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Teaching Methods: Differentiated instruction Teaching Methods: Differentiated instruction

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Authors: Peter Westwood
Teaching Methods: Differentiated instruction

What is differentiated instruction? What are the main challenges for teachers wishing to use it in their classroom? Peter Westwood, author of What Teachers Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction discusses in this Q&A.

Can you explain what differentiated instruction is?

Differentiated instruction is not really a new concept; it has been with us for a very long time in the guise of ‘mixed-ability teaching’.

It is really about taking account of significant differences among students in terms of their ability (or disability), rate of learning, language proficiency, literacy and numeracy skills ― and then using this knowledge to adapt the way the curriculum and learning activities are presented. These differences also determine the amount of additional support individual students may need.

Differentiated instruction became much more important with the advent of inclusive education. We now have a very diverse group of students in mainstream classes, including gifted students and others with learning difficulties or disabilities. Differentiation is an approach that encourages teachers to respond to relevant differences among individuals while maintaining high expectations for all.

It needs to be used together with effective evidence-based teaching methods to minimise learning failure. These methods, when skillfully implemented, actually reduce the need for extensive differentiation as they ensure that, from the start, almost all students understand the concepts, information and skills being taught.  

When you say ‘significant differences’ among learners, what are these differences? Are some differences not important?

I have already mentioned the importance of ability, rate of learning, language skills (including English as a second language), literacy and numeracy. If you ignore those differences in the classroom some students will definitely be disadvantaged and may begin to have learning difficulties. In addition, it is also essential to take into account differences in students’ prior knowledge and experience, because these factors influence how easily they can understand and accommodate new learning.

Obviously the age of the students is also important because the curriculum needs to be developmentally appropriate. And at times, when you are teaching specific subject matter, gender, ethnicity and cultural background are also important.

There are many other differences among students but they do not have any direct impact on academic learning. They simply represent aspects of students’ personalities, lifestyles and backgrounds. They add diversity to a classroom in very positive ways.

I will mention one difference often believed to be important ―but isn’t―namely students’ so-called ‘learning style’.

The notion that teachers in mainstream classes can adapt to differences in students’ learning style is a myth. Unfortunately this idea is still being circulated, even in official guidelines. There is no reliable evidence that learning styles exist, or that teachers can cater for them even if they did.

Taking all these factors into account must be very difficult for teachers. It is not easy! The reason why differentiated teaching is difficult to sustain over time is because it can be extremely hard work unless the purpose and applications are interpreted correctly.  

A statement in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers now specifies that teachers need to demonstrate an ability to develop ‘…teaching activities that incorporate differentiated strategies to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities’ (AITSL, 2014). That makes it sound as if differentiation is needed for many more students than the three special needs categories officially recognised by ACARA (2015). Indeed, the words ‘full range of abilities’ seem to imply that differentiation is needed for every student.

The good news is that it is not necessary or desirable to attempt to apply differentiation in each and every lesson, or for every difference among learners. 

Students are actually much more alike than they are different, so adaptations and modifications to curriculum and resources should not be made unless absolutely necessary.

Differentiation can be implemented in a sustainable way by using evidence-based teaching to cover the same curriculum content with all students, but tailoring some of the learning activities to take account of students’ abilities, prior knowledge and basic skills, and then varying the degree of support given to individual students. I emphasise ‘varying the degree of support’ because that is the principal way that teachers can and should differentiate ― not by drastically changing the curriculum. 

Do teachers understand their role in differentiation?

There is currently a great deal of confusion in teachers’ minds about what differentiation means in practical terms, and for which students it is required.

Some teachers believe that differentiation only applies to students at the extremes of the ability range ― for example, providing enrichment, acceleration and extension activities for gifted students, or designing an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with modified curriculum for intellectually disabled students and those with sensory impairments. Others wonder if they have to plan and implement a separate learning program for every student. Must they never use whole-class teaching? Is every lesson to be ‘personalised’ (the term suggested in the ACARA guidelines for the Australian Curriculum)?

The answer to these questions is a very firm ‘no’. It is essential to stress that differentiation does not mean that every curriculum topic must be presented through content adjusted to each student.

Genuine inclusion must mean including all students in the same curriculum, as well as including them physically in the same classroom. Differentiation in inclusive settings should be about providing additional support to pursue the common curriculum―not about creating a multiplicity of individual programs for students.

What are the main challenges to differentiated instruction?

The real challenge lies in how to differentiate curriculum and learning activities without increasing and perpetuating an achievement gap between able and less-able students. If differentiation is wrongly interpreted to mean that teachers should hold lower expectations for weaker students and always set them easier learning tasks, then the students will simply fall more and more behind.

