Differentiated Instruction: Meeting the needs of all learners

I have always been interested in meeting the needs of all learners in my class. I suppose like many other teachers, I have always been faced with a classroom full of wonderfully unique children with hugely diverse needs. I found myself burned out quite quickly in the early days of my career, putting huge pressure on myself to do my very best for all pupils with these amazing ‘probation worthy’, all singing, all dancing lessons. To say it was unsustainable was an understatement. When it was time to pick a research topic for my thesis during my M.Ed. in Mary Immaculate College, I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about ‘differentiated instruction’ and to explore was there any way of being more efficient with my lesson preparation time without affecting my commitment to meeting the needs of all learners in my class. There are many theories out there on how best to differentiate for your pupils. I am going to keep it simple. Think about three areas you can alter, CONTENT, PROCESS and PRODUCT. And in adapting these parts of your lesson you need to consider three things; student’s READINESS, INTERESTS and LEARNING PROFILE.

Here are my top tips I would like to share with you.

  1. Building the Learning Profile

I cannot say how important this is. It can save you a lot of time in the long run. Outside of the usual collection of data such as reading age, reading level, writing samples, maths competency, a quick rundown of personality/friendships from previous teacher, etc, I believe it is crucial to find out what type of learner they are. I always do this at the beginning of the year. I will determine their learning style, strengths in multiple intelligences, learning environment preferences and attitudes to school. I will also try to incorporate the ‘Parent Voice’ by asking parents to complete a questionnaire about their child. This type of data collection will help you determine reluctant learners, insightful information from parents on personality and specific interests, etc. I always do a series of lessons on how we learn and involve the children in this process. How powerful would it have been to know your strengths (and weaknesses) as a young learner?

Here is a Class Overview of one of my classes using the Multiple Intelligence Test "8 Kinds of Smart by Martha Kaufeldt"

         2. Striking a balance between low and high-prep differentiation

It is important to build a bank of both high and low prep differentiated techniques that you can use across the curriculum to avoid teacher burn out. At times, I feel teaching practice can set unrealistic expectations on NQTs that the level of preparation they engaged in during that time is sustainable. It is not!

                                               Levels of Preparation

Low-Prep Differentiation

High-Prep Differentiation

Choice of books

Homework options

Use of reading buddies

Varied pace (timing)

Student-teacher goal setting

Flexible seating

Varied Supplementary materials

Open-ended activities

Mini-workshops to reteach/extend skills

Jigsaw method

Negotiated criteria for those with SEN

Explorations by interest

Games to practice mastery of information and skill

Multiple levels of questioning

Tiered activities

Tiered products

Independent studies

Multiple texts

Learning contracts

Multiple Intelligence options

Spelling by readiness

Varying organizers

Tiered centres

Literature Circles

Choice Boards

Problem-based learning

Group Investigations

Inclass support from SET 


(Adapted from Carol Ann Tomlinson, 2004, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms)

     3. Start small but just start!

Begin by trying one or two new things every half term in relation to Content, Process and Product. You might decide that this month I am going to ensure for Content: I am mindful of student interests for project work, for Process: I am going to use tiered activities (activities based on same key learning goal but different levels of difficulty) and for Product: I am going to give a choice of two activities for one new subject. Lots of us are very good at differentiating for the core subjects as the varying needs are evident. But there are simple techniques you can incorporate into other subjects that will enable you to make things a little easier and more engaging for the learner who is struggling with literacy. There is an element of literacy embedded in nearly every subject, so imagine being able to make some small changes in your lessons to play to the strengths of that ‘weak’ child and allow them to be the expert. One of those techniques is Choice Boards, a very underrated strategy for both process and product. By using what you know from the pupil’s profiles and giving the children choice it can be a powerful learning experience. If you have engaged the children in your data collection process at the beginning of the year they can make an informed decision on the type of activity they chose to do.

Here is another example of how a child's work can improve by adapting the way in which they demonstrate their understanding of the topic.

Differentiation can be very time consuming if many of your efforts to meet needs require high levels of preparation. Some very simple techniques that don't require much preparation is varied teacher questionning, varying pace and varying expectations of product. However, I would advise that in simplifying topics for children who are struggling in literacy do not underestimate their ability to shine in other ways.

"If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn".

(Ignacio Estrada)




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