It seems that every time one turns around there is a new buzzword in education: common core, cooperative learning, instructional scaffolding – a concept whose name calls to mind a horde of children, all intricately stacked upon one another...
Each of these initiatives and the scads more not mentioned here all have one thing in common: they are meant to address an increasingly diverse student population’s growing need for quality education.
In this context, diversity has less to do with heritage and ethnicity than individual learning needs.
According to government statistics, the number of special educational needs (SEN) students has jumped 14.6% in the last year.
That means that more than 1¼ million students require some concession or assistance in order to keep abreast of learning standards in classrooms across England.
Indeed, that number only represents students in England. We may reasonably infer that students throughout the British Isles mirror that increase.
It is fantastic that our Department for Education strives to meet the educational needs of every single student across the country.
It is nothing short of amazing that teachers somehow manage to incorporate every new educational initiative into their pedagogy, whether it serves the overall goal of facilitating knowledge or makes classroom management an impossible task.
Teachers are caught between the unyielding rock that is directives and guidelines set forth by the DfE and the proverbial hard place: individual students’ needs.
With classrooms growing more crowded and more students with special needs on the rolls, it is no wonder that teachers find it difficult to implement differentiated instruction strategies.
How can they balance each student’s requirements for effective education against curriculum requirements set forth by the DfE?
Private tutors are the critical link between the reality of overly full classes and the possibilities for academic achievement that differentiated instruction affords.
The time has come for your Superprof to talk about this modern educational initiative; to see where and how you fit in it and, if you are a school teacher who moonlights as a tutor, how you might effectively implement such strategies in your classroom.
Differentiated Instruction in a Nutshell
Considering that the concept of education is millenia-old, the realisation and research into students processing information differently is a relatively new concept.
It’s no great secret that students’ individual learning styles influence how well they adapt to and thrive in a classroom environment.
However, only in the last 100 years or so has anyone even broached the idea that people have learning preferences, let alone tested the hypothesis.
Dr. Maria Montessori, an educator at the turn of the 20th Century, began using teaching materials that would complement her students’ demonstrated learning styles.
- Visual learners were given access to visually stimulating study materials
- Auditory learners were instructed primarily via vocalisation of materials
- Kinesthetic learners were given materials corresponding to the subject matter to play with and manipulate
At that time, those were the only three learning styles considered; these days, there are a few more distinctions. Furthermore, continued research into this educational theory reveals that no student is purely of one learning style; in fact, one may be a dominantly visual auditory learner or a kinesthetic visual learner.
Dr. Montessori’s studies in 1907 proved fruitful: by providing resources corresponding to each student’s preferences, the overall rate of knowledge acquisition soared!
And then, for roughly the next 80 years, nothing further was done with this discovery.
Between world wars and economic depression, nobody had any time, money or energy to devote to something so frivolous as how a student prefers to learn.
That’s not to say that no work was done in the field of educational theory during that time.
In 1956, for example, American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom chaired a committee of educators who ultimately formulated what we now know as Bloom’s Taxonomy – a hierarchical model classifying learning objectives that is still in use today.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the 1980s, when the world and economy were again fairly stable, that any major focus was given to educational initiatives. To wit, our country’s DfE reformulated the O-Level process during that time; it became the GCSE we know today in 1988.
All of the changes to the public education system – new teaching methods, new educational standards and ever more new information to teach have forced a mad scramble to train and retain qualified teachers.
Meanwhile, tutors have been the constant of education.
Ironically, perhaps, tutors have been at the forefront of the differentiation strategies that Dr Montessori advocated for more than a century ago.
Working one on one with students, probing for weaknesses and helping uncover strengths: private tutors represent the epitome of differentiated instruction.
Find out what the best tutors know about differentiated instruction!
How Tutors Apply Principles of Differentiated Instruction
Tutoring may take place in a variety of ways: in small groups or individually, through a tutoring agency or strictly online.
Through them all, one fact remains: the tutor’s focus is on his/her pupil – finding and exercising the most effective way to make subject material easy to understand.
The best tutors will start their mentoring relationship with a new pupil by conducting a formative assessment. This may be a two-step procedure.
First, the tutor will discuss with their prospective clients’ caregivers exactly what the student’s difficulties are, including any diagnosed learning difficulties such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder.
Should the tutee – perhaps a university student, be the one seeking out a tutor, there would obviously be no need to interview caregivers.
Next, the tutor will talk at length with the prospective student. This should be an informal conversation, a casual banter about what s/he likes and dislikes about school, which are favourite subjects and perhaps even what leisure activities s/he might enjoy.
Supplemental education providers are generally adept at sensing their charges’ emotional temperature, from pathos to aggression, and find ways around those personal defences.
For example, you may encounter a student who feels an inherent sense of shame because they perceive themselves as different, perhaps less capable than their peers.
While this interview takes place, the qualified tutor will watch for signs of self-defeating body language: a bowed head or failure to make eye contact could indicate the unfair burden of a stigma; the wringing of hands or fidgeting might be a sign of nervousness.
Once you have a fair idea of your student’s emotional state, it is time to crack the books and find out where those learning difficulties lie. When those have been ascertained, you will have an idea on how best to proceed with this student.
You may then develop your lesson plans, keeping in mind that particular student’s expressed learning preferences and challenges.
While it is true that you will conduct this same review for each of your new students, the learning strategies you employ from there on should be completely individual; unique to each student – even if you take on a small group of learners.
How you differentiate instruction from one student to the next is the very essence of this learning process.
Discover how differentiating in the classroom can make a difference!
Teaching Strategies for Differentiating Instruction
Obviously, you would not teach a primary school student the same way that you would work with a university student... but that is not the definition of differentiated instruction, anyway.
Carol Ann Tomlinson, America’s foremost authority on differentiated instruction defines that initiative as:
Adapting content, process or product according to a student’s specific readiness, interest and learning profile.
On the surface, it sounds like a tall order. For example: how would you teach arithmetic to a student who has no interest in maths?
Instead of rehashing multiplication tables and properties of division, you would devise activities that would incidentally reinforce those concepts while engaging the learner in ‘play’: organising coloured blocks by twos, for example, or slicing a cake into equal parts.
Those are great methods of instruction for kinesthetic and visual learners. For audio learners, you might try working with music or other measured sound bites.
Might your older students, those more inured to the education system, raise an eyebrow at this non-traditional method of learning?
Of course they would – but then, that’s the whole point of the exercise. Taking your students out of the norm and presenting material in a way that is appealing to them is exactly how to differentiate.
For classroom teachers and for tutors, the key is to foster an empowering learning environment.
True, that is easy enough to do one to one; how does a teacher address multiple intelligences in a school setting?
You might try grouping your students according to their learning preferences and target learning activities to those specific groups.
Set each group’s learning goals according to the different learning styles. For example, you might task your visual group to demonstrate comprehension of a passage you’ve assigned them to read by collaborating on a report.
Your auditory group might deliver their report to the rest of the class as a form of presentation and your kinesthetics would build a model representing something described in that passage.
The ways of teaching and learning through differentiated instruction are many and varied. Not every one of them will work in your class but perhaps you may find some of these tips and suggestions useful in your classroom.
And, if you tutor on nights and weekends, they will probably help you with those students, too.
You can pick up more tips and strategies from our complete guide to differentiated instruction!