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Cultivating a Differentiated Classroom

Authored By: 
Kate Bendrick, Math Teacher

Growing up most classes weren’t a good fit for me. Early on I found my math work pretty straightforward, which is part of what led me to my eventual role as a math educator. Fast-forward a few years however, and the jump from too easy to too hard happened swiftly and unexpectedly. I found myself unprepared, with few study skills established, and even worse, the impression that because I was being challenged, that meant I was “bad at it”. Jumping from too easy straight into too hard, the classroom that was “just right” eluded me for the majority, or dare I say all of my education.

Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom

For me, this inconvenience led to a math complex. Luckily it started at such a late age that I was able to work out of it on my own. For many, the instruction in a classroom, designed for no one in particular, can have detrimental effects that last a lifetime. Differentiated instruction, like many things, dates further back than its popularity would make it seem. As far back as 1889, Preston Search was working toward a learning model that allowed each student to work at a pace appropriate for them without “fear of retention or failure.” In the early 1900’s, Frederic Burk and Mary Ward worked to “make textbooks self-instructive so that students could progress at their own pace.” There was a movement away from this mentality shortly thereafter, because of what the ideology overlooked: that the nature of human learning is social.

Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom

Teachers are left with a balancing act in the classroom: addressing the individual differences, which are substantial, while at the same time engaging and exchanging with each other. The Beekman School’s mission is to “provide a differentiated curriculum that unites flexibility and compassion in a safe yet challenging environment.” Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leader in the topic of differentiated learning, says that differentiated instruction takes into account “students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan.” Four dimensions in which differentiation can occur are content, process, product, and learning environment. Different learning styles have gained visibility in recent years, and would be accounted for in the process category. Also in the process category, some students work well in groups of peers, some individually, leaving the teacher able to attend to students who benefit the most from one-on-one interaction.

So Why Does Differentiated Instruction Matter?

The major benefit of differentiating instruction is that students become more engaged, and exhibit fewer discipline issues. There is inherent difficulty on the planning side however: it requires more time to plan, and teachers often have difficulty finding the extra time. Further, the “learning curve for the teacher can be steep, and some schools lack professional development resources.” The future though could hold the answer in the form of technologies that have the potential to free the teacher to focus where it counts the most: on the student.