dubai, UAE. He has over 3 decades of experience in the field of education – setting up, operating and managing schools. You can contact him at farooq.wasil@gmail.com

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