Differentiation: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Differentiation is important because it acknowledges the truth that each student is unique and therefore has different learning strengths. Unfortunately our education system is structured in a way to cater to only a few students like minded students, while everyone else spends their school years trying to adapt to a delivery that isn’t best for them. The issue with differentiation in practice is that it isn’t practical for a teacher to come up with customized lesson plans tailored to every students individual learning needs. So the question is how do we approach instruction in a way that will help teachers teach to student’s strengths, but still teach all children the same material?

As defined in the article “Differentiation is a Philosophy or mindset that enables educators to plan strategically in order to reach the needs of the diverse learners in classrooms today so that they can achieve targeted standards. It is a belief system or mindset that educators embrace to meet the unique needs of every learner.” When building a differentiated classroom one must consider how the content will be affected, what assessment tools and instructional strategies will be used, and what sort of assignments will they be tasked with? By making slight modifications to each of these areas, a students learning style can be catered to much more successfully.

Differentiating content means taking into consideration the relevance of the content to all students. Some students will have challenges with material that most of the class will be able to hand. In those situations it is in the student’s best interest to tailor content to where they’re at. A teacher I recently talked to said “There are some students that are not always compatible with the curriculum, and at the end of the day you just have to do figure out what is best for the student.” As an educational assistant I’ve worked with a lot of special needs students. For various reasons they simply couldn’t cope with the mainstream outcomes. I once worked with two 8th grade boys, one who was at a 3rd grade math level and another who was at a grade 6. Their teacher gave them differentiated content in the form of lower level math. Had the teacher simply tried to make them fit into the mainstream mould these students wouldn’t have attained any new math skills that year. Instead they were able to sharpen their mental math skills and come out with a little more proficiency then they went in with.

Differentiating instruction can go a long way in helping to reduce confusion among students. It can be as simple as giving verbal instructions along with step by step written instructions or pictorial instructions. It may also mean altering the presentation of teaching time. For me, I value visual aids. Videos or slide shows or some sort of attention getting image, or maybe the use of props.

Assessment tools are another important thing to differentiate. At the end of the day you’re looking for evidence that learning is happening and that the outcome is being manifested in the student. We need to make sure as teachers that the assessment tools we’re using are making provisions for different forms of this evidence. This could mean modifying a rubric by taking out sections that aren’t quite relevant to the student and adding in other pieces. This is directly linked to the performance tasks we hand out to them. Provisions must be made for the multiple intelligences. It’s important that students are challenged in every intelligence but we should also be mindful that we aren’t doing this at the expense of holding students back from excelling in areas that they are truly gifted in. For example, students could have the choice of handing in an exit slip in a variety of ways. They could write it, deliver it orally, pictorially, using technology, using self reflection, or by consulting other sources.

Every time teachers work to meet the individual needs of their students, differentiated instrcution is happening. As Gregory and Chapman say in their article “One Size Doesn’t Fit All”, “We expect students to adjust to the learning when the learning should really be adjusted to the learners.”

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