A classroom is not a homogenous group of students with the same set of abilities. Just like some students are taller and others are shorter, some students are quicker to learn while others might require some additional assistance. Giving every student the same type of instruction is like giving everyone shirts of the same size. For some, the shirts would be too tight while for others they would be too loose. A differentiated classroom would ensure that students receive instruction that ‘fits’ them. As Carol Tomlinson writes, In a differentiated classroom, the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs. Ron Brandt, in his book, “Powerful Learning” gives 10 conditions under which learning would be strong. Here are two of them:
Because students all come from different backgrounds and have varying interests, it is not possible that all students find the same content meaningful. For example, a Math textbook may contain a word problem with a scenario where a man is selling mangoes. Some students who love mangoes may naturally be interested in the question and learn better while those students who are averse to mangoes might not learn it well.
Some students might find a particular content more challenging while others might not. For instance, a student whose parents own a shop might not find basic Math content too much of a challenge, while it would be challenging to the other students. This is due to the context each student comes from.
The next question that arises is how exactly should things be different for students. A better way to frame that question would be to ask “what should be different.” Here are the three elements of differentiation: content, process and product.
Content is the core material that we teach students. For instance, the skill of addition is the content. However, within the content, we can teach at varying levels of complexity. Now, not
all students might be ready for the same level of complexity. Therefore, one way to differentiate content is according to readiness. Another avenue for differentiation could be based on interest. As mentioned in an earlier example, word problems in Math could contain different scenarios. A student who is interested in cricket might learn how to calculate average better if he or she were asked to calculate the batting average of a cricket batsman.
The process is the method that students use to understand the content. In traditional classrooms, this is often listening to a lecture by the teacher. However, not all students might learn by reading and listening. According to Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence, everybody has different types of intelligence. While some might be numerically intelligent or verbally intelligent, another person might be kinesthetically intelligent or musically intelligent. This means that instead of listening to a lecture or reading the material, some students might learn better through other means.
The product is the element that demonstrates learning. In most instances, this would be the written essay or the text that the student writes from memory. It could also be a diagram that the student is asked to draw. However, not all product of learning needs to be from a written examination. Teachers often ask students to do project works. Making students present the findings in the form of a model is a way to involve students who learn by doing.
If you are a teacher and are wondering how to start differentiating, here are a few tips to get started:
A common mistake many teachers might make is to try to change too many things at the same time. As a teacher, you can start small by changing a single element. Moreover, these differentiating activities could be done with less frequency to reduce workload – perhaps once a week or once in two weeks. Here are some possible ideas for activities:
One way to differentiate instruction is to give different types of tasks. Preparing task cards is a great way to give instructions without wasting classroom time. For less advanced learners, these tasks could be simpler: Find all the important dates and years in the chapter and make a timeline of events. For more advanced learners the task could be more complex: Put yourself in the shoes of the leaders of the Allied Powers and argue why the Appeasement Policy seemed right at the time. Such a differentiated activity would ensure the advanced learners are adequately challenged, while the weaker learners are still understanding the important points of the chapter.
To conclude, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Too long we, as teachers have tried to force students into a mould that they were never meant to fit into. Let us try to make a change by creating classrooms that are relevant for all types of students!