Imagine with me a world where everyone wore the exact same single-sized clothing. Though the clothing would fit a portion of the world quite well, there would be many people forced to wear uncomfortable clothing that just did not fit them. We have to imagine this world, because one thing humanity has done well is realize that clothing can and should be personalized to the user wearing the clothes. Today, you can find a vast assortment of clothing in many different sizes, styles, and preferences to suit your needs. In fact, because of the vast variety of clothing options, you may even consider it silly to imagine a world where everyone wore the exact same single-sized clothing.
Unfortunately, this hypothetical illustration is not so hard to imagine when you then ask someone to imagine a classroom where everyone in the classroom is taught the exact same material the exact same way. In fact, for many years it has been seen as the standard method of teaching, and even assessing students.
Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms and Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom, comments on this issue acknowledging, “kids can choose from a variety of clothing to fit their different styles, sizes, and preferences. We understand, without explanation, that this makes them more comfortable and gives expression to their developing personalities. In school, modifying or differentiating instruction for students or differing readiness and interests is also more comfortable, engaging, and inviting. One-size-fits-all instruction will inevitably sag or pinch – exactly as single-sized clothing would – students who differ in need, even if they are chronologically the same age” (Tomlinson, p. vii-viii).
“Teaching” Implies Learning
In order to truly learn, every student must find a way to make meaning of what is being taught. Yet also, in order to be effective as a teacher, every teacher must find a way to allow the student to understand what is being taught. A teacher has not taught if a learner has not learned. With differentiated instruction, the focus is “making sure the right students get the right learning tasks at the right time” (Tomlinson & Imbeau, p. 27). In essence, this method thrives on teacher’s identifying a learner’s need and properly responding to the need. The goal of differentiated instruction is to maximize each individual student’s growth and success.
To do this, a teacher must focus on the needs of each individual learner under their care. As Christians, with the responsibility of helping another grow, we must remember: (1) every student is worthy of dignity and respect; (2) diversity is both inevitable and positive; (3) the classroom should mirror the kind of society in which we want our students to live and lead; (4) most students can earn most things that are essential to a given area of study; (5) each student should have equity of access to excellent learning opportunities; and (6) a central goal of teaching is to maximize the capacity of each learner. To further comment on these six responsibilities, Tomlinson argues that we can no longer look at a group of students in a classroom and pretend they are alike. Each student learns in a unique way, creating a mixed-ability classroom. Knowing how to differentiate in teaching proves to be crucial in a mixed-ability classroom. This will provide an optimal classroom environment where a focused curriculum can be taught while student variances can be addressed.
How to Differentiate While Teaching
While studying with Dr. Kenneth Coley, the head of the Doctor of Education program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, I learned several important principles that govern effective differentiation:
(1) A differentiated classroom must be flexible.
(2) The learning goals must be clearly stated, but there can be various approaches to achieving success.
(3) Throughout the learning process, there can be flexibility and adjustments made to the time, the material, the method of teaching, and other types of classroom elements. This flexibility develops from consistent and effective assessment within the classroom.
(4) The teacher must assess the effectiveness of the teaching methods in allowing the students to comprehend the material.
(5) In addition, flexibility provides benefits when grouping students. The students can work with peers having similar academic needs, with peers of mixed readiness, with peers having common interests, varied interests, or similar learning patterns. When dealing with a mixed-ability classroom, this flexibility becomes crucial.
Inevitably, this teaching method can be complex and requires a full commitment from the teacher to analyze, question, reflect, and change whatever necessary to effectively reach a student in the learning process. During my time with Dr. Coley at Southeastern, his desire to see his students succeed was contagious. The effort he put toward wanting to see his students succeed drove them to want to prove him right!
Teacher, do you show your students how much you love them by how you teach them? Rather than feeling the burden to have to figure out how to come up with yet another lesson, embrace the responsibility to consider the people within your care and how the lesson can help them grow even more for the glory of God!