Using distinguished instruction in the classroom

Like Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Like Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Indeed, one-size-fits all is not a practical concept in a modern classroom given that not all of your students grasp a subject in the same way or share the same level of ability. So how can you better deliver your lessons to reach everyone in class?

Simple, use differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is based on the theory that teachers must structure and tailor their lessons to ensure that they are aligned to students’ skills and needs. It may mean teaching the same material to all students using a variety of instructional strategies, or it may require the teacher to deliver lessons at varying levels of difficulty based on the ability of each student. There are various methods of differentiation one might consider.

One of the core methods of differentiation, differentiation by task, involves setting different tasks for students of different abilities. One way to achieve this may be to produce different sets of exercises depending on students’ abilities. However, some teachers loath to employ this method because of the social implications and the additional planning it entails. An alternative method is to use a single exercise comprised of tasks which get progressively harder. The more advanced students will quickly progress to the later questions whilst the less able can concentrate on grasping the essentials.

Secondly, collaborative learning has many well-documented benefits such as enabling shy students to participate more confidently in class, but it’s also a useful differentiation method. Small, mixed-ability groups allow lower achievers to take advantage of peer support whilst higher achievers gain the opportunity to organise and voice their thoughts for the benefit of the whole group (known as peer modelling). Grouping also allows roles to be allocated within the team which cater for each member’s skill set and learning needs.

It’s equally important to recognise that some students can work with more advanced resources than others, and that it is possible to use multiple materials in order to approach a topic from different angles. This means that while some may require basic texts with illustrations, others are capable of working with more advanced vocabulary and complex ideas. Differentiation of this kind allows a wide spectrum of materials to be used to attain a single learning outcome.

Similarly, differentiation can be done by outcome whereby all students undertake the same task, but a variety of results is expected and acceptable. For example, the teacher sets a task but instead of working towards a single ‘right’ answer, the students arrive at a personalised outcome depending on their level of ability. It’s a method about which some teachers have reservations as there is a risk that the less able students will fall below an acceptable level of understanding, however, that risk can be mitigated by establishing a clear set of guidelines that apply to all students, and it does offer one clear advantage in that no prior grouping is necessary.

Differentiation in the classroom is all about understanding that we are dealing with a group of diverse individuals and adapting our teaching to ensure that all of them have access to learn. It should be an on-going and flexible process which not only profiles students initially but also recognises progress and areas for improvement and adjusts accordingly to ensure learning needs continue to be met. In short, it shifts the focus from teaching a subject to teaching the students.

The writer is a language consultant