About the Author
Dr. Valerie Karr is assistant professor in Special Education.
Differentiated Instruction – Including Diverse Learners
As Professors, we know that not all students are alike. Our classes are filled with students for whom English is not their first language, who have different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and generally speaking, have a divergent range of experiences that affects how they learn. The sheer diversity of students in America today requires that we provide opportunities for them to learn in ways that they are comfortable and can identify with, and that inspire a life-long love of learning. A key strategy for creating these opportunities is known as differentiated instruction.
At its most basic level, differentiated instruction is teaching that embraces student diversity. It is an approach that takes as its starting point the biological, environmental, learning and cultural differences of our students rather than adopting a standardized approach to teaching that presumes all things are equal for learners of a given age or grade. Differentiated instruction responds to students rather than shoehorns them into ready-made content, processes and structures.
There is some resistance to differentiated instruction, and old methods die hard, especially at the University level. Take our continued reliance on direct instruction. Yes, I am guilty of using this method too. Direct instruction is easy. Our students demonstrate mastery of content through standardized and multiple choice tests and we promote rote memorization of data. But will this help our students become professionals? While I don't want to wade into the debate over the merits of standardized testing, it begs the question—at all education levels—of whether we teach for exposure or true understanding. Standardized teaching approaches do not take into account the fact that students are different and that they learn in different ways. It does not help them identify their interests and their strengths that can be used in their field. It does not develop critical thinking, nor does it foster intellectual curiosity or a desire to learn.
As theorists such as Karen Tomlinson have described, student motivation, autonomy, and task persistence improve when instruction is diversified to draw on student backgrounds and interests. Student engagement and interests must be considered key to our teachable moments. A student taught me just that this semester. It was presentation day and we all settled in for the traditional PowerPoint Slides, perhaps with a fun Clipart photo or two. One of the students, a Middle School Teacher, walked into class and owned us. He used handouts, thought diagrams, discussion, role-play, and Smart Board, a technology I have recently been trained on, but just haven’t had the time to apply, all in a one hour session. We were up, we were down, we had visuals, we spoke to each other, we laughed and most importantly we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. The students were actively engaged and by letting go of traditional direct instruction we were able to address more learning goals than I had previously thought possible.
So, how do we get there? How do we “do” differentiated instruction at the University? At Adelphi, we seem to be on our way. Several guidelines have been suggested to foster a classroom of diverse learning:
- Value: your school, faculty and administration, must view diversified learning as a positive experience for students. Different means of representing content fosters student engagement!
- Belief: The educational team must believe that students from a variety of educational, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds enhance the learning climate for all students. An eclectic student body enhances discussion and debate in the classroom.
- Cooperation: An atmosphere of cooperation must be established for students, faculty, and staff. Information sharing is key. Take advantage of our FCPE trainings on classroom technology from Moodle and Smart Board to iTunes University and Wiki.
- Time/Energy: Faculty must use all available University resources to support learning activities. We can reach all of our students through diversified instruction by arranging the classroom for small-group, large-group, and independent learning and for incorporating visuals, movement, and technology into our instruction.
Socrates, one of history's great teachers, once said “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”. He could well have been describing the promise and advantage of differentiated instruction.
For additional information please see: http://www.newhorizons.org/strategies/differentiated/bravmann.htm
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