Meeting the Needs of All Learners

Meeting the Needs of All Learners

Defining Differentiated Instruction

downloadIf you ask ten educators to define differentiated instruction you would likely get ten different responses. Gurus such as Carol Ann Tomlinson might shudder at my simplistic definition: Differentiated instruction is teaching different students differently; or perhaps better defined as a statement, “I teach different students differently so that all students will learn.”

Aren’t all third graders the same? Aren’t all high school sophomores the same? How do we know our students are different? Great teachers both instinctually respond and intentionally plan as they respond to the needs of all students. With regard to differentiated instruction (DI), good teachers appreciate that no two students are alike and great teachers recognize differences among students due to readiness, interests, and/or learning profiles.

Student readiness is at the heart of assessment. Teachers need to know where students are with regard to mastery of concepts and skills associated with content standards. Diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments as well as contemporary computer-adaptive, standards-based assessments help pinpoint the degree to which students are ready to engage with spiraled or new content.

In terms of student interests, teachers need to know how to motivate and engage students and use these interests to bridge teaching and learning. With regard to student learning profiles, teachers need to know their students preferred and challenging learning styles.

There are a myriad of tests online to determine intelligence preferences and other learning styles inventories; at the very least, teachers should determine the types of thinkers—internal or external—that they have in their classroom.  Internal thinkers need to process their thinking inside their heads first, note those thoughts, then engage in a peer conversation before sharing out in class. External thinkers need to process their thinking with a peer or group of peers and feed off one another’s ideas, then arrive at a group consensus before sharing out in class.

Instinctual Differentiated Instruction

Great teachers have instincts and they respond to those instincts whilst teaching and learning is taking place. A great teacher will not drone on in a lesson in which students clearly are not getting it (readiness) and/or that is clearly not engaging students (interests and/or learning profile). A great teacher will recognize via observation: Are students nodding in agreement, engaged, following along? And/or a great teacher will recognize via conversation: Are students answering/asking questions, engaging in productive conversations with peers? Said teacher will use these clues and will adapt teaching and learning “in-the-moment” and “on-the-fly” to meet the needs of struggling students and challenge students who have mastered concepts and/or skills.

Intentional Differentiated Instruction

Great teachers consider the approaches to differentiated instruction—content, process, product, and learning environment—and plan accordingly.

  • Content: the curriculum to be taught and the concepts and skills to be mastered by all students
  • Process: the varied approaches to teaching and learning
  • Product: the methods of assessment in which students will demonstrate master of the concepts and skills (product); and
  • Learning Environment: the arrangement of the teaching and learning space

For specifics on how to intentionally plan for differentiated instruction, Carol Ann Tomlinson offers numerous ideas and examples in her book How to Differentiate in Mixed Ability Classrooms.

Multi-modal Approaches

A final note on both instinctual and intentional DI. At a minimum, teachers should consider multi-modal approaches to teaching and learning so that students have opportunities to engage in mastering concepts and skills via reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, thinking, and working with hands-on materials. Teachers exercising their instincts will—in-the-moment and on-the-fly—recognize that a student or a group of students just aren’t getting “it.” In those situations, the teacher will break out another approach or multiple approaches in order to get to student learning. Teachers who intentionally plan DI will write down various approaches to learning the content, and in their planning, speak to at least three different approaches in any given lesson.

Source:  Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.


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