According to Tomlinson, today’s classroom is a ‘jigsaw of learners’ with different backgrounds, experiences, learning styles and, consequently, needs (2015). Every child in the classroom is unique and has reached a distinctive stage of development and of achievement. At Ecole Eden, we are, incessantly, trying to acknowledge these disparities in order to adopt a more comprehensive and multi-layered approach to teaching.
Historically, schools have attempted to approach such diversity in three different ways: by placing pupils in heterogeneous classrooms and by overlooking their different needs; by grouping students according to their abilities and by creating mixed classrooms while attending to the pupil’s differences (Tomlinson & Al, 2012). The first two options have had, undoubtedly, negative impacts on pupils’ academic achievements as well as on their social and emotional developments. Ignoring various needs within the classroom leaves behind students with learning difficulties, while ability grouping perpetuates disparities amongst students by labelling children either as ‘incompetent’ or as ‘talented’. Ultimately, the third option stimulates differentiated instruction by “providing a suitable curriculum to ensure progression for all learners while catering for individual needs” (Arthur & Al, 2010). Ecole Eden has embraced this notion to ensure equity for all in the access to education.
Although, the process of differentiation is extremely complex, it is, nonetheless, vital to ensure progression and continuity within the classroom. This is, perhaps, one of the biggest challenges that teachers face today. Teachers constantly seek different ways to cater for their pupils’ personal interests, abilities and motivations in order to challenge them while simultaneously guaranteeing success for all of them.
Differentiation should be seen as an inclusive concept. It becomes meaningful only when it aims to develop multiple pathways to knowledge for the whole classroom. It is vital to incorporate it when planning lessons as well as reflect upon past teachings to engender continual personal growth. To address the pupils’ distinctive needs, effective planning, therefore, should always include an element of differentiation. The latter, also, entails constant modifications of the teaching strategies. Although a lot of differentiation techniques such as giving individual feedback, working with assistants or explaining concepts in different ways, are inherent to good teaching practices, many theorists have agreed that there are at least four main categories of differentiation: by task, outcome, encouragement and resource.
Differentiation by task sets different activities for students of varying levels while covering the same content. For instance, in a reading comprehension lesson, teachers can divide their classes into groups. Each group receives a different text of content difficulty adapted to their level of understanding. Differentiation by outcome, on the other hand, is subject to the teacher’s expectations of a pupil’s work on a given classroom activity. Indeed, teachers adjust their expectations as they cannot presume that their students will all produce the same work.
Both methods require a careful analysis of the pupils’ capacities. The success of these techniques, invariably, depends on the teacher’s judgment of the pupil. If the former‘s analysis is incorrect, then this type of differentiation will not benefit the whole learning community and some pupils will be left behind. Relying solely on these two techniques would be unprofessional.
Therefore, differentiation by encouragement is vital as well. During class activities, Eden teachers group or pairs students who, consequently, build on external peer support to gain access to extra knowledge. Reflecting upon the concept of Scaffolding, Eden teachers tailor their responses according to the pair/group needs. Additionally, with Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory in mind, teachers often differentiate by resources. They strive to detect the range of material resources (internet, text books, visuals ….) which accommodates the preferences of all pupils. In fact, teachers plan their lessons using different mediation means such as visuals, manipulatives, self-discovery or group/paired activities to benefit all children. Both methods have, unmistakably, demonstrated good levels of success.
Although each technique is different, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when planning a lesson, it is evident that a good balance between all four methods should be adopted. To enrich each child’s unique learning experience, Eden teachers continually attempt to find a strategic equilibrium between the different approaches.
Arthur J, and Cremin T (2010) Learning to Teach in the Primary School, London: Routledge
Tomlinson, C (2015) ‘Teaching for Excellence in Academically Diverse Classrooms’, Society, 52, 3, pp. 203-209