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Differentiated Instruction: Does it Matter to Students?

By Yann, published on 24/05/2019 Blog > Tutoring > Advice for Tutors > The Importance of Differentiated Instruction for Students

People often reflect on their Glory Days – the Bruce Springsteen definition, not the Little Mix album.

The term glory days can mean any time in their past that the speaker believes is better than now.

Per the chart-smashing Springsteen song, most feel their glory days were during secondary school, usually playing some sport or generally being very popular.

For this writer, the time spent in secondary school was anything but glorious.

Trapped in a teaching model that did nothing for my optimal learning style – kinesthetic learning, mediocrity set the tone for every class’ mark and borderline failure was where my exam scores hovered.

To make matters worse, for a lack of explanation of why I consistently performed so poorly, I was mostly thought of as a bad student.

It was only later, in vocational training, when we got hands-on with the equipment and tools, that I discovered I learn best by doing rather than listening or seeing.

In spite of hefty criticism levelled at the concept of individual learning styles, there is substantial evidence that students have a preference for how they receive information, giving overall validity to the concept.

Among all of the educational initiatives being bandied about and all of the struggles the Department for Education is undergoing, trying to improve teaching methods and students’ scores…

Could taking into consideration how a student learns be all it takes to optimise public education? Or is there more to this story?

Come with Superprof now. Let’s explore some of the greatest concerns of crowded classrooms and how teachers can make the best use of time and resources to maximise their teaching strategy.

As Things Stand Now

Let differentiation be your next bright teaching idea Could differentiation strategy be the bright bulb in a long line of teaching ideas? Source: Pixabay Credit: ColiN00B

You may remember from your school days how, with the exception of lab classes and physical education, every lesson followed the same formula no matter what the subject.

If you are in school, either as a teacher or a student, you might take a moment to reflect on your current experiences.

A typical class: students file in, Teacher greets those who greet him/her. Bell rings. Teacher may or may not call the roll, and may or may not give a short statement about the upcoming lesson.

Students unpack their textbook, along with a notebook and a writing instrument. If the subject is maths, perhaps a protractor, compass and ruler may feature.

And then, the teacher starts talking and the students start… taking notes? Daydreaming? Drawing funny pictures?

And so, another class period goes, as millions of them have gone before, for the 600 and some years that compulsory education has enriched society.

OK, we’ll be generous and only go back 200 years, to the time when general education became more widely offered, and in more countries.

Still, doesn’t it strike anyone as amazing that, in all of that time, the act of teaching has not really changed?

Even more remarkable: has anyone noticed that, when students score well on an exam it is generally thought they did well because they had a good teacher but when they score poorly, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough?

Isn’t such a commonly held idea driven by teachers teaching to the test?

Obviously, some people have given substantial thought to that dichotomy: otherwise there would be no new teaching strategies to employ and no learning strategies to devise.

Concern for Special Needs Students

Among all of the advances made in educational philosophy, the acknowledgement of learning disabilities ranks as one of the most accepting, and one of the most divisive.

Dyslexia is a prevalent learning disability in which students with an otherwise normal capacity and desire to learn are hindered by their brain’s inability to process language.

Causes of dyslexia are thought to be both genetic and environmental. However, students all over the globe struggle to learn because of dyslexia; it affect between 3% and 7% of learners worldwide.

A similar condition, dyscalculia, renders even simple maths learning a cause for frustration and anxiety.

Although dyslexia was identified as a neurological impairment in 1881, through the subsequent century, failures of dyslexic students to master learning concepts was often equally attributed to poor educational practices and poor student motivation.

Historically, students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were labelled naughty children when, in fact, their inability to sit still and pay attention was due to a developmental neurological disorder.

This condition too is prevalent worldwide; between 5 and 7% of the global student population is thus afflicted.

Here again, although awareness of ADHD as a medical condition dates back to 1902, it only became widely acknowledged and managed in mainstream education in 1981.

Identifying special needs students and assessing what their needs actually are went a long way towards levelling the academic playing field.

Unfortunately, special education initiatives did nothing for students without special needs who nevertheless struggle to learn.

