Based on the research of Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson's "The Differentiated Classroom", Dr. Howard Gardner's "Multiple Intelligences Theory, and Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development"

Today’s classrooms are typified by academic diversity (DarlingHammond, Wise, & Klein, 1999; Meier, 1995). Seated side by side in classrooms that still harbor a myth of “homogeneity by virtue of chronological age” are students with identified learning problems; highly advanced learners; students whose first language is not English; students who underachieve for a complex array of reasons; students from broadly diverse cultures, economic backgrounds, or both; students of both genders; motivated and unmotivated students; students who fit two or three of these categories; students who fall closer to the template of grade-level expectations and norms; and students of widely varying interests and preferred modes of learning. Differentiation is an instructional approach to help teachers teach with individuals as well as content in mind. Differentiation really means trying to make sure that teaching and learning work for the full range of students, which really should be our goal as teachers. There are 4 major components or areas of differentiation in a classroom: content, process, product, and learning environment.

Differentiation and the Human Brain

While heterogeneous instruction is attractive because it addresses equity of opportunity for a broad range of learners, mixed-ability classrooms are likely to fall short of their promise unless teachers address the learner variance such contexts imply (Gamoran & Weinstein, 1995). In such settings, equality of opportunity becomes a reality only when students receive instruction suited to their varied readiness levels, interests, and learning preferences, thus enabling them to maximize the opportunity for growth (McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993).

The goal of the teacher in using differentiated instruction is to ensure that every student learns effectively and with a sense of satisfaction, this mosaic of students presents teachers with complex and difficult pedagogical dilemmas (Lou et al., 1996). Nonetheless, it would seem inevitable that today’s schools reflect the reality that society is transforming itself; to respond appropriately, classrooms must be places where rigorous intellectual requirements characterize the curriculum, each student is known well and taught with appropriate means, each student learns well, and fidelity to individuals and community is a hallmark (Mehlinger, 1995). It may be that educators no longer have a legitimate choice about whether to respond to the academically diverse populations in most classrooms; rather, they can only decide how to respond (Sizer, 1985; Stradling & Saunders, 1993). As a transformation in society and schools evolves, effective teachers in contemporary classrooms will have to learn to develop classroom routines that attend to, rather than ignore, learner variance in readiness, interest, and learning profile. Such routines may be referred to as “differentiating” curriculum and instruction. Differentiation is a pedagogical, rather than an organizational, approach (Stradling & Saunders, 1993).

Introduction to Differentiation: Big-Picture Overview

Content – what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information; Examples of differentiating content at the elementary level include the following:

1. Using reading materials at varying readability levels;

2. Putting text materials on tape;

3. Using spelling or vocabulary lists at readiness levels of students;

4. Presenting ideas through both auditory and visual means;

5. Using reading buddies; and

6. Meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners.

Process – activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content; Examples of differentiating process or activities at the elementary level include the following:

1. Using tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity;

2. Providing interest centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the class topic of particular interest to them;

3. Developing personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified agenda time or as students complete other work early;

4. Offering manipulatives or other hands-on supports for students who need them; and

5. Varying the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.

Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; Examples of differentiating products at the elementary level include the following:

1. Giving students options of how to express required learning (e.g., create a puppet show, write a letter, or develop a mural with labels);

2. Using rubrics that match and extend students' varied skills levels;

3. Allowing students to work alone or in small groups on their products; and

4. Encouraging students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain required elements.

Learning environment – the way the classroom works and feels. Examples of differentiating learning environment at the elementary level include:

1. Making sure there are places in the room to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration;

2. Providing materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings;

3. Setting out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs;

4. Developing routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately; and

5. Helping students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly (Tomlinson, 1995, 1999; Winebrenner, 1992, 1996).

5 Key Aspects of Differentiated Instruction

1. Engaging Learning Environment

2. High-Quality Curriculum

3. Ongoing Assessments

4. Response to Students’ Instructional Needs

5. Effective Classroom Management

Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences suggests that traditional psychometric views of intelligence are too limited. Gardner first outlined his theory in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, where he suggested that all people have different kinds of "intelligences." Gardner, a Harvard University psychologist, proposed that there are eight intelligences: visual-spatial, linguistic-verbal, interpersonal, intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, and naturalistic. He later suggested the possible addition of a ninth known as "existentialist intelligence." Garner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences provides research and support on individual learning differences and the need for differentiation.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development examines how people aquire new knowledge, skills, and content. There are a few essential factors that are critical to the success of this learning process:

  • The presence of someone with the knowledge and skills to guide the learner

  • Social interactions that allow the learner to observe and practice their skills

  • Scaffolding, or supportive activities provided by the mentor or teacher that help guide the learner through the ZPD

In differentiating instruction in a classroom, a teacher must know and understand each learner’s zone of proximal development to design personalized instruction that meets the unique learning needs of ALL students.

Personalized Learning

Could we transform today’s outmoded education system to a vibrant learning ecosystem that puts learners at the center and enables many right combinations of learning resources, experiences, and supports to help each child succeed? Creating personalized learning for all young people will require a paradigm shift in education and a deep commitment to providing each student with the right experiences at the right time.

The goal of a school should be "Every Student, Every Day" in "Commitment to Excellence" and "Learning for ALL". Differentiation is the process that ensures instruction is personalized to meet each student's unique needs through differentiating content, process, product, and learning environment.

Journal Articles/Manuscripts on Differentiation

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