The challenge is to provide differentiated ‘on-the-spot support’ to individual students during lessons to enable them to engage with the same learning activities and keep up with the peer group (Graham et al., 2015).

The other challenge is of course to provide the necessary practical training for teachers so that they are better equipped to provide differentiated support when it is appropriate. We still have a long way to go to achieve that goal.

  • What Teachers Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction gives you a concise look at developing and implementing differentiated instruction programs. It provides both general and specific strategies and explores supporting tools and technologies. Purchase it from the ACER Bookshop.

References

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2015). Illustrations of personalised learning. Retrieved from http://v7-5.australiancurriculum.edu.au/studentdiversity/students-with-disability/view-illustrations-by-primarysecondary

AITSL (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership). (2014). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Retrieved from http://www.aitsl.edu.au/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers/standards/list

Graham, L., Berman, J., & Bellert, A. (2015). Sustainable learning. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Westwood, P. (2016). What Teachers Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

What is differentiated instruction? What are the main challenges for teachers wishing to use it in their classroom? Peter Westwood, author of What Teachers Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction discusses in this Q&A.

Can you explain what differentiated instruction is?

Differentiated instruction is not really a new concept; it has been with us for a very long time in the guise of ‘mixed-ability teaching’.

It is really about taking account of significant differences among students in terms of their ability (or disability), rate of learning, language proficiency, literacy and numeracy skills ― and then using this knowledge to adapt the way the curriculum and learning activities are presented. These differences also determine the amount of additional support individual students may need.

Differentiated instruction became much more important with the advent of inclusive education. We now have a very diverse group of students in mainstream classes, including gifted students and others with learning difficulties or disabilities. Differentiation is an approach that encourages teachers to respond to relevant differences among individuals while maintaining high expectations for all.

It needs to be used together with effective evidence-based teaching methods to minimise learning failure. These methods, when skillfully implemented, actually reduce the need for extensive differentiation as they ensure that, from the start, almost all students understand the concepts, information and skills being taught.  

When you say ‘significant differences’ among learners, what are these differences? Are some differences not important?

I have already mentioned the importance of ability, rate of learning, language skills (including English as a second language), literacy and numeracy. If you ignore those differences in the classroom some students will definitely be disadvantaged and may begin to have learning difficulties. In addition, it is also essential to take into account differences in students’ prior knowledge and experience, because these factors influence how easily they can understand and accommodate new learning.

Obviously the age of the students is also important because the curriculum needs to be developmentally appropriate. And at times, when you are teaching specific subject matter, gender, ethnicity and cultural background are also important.

There are many other differences among students but they do not have any direct impact on academic learning. They simply represent aspects of students’ personalities, lifestyles and backgrounds. They add diversity to a classroom in very positive ways.

I will mention one difference often believed to be important ―but isn’t―namely students’ so-called ‘learning style’.

The notion that teachers in mainstream classes can adapt to differences in students’ learning style is a myth. Unfortunately this idea is still being circulated, even in official guidelines. There is no reliable evidence that learning styles exist, or that teachers can cater for them even if they did.

Taking all these factors into account must be very difficult for teachers. It is not easy! The reason why differentiated teaching is difficult to sustain over time is because it can be extremely hard work unless the purpose and applications are interpreted correctly.  

A statement in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers now specifies that teachers need to demonstrate an ability to develop ‘…teaching activities that incorporate differentiated strategies to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities’ (AITSL, 2014). That makes it sound as if differentiation is needed for many more students than the three special needs categories officially recognised by ACARA (2015). Indeed, the words ‘full range of abilities’ seem to imply that differentiation is needed for every student.

The good news is that it is not necessary or desirable to attempt to apply differentiation in each and every lesson, or for every difference among learners. 

Students are actually much more alike than they are different, so adaptations and modifications to curriculum and resources should not be made unless absolutely necessary.

Differentiation can be implemented in a sustainable way by using evidence-based teaching to cover the same curriculum content with all students, but tailoring some of the learning activities to take account of students’ abilities, prior knowledge and basic skills, and then varying the degree of support given to individual students. I emphasise ‘varying the degree of support’ because that is the principal way that teachers can and should differentiate ― not by drastically changing the curriculum. 

Do teachers understand their role in differentiation?

There is currently a great deal of confusion in teachers’ minds about what differentiation means in practical terms, and for which students it is required.

