Every student has different interests, academic abilities, and an individual learning style. How to better deliver a lesson that engages everyone in the classroom is a constant challenge for teachers?

Accordingly to Shane Lockhart, a Professional Learning Communities Regional Manager for the Victorian Department of Education “Differentiated teaching occurs when a teacher plans a lesson that adjusts either the content being discussed, the process used to learn or the product expected from students to ensure that learners at different starting points can receive the instruction they need to grow and succeed.”

There are many ways that teachers can implement differentiation in the classroom including:

  • Develop lessons around students’ specific learning styles
  • Team students up by shared interest, topics or ability
  • Conduct in-process assessments of comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress
  • Create a supportive classroom environment
  • Frequently review and adjust lessons to meet students’ specific requirements

Classroom technologies can assist educators to apply this growing teaching method.

Education World comments that “As a classroom approach, differentiated teaching aims for inclusion. If educators present a topic in a way that appeals to different learning styles and then tailor assessment methods to individual strengths, more students can benefit from every lesson. Advanced students find ways to challenge themselves while struggling students receive support and feel that they are part of the group.” …….“It’s a simple concept but applying it in the classroom can be tricky. That’s where technology can help.”

Four Ways to Differentiate Instruction

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson (who is a leader in the area of differentiated learning and professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia) teachers can differentiate instruction through four ways:  Content, Process, Product, and lastly learning environment.

1. Content

Lesson content is largely defined by the Government set curriculum however, educators create lesson plans that are tailored to all their students’ abilities. While some students are learning the basics, other students may be very familiar with the content.

Assessment tools are invaluable to gauge each student’s level of knowledge.

A great example of student formative assessment and differentiated activities using SMART Board technologies using the SMART Learning Suite is demonstrated by NSW teacher Rebecca Boyle’s presentation.

The following video is a practical example of a Year 6 maths lesson on the order of operations.

2. Process

To create a lesson that engages all students, teachers need to understand their students learning styles. Technically, an individual’s learning style refers to the preferred way in which the student absorbs, processes, comprehends and retains information,” Teach.com explains.

Learning Styles

A popular method of understanding different styles is The VARK model which is summarised in this YouTube video.

VARK is an acronym that refers to the four learning styles: visual, auditory, reading/writing preference, and kinesthetic.

Here is a quick and easy to use tool discover your learning style http://www.educationplanner.org/students/self-assessments/learning-styles.shtml

The following diagram outlines some of the ways each of the learning types best absorb knowledge.

New VR technologies like ClassVR are just one new classroom tool that teachers are using to increase engagement and knowledge retention, particularly with visual, kinaesthetic and auditory learners love.  A wonderful case study from St Wilfrid’s Academy in the UK demonstrates how immersive learning has been successful with learners of different skills level and styles.

 

3. Product

The product is what the student creates at the end of the lesson to demonstrate the mastery of the content. This can be in the form of tests, projects, reports, or other activities. You could assign students to complete activities that show mastery of an educational concept in a way the student prefers, based on learning style.

Examples of differentiating the end product:

  • Read and write learners write a book report
  • Visual learners create a graphic organizer of the story
  • Auditory learners give an oral report
  • Kinesthetic learners build a diorama illustrating the story

3D printers are another wonderful tool used in many schools to support the differentiation learning method.

When students use a 3D printer, the learning method changes from the planning to the realisation of a product which helps develop critical thinking skills. 3D printers are versatile and can be used by students in nursery schools through to university. The satisfaction of creating something coupled with a deep comprehension of the process is a powerful learning lesson.

3D design software allows students to demonstrate and represent their learning in multiple modes including:

  • 3D printed models or objects;
  • Artifacts such as dioramas or displays;
  • Images and screenshots of 3D designs; and
  • 3D animations and other multimedia presentations.

Although the following video is from an Italian school it shows the high level of engagement and practical, personalise experience that a 3D printer can achieve.

4. Learning Environment

The conditions for optimal learning include both physical and psychological elements. A flexible classroom layout is key, incorporating various types of furniture and arrangements to support both individual and group work. Psychologically speaking, teachers should use classroom management techniques that support a safe and supportive learning environment.

Examples of differentiating the environment:

  • Break some students into reading groups to discuss the assignment.
  • Allow students to read individually if preferred.
  • Create quiet spaces where there are no distractions.

The NSW Education Department’s website addresses how teachers can differentiate according to student needs or characteristics, as students differ in:

  • their readiness to work with a particular idea or skill at a given time
  • their interest in pursuits or topics
  • their learning profiles which may be shaped by learning style, group and environmental preferences.

When a teacher differentiates, the 3 factors to consider individually or in combination are:

  • Readiness: readiness refers to the skill level and background knowledge of the student. Teachers use diagnostic assessments to determine students’ readiness.
  • Interest: interest refers to topics that students may want to explore or that will motivate them. Teachers can ask students about their outside interests and even include these in their planning processes.
  • Learning profile: students’ learning profile includes learning style (for example, is the student a visual, auditory, tactile or kinaesthetic learner?), grouping preferences (for example, does the student work best individually, with a partner or in a large group?) and environmental preferences (for example, does the student need lots of space or a quiet area to work?).
Pros and Cons of Differentiated Teaching

A recent online article in verywellfamily.com discusses the Pros and Cons of this growing teaching method

Pros

  • Differentiation effective for both high-ability students and those with a disability
  • Children take on more of the responsibility for learning
  • Engagement in learning tends to be stronger because it addresses the children as equal individuals

Cons

  • Requires much more lesson-planning time for teachers
  • May require more resources for a school or school district to implement
  • Many schools lack the ​professional development resources to properly train faculty
Personalise Learning Is Here To Stay

As summarised in a post on the UK site Sparx,  A new approach to an old technique.

“Personalised learning …. should be the answer to ensuring every child fulfills their potential. But critics say it has previously achieved the opposite, resulting in overburdened teachers struggling to differentiate for each and every child, and disadvantaged pupils becoming trapped by low predicted grades.”

“Creating technology solutions that place teachers and learners at the center of the experience can have a profound impact on engagement, confidence and long-term adoption. And, while machine learning and AI will no doubt have great potential to improve the operational effectiveness of schools in the years to come, we are still decades away from understanding and being able to harness its full potential for good.”

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