A current trend in our classrooms is differentiated instruction or differentiated learning. This is an approach to teaching that breaks the mould, opposing any tendencies to believe that one-size-fits-all in the classroom. Differentiation provides students with different vehicles for learning, for processing new ideas, and for demonstrating their learning. A differentiated learning environment allows all students in a classroom to excel, regardless of differences in ability. Teachers offering differentiated learning opportunities are sensitive to the needs, interests, abilities and readiness of their students. Consequently, the key to successful differentiation is thorough knowledge of the diverse backgrounds and personalities in the classroom.
Differentiated instruction provides students with a variety of learning experiences. Instead of offering one inflexible experience, students are given choice and are involved as active participants in their learning. There are four areas in which learning may be differentiated: content, environment, process and product.
To differentiate content is to vary how students learn about a given topic. For example, all students may be expected to learn about the feudal system in medieval society. One group of students may start by working towards knowledge acquisition while another group may be exercising evaluation and synthesis skills around the same topic. A common misconception is that students have different expectations placed upon them, with different standards for performance. This is untrue, as all students are held to the same standards outlined by local curriculum expectations. Differentiating content gives students different avenues for learning about new concepts.
Differentiating the learning environment allows a teacher to cater to different learning needs in the classroom. While some students thrive when engaging in large group discussions, some experience greater success when working in a small group or independently. Likewise, some students prefer some noise in the background while they work, while others require silence to concentrate without distraction. Providing balanced opportunities for different class groupings allows students to fully engage in their classroom experience.
Another approach to differentiating the environment is changing the location of learning. While the classroom is a great space for learning, certain concepts or topics may lend themselves to a class in the library, the computer lab or outdoors. When the change in environment is relevant and appropriate, students are able to engage with the material they are learning.
When differentiating the process of learning, teachers provide different styles of instruction. This typically caters to the multiple intelligences of a group of students. Students may learn best through visual instruction, through kinaesthetic activities, or through linguistic approaches. Whatever the case, teachers must provide multiple approaches to teaching a lesson. This may involve breaking the class into small groups and tailoring teaching to the visual learners, the auditory learners, the logical learners, etc. Additionally, this may involve having different learning stations available for students to choose to read material, listen to a podcast or lecture, experiment with manipulatives or discuss ideas in a small group. There are a variety of ways to differentiate process for a class.
Students can demonstrate their mastery of a new concept in a variety of ways. The traditional quiz and test approach does not suit all students. To differentiate the product, teachers give students opportunities to capitalize on their personal strengths.For example, if students are to illustrate that they have internalized the concept of light and sound in the science and technology strand, they may do so through a written paper, through creating a poster, through a podcast or through an animated slide show presentation. The possibilities are endless.
Differentiated instruction is a powerful approach to teaching and to learning, as its goal is the success of all students. It allows students multiple opportunities to engage, to learn and to shine. It is sensitive to a student’s learning style and learning needs, yielding positive outcomes.
For more information on differentiation and how to respond to a student’s specific learning needs, contact Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space 416.925.1225 or visit www.ruthrumack.com.