Some teachers believe that differentiation only applies to students at the extremes of the ability range ― for example, providing enrichment, acceleration and extension activities for gifted students, or designing an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with modified curriculum for intellectually disabled students and those with sensory impairments. Others wonder if they have to plan and implement a separate learning program for every student. Must they never use whole-class teaching? Is every lesson to be ‘personalised’ (the term suggested in the ACARA guidelines for the Australian Curriculum)?

The answer to these questions is a very firm ‘no’. It is essential to stress that differentiation does not mean that every curriculum topic must be presented through content adjusted to each student.

Genuine inclusion must mean including all students in the same curriculum, as well as including them physically in the same classroom. Differentiation in inclusive settings should be about providing additional support to pursue the common curriculum―not about creating a multiplicity of individual programs for students.

What are the main challenges to differentiated instruction?

The real challenge lies in how to differentiate curriculum and learning activities without increasing and perpetuating an achievement gap between able and less-able students. If differentiation is wrongly interpreted to mean that teachers should hold lower expectations for weaker students and always set them easier learning tasks, then the students will simply fall more and more behind.

The challenge is to provide differentiated ‘on-the-spot support’ to individual students during lessons to enable them to engage with the same learning activities and keep up with the peer group (Graham et al., 2015).

The other challenge is of course to provide the necessary practical training for teachers so that they are better equipped to provide differentiated support when it is appropriate. We still have a long way to go to achieve that goal.

  • What Teachers Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction gives you a concise look at developing and implementing differentiated instruction programs. It provides both general and specific strategies and explores supporting tools and technologies. Purchase it from the ACER Bookshop.

References

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2015). Illustrations of personalised learning. Retrieved from http://v7-5.australiancurriculum.edu.au/studentdiversity/students-with-disability/view-illustrations-by-primarysecondary

AITSL (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership). (2014). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Retrieved from http://www.aitsl.edu.au/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers/standards/list

Graham, L., Berman, J., & Bellert, A. (2015). Sustainable learning. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Westwood, P. (2016). What Teachers Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Have you used differentiated instruction in your classroom?

What difficulties did you come across? How did you overcome them?

Have you used differentiated instruction in your classroom?

What difficulties did you come across? How did you overcome them?

Christopher Jackson 12 April 2016

Whilst I agree that there is a lot of nonsense spoken about learning styles in terms of different modes of learning and that the evidence is weak, I think you are wrong to “write off” learning styles in general. For example, I am the author of the learning styles profiler which measures the cognitive basis of learning using proper theory and which is validated in the peer reviewed academic press. Contact me for the articles if you want - you can find me in the School of Management at UNSW or see the test at Cymeon.com. So what I argue is that people interested in differentiated learning should not write off learning styles but should in fact be interested in differentiating quality ideas about learning styles from those low in quality.

Peter Westwood 13 April 2016
[quote]Whilst I agree that there is a lot of nonsense spoken about learning styles in terms of different modes of learning and that the evidence is weak, I think you are wrong to “write off” learning styles in general. For example, I am the author of the learning styles profiler which measures the cognitive basis of learning using proper theory and which is validated in the peer reviewed academic press. Contact me for the articles if you want - you can find me in the School of Management at UNSW or see the test at Cymeon.com. So what I argue is that people interested in differentiated learning should not write off learning styles but should in fact be interested in differentiating quality ideas about learning styles from those low in quality. - Originally posted by Christopher Jackson[/quote] Thank you for the comment Christopher ― but I stand by my assertion that there is no value in attempting to differentiate instruction according to students’ so-called learning styles. Instead, the mode of instruction must always be determined by the nature of the specific curriculum content to be taught. - I refer readers to an item by Riener and Willingham ‘The myth of learning styles’, in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning (10 September 2010) available online at: http://www.changemag.org/archives/back issues/september-october 2010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html - An online article by Lafferty and Burley (undated) explores the arguments for and against learning styles, before coming to the conclusion that ‘learning styles are a myth’. http://learningstyles.webs.com/ -In the article by Lafferty and Burley, the neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield is quoted as stating that learning styles are nonsense. I agree. Any online search under ‘Do learning styles exist?’ will provide readers with many more sources of information. PETER WESTWOOD
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Christopher Jackson 14 April 2016

Thanks Peter for your interesting comments. I agree with you that there are practical problems with differentiating instructions according to learning styles and that there is merit in teaching according to the curriculum content. However, it is possible to split large classes into different groups and focus on different outcomes which match the strengths and weaknesses of students’ cognitions.

