The paradigm of education has always been driven by the change in the perception of knowledge. Thus, previously, the idea of school education was closely related to the concept of unification and heterogeneity for the sake of equality in the classroom. However, while children at a certain age are likely to share a set of characteristics, including age, basic cognitive abilities, and physical appearance, every child is a unique individual with various hobbies, preferences, learning styles, and perceptions of the outside world. For this reason, the modern tendencies of education have shifted toward the adoption of differentiated instruction in the classroom. According to Tomlinson (2001), “differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively” (p. 1). Hence, the major premise of differentiated instruction is to present a student-centered approach to the classroom by introducing several options for perceiving the learning material.
Unlike individualized learning, differentiated instruction does not seek a unique learning method for every student in the classroom. Instead, educators in a differentiated classroom present several interactive methods of processing content among children, allowing them to resort to the learning approach they like best. According to Tomlinson (2001), some of the characteristics of differentiated instruction also include a proactive approach, quality over quantity of tasks, constant assessment, the multiplicity of approaches, and an organic flow of the lesson. When following these recommendations, teachers have the chance to “shake up” the classroom and add more interactive elements to the process.
Teacher’s Role in Differentiated Instruction
As far as the phenomenon of a mixed-ability differentiated classroom is concerned, the gap between the teacher’s supremacy and students’ obedience becomes significantly narrower. Thus, in a conventional classroom, the teacher’s primary task is to convey information and knowledge to the students, a differentiated classroom is focused on providing students with more autonomy. Simultaneously, the teacher’s role is to navigate students and encourage them to come up with answers rather than present the information. Indeed, according to Tomlinson (2001), “covering information takes a back seat to make meaning out of important ideas” (p. 16). To ensure this transformation, the teachers emphasize defining clues, support, and the level of students’ readiness to process information in a certain way.
Regularly, the teacher should become a part of the learning community rather than an impartial observer. Thus, it is of utmost importance for a teacher to have expertise both in the teaching content and the student’s individuality by interacting with children and collecting insights into their personalities (Tomlinson, 2001). Then, by closely analyzing the specifics of the topic and the children’s preferences in terms of learning, the teacher can find common ground and present differentiated activities to the classroom. To describe the role of a teacher in such a classroom, Tomlinson (2001) compares educators to orchestra directors, as the latter can only lead so many musicians if they feel the music and know how every instrument works separately. Similar to this concept, educators in a differentiated classroom interact with children through learning about their perception of the world. Hence, as directors, coaches, and mentors, teachers play an important role in mediating the relationship between knowledge and its processing by children.
Strategies for Managing Differentiated Classrooms
Creating a space for differentiated learning is, by all means, a difficult task. The most evident challenge to giving differentiated instructions is presenting the tasks to separate groups and individuals without confusing them. For this reason, every activity prepared for the classroom should be prepared beforehand and written somewhere on the board or personalized cards. Besides confusion, however, Tomlinson (2001) identifies 16 more strategies to promote meaningful learning. These strategies can be grouped into several categories. First, the teacher should be prepared for any time-management issues that may arise. For example, if one of the groups of stalling while the rest of the class finishes their tasks earlier than expected, the educator should prepare tasks and recommendations for both situations in order not to disrupt the classroom dynamics.
Another category of strategies concerns organizational issues such as moving around the classroom to form a group or moving chairs and tables around the classroom. Tomlinson (2001) suggests that teaching students to rearrange the furniture beforehand could become beneficial in the long term. The third category, for its part, concerns the students’ autonomy in the classroom. When working individually or in groups, students should try to rely on themselves and their partners, as teachers are physically incapable of helping all the students at a time. To ensure this autonomy, the teacher may suggest students consult one of their classmates or an assigned “expert student.” By following these strategies, the teacher is more likely to avoid chaos and misunderstanding related to differentiated learning.
