In the Greek mythology, all soldiers were required to be of the same height. To achieve this, a measuring box was used to establish each soldier’s height. A soldier was expected to fit into the box perfectly.
If a soldier was short, his body was pulled and stretched so that he could fit into the box. If, on the other hand, a soldier was tall, his limbs were chopped until they fitted into the box. In the end, short and tall soldiers ended-up dead. Only the perfect-sized soldiers, who fitted into the box perfectly, survived.
This myth finds expression in many classrooms. Teachers in many schools present “one-size-fit-all” lessons. That is, their lessons are pitched to the level of the average learner. They actualise the Greek myth by “stretching” the low-functioning learners (“the short soldiers”), while at the same time “chopping” the limbs of the high-performing learners (“the tall soldiers”) in order to “fit” in a “one-size-fit-all” lesson designed for an average learner (“the perfect-sized soldier”).
In a “one-size-fit-all lesson,” both groups of learners (the low-functioning and high performing learners) do not benefit from the lesson and end up being frustrated and bored because the lesson is beyond the level of the low-functioning learners while it is too easy for the high-performing learners.
As in the Greek myth, by aiming to middle, teachers are “killing” the low-functioning and high performing learners. That is, when an entire class moves forward to learn new skills and concepts without any individual adjustments in time or support, the low-functioning learners are doomed to fail while the high performing learners do not achieve to their full potential.
BALANCING THE ACT OF TEACHING DIVERSE LEARNERS
In every classroom, teachers have to teach diverse learners. Not only do these learners differ culturally and linguistically but they also have different cognitive abilities, background knowledge, and learning preferences. High achievers often share a class with learners who struggle mightily with one or more school subjects.
Whatever differences each learner brings to a classroom; all learners have the right to expect teachers who are ready to teach them as they are, and to meet high expectations.
Balancing the act of teaching diverse learners does not mean that teachers must aim to the middle, i.e., teach to the average learner. On the contrary, instead of using a one-size-fits all approach, when faced with such diversity, an expert in the area of differentiated learning, Tomlinson, argues that differentiated instruction (DI) is one of the best tools available to teachers to accommodate differences between learners in mixed-ability classes so that all learners in a class have the best possible chance of learning.
WAYS TO PREPARE A DIFFERENTIATED INSTRUCTION
According to Tomlinson, teachers must differentiate instruction by adjusting one or more of the following classroom elements:
- Learning Environment
To meet every learner’s needs, teachers in top-performing schools differentiate their lessons by modifying the content (what is being taught), the process (how the content is taught), the product (how learners demonstrate their learning) and learning environment (the way the classroom works and ‘feels’).
Content: Differentiating what learners learn
Teachers in top performing schools use a variety of ways to explore the content to enable all learners to connect with it. To differentiate the content teachers:
- Use continuous, formative assessment to identify learners who need help and to monitor learners’ progress after a teacher has differentiated instruction by content.
- Differentiate their teaching by adjusting the content, including knowledge, concepts, and skills that learners need to learn, e.g. producing different sets of worksheets or exercises depending on students’ abilities, or using a single worksheet comprised of tasks which get progressively challenging.
- Set different tasks for learners of different abilities guided by a six-level Bloom’s taxonomy or other taxonomies to enable learners to progress to more challenging levels of the taxonomy.
- Re-teach a concept or skill to struggling learners, and to give high-performing learners more challenging work.
Following is an example how a teacher in a top-performing school differentiates a lesson:
In a traditional maths classroom, a teacher might assign the odd-number problems from the textbook and all the learners would complete them during the lesson. Instead, in a differentiated lesson, a teacher in a top performing school teaches the same maths concepts by organising learners into three groups and moving around the three groups:
- One where the maths problems are presented visually in a traditional way
- One using manipulatives
- One focusing on solving the problem
Process: Differentiating how the content is taught
In this type of differentiation, the focus shifts to the process that teacher has to adapt to present the content to learners of different abilities. To help learners with different abilities and learning styles absorb the content taught, teachers in top performing schools:
- Vary presentation skills so that detailed explanations in simple language are given to struggling learners while quick or more sophisticated dialogue is reserved for high performing learners.
- Augment learning and teaching time by providing extra classes in the morning, during break, in the afternoon, during week-ends or holidays.
- Adjust the pace of learning by providing extra support for struggling learners to complete a task and allocate more challenging extension tasks to the more advanced learners.
- Encourage learner peer-support to allow learners to help one another
- Deliver a lesson using a wide spectrum of materials, technologies and means that appeal to different learning styles in order to attain a single learning outcome
- Pace the lesson so that learners who quickly grasp the content of the lesson are not held back to the speed of their less-able classmates who need more time.
Unlike in the traditional classroom where activities and lessons are completed within a single time frame, irrespective of the level of difficulty for some learners, teachers in top performing schools differentiate lesson planning and presentation so that the available time is used flexibly in order to meet all learners’ needs.
Product: Differentiating how to assess learning
Differentiation by outcome or product is defined as a technique whereby all learners undertake the same task but a variety of results is expected and acceptable. The product is what a learner creates at the end of the lesson to demonstrate the mastery of the content.
In top-performing schools, teachers make sure a product ranges in complexity to align it to respective levels for different learners. To do this, teachers:
- Set tasks to assess learning but instead of working towards a single ‘right’ answer, they vary the tasks depending on their level of ability.
- Use different form of tests, projects, reports or other activities to allow learners to demonstrate and apply what they know, understand, and are able to do after a lesson.
- Allow for varied working arrangements, for example, assigning learners tasks to work alone or as part of a team to complete the product.
- Assign different activities to learners at varying degrees of difficulty to match learners’ varying abilities.
- Assess learners on an on-going basis in order to profile them in order to identify areas for improvement, reflect and continuously adjust methods of differentiation, i.e., content, process, product and learning environment.
Learning Environment: Differentiating how the classwork ‘feels’
Teachers in top performing schools differentiate the learning environment by:
- Making sure that there are spaces in the classroom for learners to work quietly individually or in groups and without distraction, as well as places that encourage learner collaboration.
- Incorporating various types of furniture and arrangements to support both individual and group work.
- Using classroom management techniques that support a safe and supportive learning environment.
At the core of differentiation is the relationship between teachers and learners. As discussed above, the role of a teacher in differentiated learning is to connect content, process, product and learning environment. Learners, on the other hand, respond to learning based on readiness, interests, and learning profile/preferences. Illustrated below is the teacher’s role in the effective planning of DI and how learners respond to it.
WHAT TEACHERS PREPARE FOR DI
Content: What to learn?
Process: How to learn it?
Product: What is evidence of learning?
Learning Environment: Where does learning take place?
HOW LEARNER ENGAGE IN A DI
Readiness: Starting point
Learning Profile: Learning styles and intelligence
Learning Preferences: Influenced by many variables
In every classroom, there are learners with different personalities, interests, learning styles and background knowledge. While teachers in schools that work acknowledge that planning a DI is time-consuming, they do not see this as a hindrance to planning a good lesson. Their practices reflect the belief that, although learners are at different stages in their learning and may be progressing at different rates, they are all capable of learning successfully if motivated.
Teachers in top-performing schools speak in one voice that their goal for providing DI is to do what Tomlinson calls “teaching-up.” This means bringing all learners to “grade level” or to ensure that all learners master prescribed curriculum in a specified length of time.