I also agree that the majority of learning styles theories and questionnaires are a waste of time given that there has been virtually no effort put into their theory or in developing sophisticated measurement (which at least focuses on reliability and validity). Interestingly enough my experience of using these models in the mba classroom shows that they are readily appreciated as a way of explaining learning to students even if they are nonsense.

More to the point however, just because the field of “learning styles” has been overwhelmed with weak theory and poor measurement, this does not mean that it should be entirely written off. As mentioned, my theory of learning is now in the academic literature and available for critique.It does however demonstrate good psychometrics and the theory is not only based on latest personality theory but also has distinct overlaps with Rational Emotive Behaviour and Therapy (see the second reference down).

A few of the references:

Most recent:

Gardiner, E. & Jackson, C. (2015). Personality and learning processes underlying maverickism. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30, .726 - 740.

Link with REBT:

Jackson, C. J., Izadikah, Z., & Oei, T. (2012). Mechanisms underlying REBT in mood disordered patients: Predicting depression from the hybrid model of learning. Journal of Affective Disorders, 139, 30-39.

Predicting various outcomes:

Jackson, C. J. (2011). How sensation seeking provides a common basis for functional and dysfunctional outcomes. Journal of Research in Personality, 45, 29-36.

and more specifically to do with education:

Jackson, C. J., Baguma, P., & Furnham, A. (2009). Predicting Grade Point Average from the hybrid model of learning in personality: Consistent findings from Ugandan and Australian Students. Educational Psychology, 29, 747-761.

Whilst these papers do not really address the point that different learning styles need different styles of teaching, my point that learning styles should not be prematurely written off is surely reasonable. However, it is fair to also say that the papers surely argue cognitions of students are associated with different outcomes and therefore this should be addressed in curriculum design.

Cheers and thanks for your time. A healthy debate is always a good one!

Chris Jackson

joanne 19 April 2016

Hi Peter
I am interested in your thoughts with kids on the autism spectrum as we often refer to them being wired and having a different learning style to typical developing. It would be great if you could recommend some further research articles in this area. Joanne Brearley

Peter Westwood 20 April 2016
[quote]Hi Peter I am interested in your thoughts with kids on the autism spectrum as we often refer to them being wired and having a different learning style to typical developing. It would be great if you could recommend some further research articles in this area. Joanne Brearley - Originally posted by joanne[/quote] Thanks for your query Joanne. Yes, children with autism spectrum disorders are often described in layman’s terms as being ‘wired differently’; but does this mean the same as having a different cognitive learning style from others? I think not. But I guess it depends on how one defines learning style. Some definitions of learning style focus on a person's typical way of thinking, reasoning, remembering and problem solving (cognitive activity). Other definitions refer to the sensory channels (modalities) that an individual prefers to use when taking in information. If one believes that modality preference (vision, hearing, touch, etc) is the key feature of a learning style, then you would certainly say that most children with autism appear to have strong modality preferences. Often they are said to be ‘visual learners’; and many of the teaching techniques and materials recommended for these students involve this sensory channel. However, recent work by Trembath et al. (2015) has found ‘…no evidence of a prominent visual learning style in the ASD group’ (p.3276). Regardless of how an autistic learner is ‘wired’, and how we define learning style, I think we always get through to these students best when we incorporate topics, materials and methods of presentation and engagement that manage to hold their attention best. Attention underpins all learning. To hold autistic students’ attention we capitalize on their personal interests and preferences. To me, this is not at all a matter of innate learning style or predisposition, but rather ‘what works today with this child’― and it may be something quite different next week. Banire et al. (2015) have put it well when they write, ‘…they [autistic children] require special techniques to gain their attention and interest in learning as compared to typical children’ (Banire et al., 2015, p.3069). You asked for information on learning styles and autism so I suggest the following ―although I do not agree with some of the points made in the papers. You will need to make up your own mind. Online information - https://www.autism.com/understanding_learning - http://www.hirstwood.com/course-notes/learning-styles-and-autism/ - http://teacch.com/educational-approaches/asa-advocate-learning-styles-of-children-with-autism-by-gary-mesibov-autism-society-of-america If you want a really ‘deep’ paper on the topic you might read Qian and Lipkin (2011) A learning-style theory for understanding autistic behaviors. Online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3155869/ References Banire, B., Jomhari, N., & Ahmad, R. (2015). Visual Hybrid Development Learning System (VHDLS) framework for children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 10: 3069-3084. Trembath, D., Vivanti, G., Iacono, T., & Dissanayake, C. Accurate or assumed: Visual learning in children with ASD. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 10: 3276-3287. Peter Westwood
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Ian 19 April 2016

It is very true that time poor teachers do not have time to differentiate fully - how about some support from curriculum authorities and more time to plan these lessons. Students do have learning styles - some students like to speak about the subject matter, some like to write about it, others like to watch people being interviewed talking about the subject matter etc - all these are learning styles.