Lesson Differentiated by Readiness
Any differentiated lesson is based on three fundamental concepts: readiness, interest, and learning profile. According to Tomlinson (2001), readiness stands for whether “tasks are a close match for their skills and understanding of a topic” (p. 45). Hence, based on the skills and topic expertise relevant to every student in a group, a teacher can plan a differentiated lesson with activities that match the student’s level. The end goal of such a differentiation, according to Tomlinson (2001), is to move the student a bit further from their comfort zone and bridge the gap between the known and new information with the help of specifically tailored learning activities. In order successfully plan a differentiation by readiness, teachers are advised to follow an “equalizer” model of planning that helps identify the levels of freedom, material novelty, representation, resources, and others. Thus, for example, when working on a topic, teachers, based on the student’s levels of readiness to acquire and process more complex information, can create several levels of task complexity or an extended grading rubric for an assignment.
Content, Process, and Products
For the learning activity to have a long-term impact on the student, the intervention should be meaningful for everyone. One of the primary problems with conventional uniformed teaching is a heterogenous content and teaching manner regardless of the student’s predisposition to acquiring information. In a differentiated classroom, on the other hand, specific attention is paid to the lesson’s content, process, and products. According to Tomlinson (2001), the notion of content stands for “the “input” of teaching and learning” (p. 72). Hence, it is natural for a group of students to express different interests in the content, especially when some children require more explanation than others.
The concept of process, for its part, addresses the many ways in which teachers can convey the content of the topic to the students. In the context of the process, it is vital to address the individual peculiarities of the learners and the ways that they can perceive information, for example, whether it is understanding through experiment or observation. Finally, the teachers in a differentiated classroom need to draw attention to the product of the learning process or its output (Tomlinson, 2001). When all these aspects are addressed in a differentiated manner, every learner leaves the classroom with a quality skill that corresponds to their readiness.
Relation to Other Texts
In the majority of motion pictures, especially when it comes to coming-of-age movies, the classroom environment is represented as an extremely liberal or strict workspace without filling in the “grey area.” Thus, when watching films, children tend to imagine a differentiated instruction class as a space with virtually no rules. While a small part of this statement is true due to the elimination of conventional lesson expectations, the proper working process should still be based on some ground rules.
A popular cultural example that resembles the differentiated classroom premise is the depiction of the classroom in Dangerous Minds, a 1995 movie that reveals the story of a teacher, who happens to be a former military, and her relationships with a group of high school students from a “troubled” neighborhood. To build a rapport with the group, the teacher is unwilling to give students more autonomy than they need. Instead, she moves further away from the curriculum and teaches them basic grammar rules and structures using vocabulary that resonates with the audience, including words such as “homeboy.” In such a way, the teacher tailors access to the content through processes relevant to a recipient. Similar approaches to differentiated education can be found in Dead Poets Society and Half Nelson. In all these cases, there is a group of students that shows more interest in the subject, so teachers pay attention to their values and communicate knowledge using unconventional methods.
Relation to Personal Experience and Larger World
For as long as I have been willing to educate others, I have been fearful of becoming yet another teacher who blindly follows the curricula. When recalling my secondary education experience, I cannot think of the ways most teachers fostered creativity in the classroom. Instead, the grades depended heavily on formal evaluations at the end of the textbook chapter. Since most schools follow the same agenda, the majority of modern youth are afraid of sharing their ideas with the world because they do not fit into conventional norms. Moreover, assessing all children based on uninformed objectives has eventually led to unhealthy competition and a distorted self-image.
Besides personal experience, such a tendency is visible in the global context. Thus, previously, the number of people embracing their unique perception of the world was unprecedently small. However, over the years, with the introduction of fewer limits to the educational process, more people found the courage to embrace their identity and create an objective self-image. Currently, children who feel accepted in the educational environment are prone to show their ideas to the world via social media. Thus, once educators continue to embrace diversity and differentiation in the classroom, society will undergo transformational changes in terms of conventional thinking, lack of individuality, and discrimination.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Publications.