Teachers are not maximising the possibilities of technology use in the classroom Some teachers assign homework online; otherwise, technology hasn’t made much impact on learning Source: Pixabay Credit: FirmBee

Technology in the Classroom: Helpful or Not?

Visuals are a powerful teaching tool.

In the early days of formal education, classroom visuals consisted of a blackboard and possibly a world map. Perhaps a frieze demonstrating the proper way to write letters in cursive script adorned the space above the chalkboard.

As technology advanced, so too did classrooms: overhead projectors (1930), video (1951) and… who could forget the Banda worksheets (1923), with their purple ink and smelling of alcohol?

That mimeograph machine gave the teacher more latitude in curriculum development. No longer limited to textbook content, teachers were free to devise more varied content and even include diagrammes and charts.

For learners who are more inclined to visual learning, all of these advances were giant leaps towards their learning preference.

The wireless radio made its way into classroom in the 1920s. Shortly thereafter, stations started broadcasting on-air classes – the precursor to today’s online and distance learning.

Astoundingly, for all of the technological advances in the last 100 years, using technology in the classroom pretty much stalled after the PC (personal computer) went mainstream.

To be sure, curricular requirements have expanded to include coding and keyboarding classes, but they still follow the traditional teaching model: the educator speaks and the learner does.

So, while technological advances have helped students learn, essentially they are confronted with the same teaching methodology that has dominated educational philosophy for centuries.

Find out what the best tutors know about differentiation in the classroom…

Don't repair a dam with bubblegum, reinforce it! Merely repairing a dam leak overlooks the possibility of its imminent failure GeorgeB2

Teaching and Learning with Differentiating Instruction

In a sense, you might say that all of the instructional strategies devised to date are akin to plugging a cracking dam with bubble gum: they address the current emergency but do nothing to remedy the bigger problem.

Improving the learning experience of those with special needs and outfitting the school classroom with a variety of learning implements are valiant efforts – nobody could fault the education professionals for that.

However, they fail to take into consideration a few basic facts:

1. Grouping students by age rather than by intellect or different learning styles inevitably leaves portions of the student body with their educational needs poorly met.

2. The traditional teaching model feeds students information but does not teach them how to use that information, or even how to learn.

3. Multiple intelligences are not considered in the traditional learning plan.

4. Summative assessments – periodic exams do nothing to evaluate a student’s potential for learning, only for how well s/he retained recently taught material.

Again: no one is faulting hard-working teachers or parents who do their best to support their children’s education program.

Our thesis embraces student-centered learning – the very foundation of differentiated learning.

Differentiation calls for students to work in small groups, arranged by aptitude and intellectual ability.

Furthermore, the students’ learning preferences are taken into consideration:

  • Primarily visual learners would be given lots of different material to look at and draw conclusions from
  • Primarily auditory learners would benefit from listening to recordings of learning materials
  • Primarily kinesthetic learners would be tasked to build or otherwise create materials that would support conclusions they’ve drawn from their studies.

No matter which learning style any student prefers, assignments would be tailored to their interests.

Teachers, no longer at the front of the class (and hoping that students are paying attention), circulate around the room, providing individualized guidance and contributing to group work, all while conducting a formative assessment on each pupil as the work progresses.

For teachers, this might sound like a nightmare of classroom management. But for students…

When teachers differentiate instruction, student learning soars!

Through targeted learning activities, students discover their strengths and are afforded the learning process that suits them the best.

In a learning environment that fosters inclusion of gifted students as well as those with special learning needs, student achievement is all but assured.

Finally…

Contrary to the nightmare scenario envisioned above, when educators eschew direct instruction in favour of differentiation strategies, they find their rooms filled with responsive students ready to hone their thinking skills and comprehension of whatever topic Teacher would embrace that day.

Briefly stated, differentiation of instruction is understanding by design – a concept every student could benefit from.

Isn’t it about time to take the pressure off of the teachers? To let students set their learning goals and be permitted the necessary avenues and tools to reach them?

That would be effective teaching indeed!

Now read our full guide to differentiating learning!

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