Peter Westwood 22 April 2016
[quote]It is very true that time poor teachers do not have time to differentiate fully - how about some support from curriculum authorities and more time to plan these lessons. Students do have learning styles - some students like to speak about the subject matter, some like to write about it, others like to watch people being interviewed talking about the subject matter etc - all these are learning styles. - Originally posted by Ian [/quote] Thank you for your comment, Ian. I assume that you are a teacher. I must also assume from your statements that you try to teach in a manner that involves some students only talking about subject matter; some only writing about subject matter; and some do not write or speak about subject matter but only watch others. That seems to be the form of differentiation (based on students’ preferences) that you are implying. I find it extremely odd, since effective learning within the school curriculum occurs when all students talk about, write about, read about, draw and enact subject matter … and so on. And the most effective teaching occurs when teachers use a combination of all these channels and processes with all students. As a teacher, I would find it impossible to enact the model you are suggesting, where individual (and often transient) preferences of students must influence what learning activities they are given and how teaching is to be implemented. If I was teaching an individual student I might just try to accommodate personal preferences sometimes. But with a class of 30 students it would be impossible … and I dare to say, undesirable. Perhaps after the several comments above on learning style, readers might like to get back to discuss the more feasible ways of differentiating instruction. That was the theme of the original article. Peter Westwood
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Leanne 24 April 2016

Hi Peter
I am a teacher on the ‘explicit instruction’ journey. This article enlightened me to the fact that teaching explicitly has has reduced the amount of differentiation required in order to meet the needs of the students in my class. Leanne

Peter Westwood 29 April 2016
[quote]Hi Peter I am a teacher on the ‘explicit instruction’ journey. This article enlightened me to the fact that teaching explicitly has has reduced the amount of differentiation required in order to meet the needs of the students in my class. Leanne - Originally posted by Leanne[/quote] You are absolutely correct, Leanne. Explicit and direct teaching does indeed reduce the need for differentiation―because almost all students in the class immediately understand what they are being taught. For one or two students who ‘still don’t get it’ even after the initial explicit teaching has been provided, differentiation must then occur through additional support, re-teaching and extra practice. Not by devising a different curriculum. Explicit teaching can be defined as an active instructional approach in which the teacher provides clear and unambiguous explanations, demonstrations and guided practice when introducing new information and skills. This approach could be described in exactly the terms used in the next comment from Lorraine Hammond ―it is the ‘core business of actually teaching kids’. It engages students successfully from the start; and the teachers convey the curriculum to their students, rather than expecting students to learn for themselves by just engaging in activities. Activities are of course used within this approach, but they are there to enable students to apply what has already been explicitly taught. Explicit teaching is the most effective way of helping all learners construct knowledge, and acquire skills and strategies. It is far more effective than using mainly student-centered unguided activities, particularly for students with learning difficulties. Very useful information on explicit teaching and its relationship to differentiation can be located on the Teaching AC English website at: http://www.teachingacenglish.edu.au/explicit-teaching/overview/explict-overview.html Peter Westwood
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Dr Lorraine Hammond 25 April 2016

If teachers focus on the end goal.. (for example) students will independently read or spell a word, write a simple sentence etc… the differentiation is easy. You simply vary the independent task for students but the strategy, knowledge or rule you teach remains the same. Some students will read flig independently (a non-word that they’ve never seen before) and others will read vunhip or monglumaster or any non-word from Harry Potter. The strategy is the same, smoosh the single sounds together and decode the unknown word. As Peter says, there is no research on Learning Styles and time spent on this is time distracted from core business: actually teaching kids.

Ian 04 May 2016

Peter,
I was not suggesting that in each and every lesson a teacher caters for each preferred learning style completely. I was saying that some students have a preferred learning style so over the course of a year, for example, lessons should be covering all learning styles to help all students to access the content according to their preferred learning style. Variability is important.

Gloria 25 October 2016

“Genuine inclusion must mean including all students in the same curriculum, as well as including them physically in the same classroom. Differentiation in inclusive settings should be about providing additional support to pursue the common curriculum―not about creating a multiplicity of individual programs for students.” - totally agree. I was dealing with differentiation issue at my previous job place, and I always felt lack of explanations from my colleagues of what differentiation really means. I think your words describe the issue the best way, thanks.

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