Of all the buzzwords in education today, differentiated instruction is making the most waves – yet few teachers or school administrators in the UK know exactly what it is.

Is it a new way to promote student learning? Does it involve major curricular changes? Is it a surer path to literacy and maths comprehension?

Every educator, whether tasked with administrative duty or a member of the teaching staff, should take a closer look at this education initiative.

How Differentiated Instruction Challenges Traditional Teaching Norms

Maybe you won't need your blackboard anymore once you start your differentiated learning programmes
The blackboard is a ubiquitous visual aid but may not be needed when differentiating Source: Pixabay Credit: Reisefreiheit_eu

For centuries, not much has changed as far as teaching methodology goes.

Since the inception of compulsory education, the concept has overwhelmingly followed the teacher-led model of instruction.

Granted, there have been exceptional teachers such as Jaime Escalante, the subject of the film Stand And Deliver, and London teacher Andria Zafirakou, winner of the 2018 global ‘best teacher’ prize.

And thousands, maybe even millions of people, quietly doing remarkable things in classrooms all over the world.

Still, should you have occasion to visit a classroom or five, you will most likely find a typical scene: teacher giving instruction and students focused on learning, to one degree or the other.

On the whole, that instructional model works... but only in some situations.

For learners who are invested in their education, such as university students and continuous learning groups, a teacher centred pedagogy is fairly effective.

One might say that, for the most part, primary and even secondary school students are the very opposite of being invested in their schooling; a situation that puts an almost unbearable burden on teachers.

Teachers are generally described as people who impart knowledge. That is an absolutely banal and minimally-encompassing term for what teachers actually do.

  • Teachers instil discipline to the child who cannot sit still as well as to the taunting bully
  • Teachers as managers: yes, managing a classroom but also managing conflicting personalities, managing time and assignments
  • Teachers as front-line defence: constantly casting a critical eye over students, teachers are the first to spot signs of special learning needs as well as mental and emotional distress
  • Teachers are administrators: not only do they have their classroom to manage but they must also comply with the Department for Education’s and schools’ bureaucratic requirements
  • Teachers are learners, expected to continue their professional development.

With all of this crammed into an alleged 8-hour day, how is it that we’re shocked about teacher burnout statistics and dismayed as more and more teachers leave the profession?

If you’re a teacher thinking of leaving the vocation you love, please consider putting your plans on hold in favour of trying some new instructional strategies.

For one, how about cultivating a student centered approach to teaching?

You might try placing your kids into small groups according to their scholastic abilities and personal interests, so that your gifted students may feel as fulfiled in their learning as your SEN students do.

You could also diverge from textbook material, using it instead as a guideline for common core instruction while challenging your students’ thinking skills through project-based learning.

You will be amazed at how easy it really is to foster such a learning environment!

Differentiation strategies can change the way your students think about and approach their studies; indeed it may well invest them with an unprecedented eagerness to learn.

Why not find out more ways that differentiation is redefining the art of teaching?

The Importance of Differentiated Instruction for Students

Get your kids on board, connect with them, find out what it is that they’re interested in – Andria Zafirakou

It seems that, without the label attached, Ms Zafirakou applied the principles of differentiated learning in her classes.

Let us think about the average student. Is s/he excited about learning new things? Does s/he come to school eager for whatever knowledge comes his/her way?

Or is students’ attitude towards school more in the negative range: anxious about lessons and fearful of bullying?

Nobody is claiming that differentiating instruction will solve all of public education’s problems – either the academic or the social aspects of schooling.

On the other hand, differentiating does address multiple intelligences, which not only considers individual learning styles but also fosters a learning process that emphasises student strengths.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is that their students, all of the same age group, have different levels of intellect.

At one end of the spectrum, there are gifted and talented students while at the other end are those whose circumstances cause them to struggle in class.

Yet, the same teacher is expected to accommodate all of the different learning styles and everyone’s learning needs, all while seeing to it that academic standards are met across the board and all assessments conducted timely and fairly.

How can assessments be fair if some students far exceed the norm and others need help achieving them?

Today’s students are aware of these yawning deficiencies in education. That is perhaps why, as they get older, their attitude toward school and learning becomes more jaded.

Differentiation of instruction can help students regain confidence in themselves and in those whom they look to for knowledge.

Again we aver that such teaching strategies are no cure-all for all of the challenges that teachers face, but it does go a long way toward empowering students and helping them to succeed academically.

Doesn’t it simply make more sense to create a positive learning experience rather than force-feed facts and hope they can be digested?

You can discover more about teaching and learning differentiation strategy.

Don't let your students feel the crushing pressure of their textbooks
Students may feel crushed by the mass of information they are required to absorb Source: Pixabay Credit: Wokandapix

What Tutors Need to Know About Differentiated Instruction

Children should be seen and not heard – 15th-century English proverb

Its original wording stated specifically that young females should be quiet – the use of ‘mayde’, the word in the original text, means ‘a young female’.

Possibly male children were expected to be exuberant?

Questions of behaviour aside, today that old saw still resonates; in some circles, that philosophy is most rigidly adhered to.

What is even more remarkable is that our education system seems to reinforce that edict. Teachers do most of the talking and students (should) only speak when given permission to – through raising their hand or by being called on.

That is perhaps one reason why, when tutors encounter reluctant students, their most prevalent challenge is getting those learners to talk.

Please note that by no measure are we saying that teacher should repeat Sir William Golding’s debate experiment, when his classroom descended into a free-for-all – which gave him the inspiration for Lord of the Flies.

Discipline in the classroom is needed, but perhaps shouldn't be so linear or strict.

Whether one opts to teach using the direct instruction method or chooses to differentiate instruction, classroom management, curriculum development and student assessment are vital components of every teaching strategy. It's just that differentiation allows for diverse learning strategies. 

That means that tutors, when taking on pupils who learn in a differentiating environment, may be pleasantly surprised to find they have empowered students to work with, rather than overwhelmed, insecure ones!

What is it about differentiated instruction that brings such a change about? Let us first tell you what it isn’t...

  1. Differentiated instruction is not a set of worksheets, nor is it a teaching programme.

So, when you arrive at your student’s home, it is quite possible you won’t see him/her with learning materials strewn all over the dining room table, trying to make sense of things.

      2. Differentiation is not about textbooks; it’s about their content.

To be sure, students still have to learn what is set forth in the national curriculum – so there will be books; there just won’t be an over-reliance on them.

Instead, you may find your student’s higher order thinking challenged as s/he wrangles with problem-based learning, evidence-based or inquiry-based learning.

     3. Differentiated learning is not a one size fits all proposition.

It will not turn your students into super-scholars overnight... but it will make them more eager to learn.

It will not make them magically retain everything they’ve been taught, but it will show them how to learn.

Once you know how to differentiate, you will see a positive change in your students’ attitude toward learning. They may even see schoolwork as an adventure rather than mere drudge!

Find out what the best tutors know about differentiated instruction...

Tutors bring students to solutions over their whirl of knowledge
Tutors are uniquely positioned to help students make sense of the whirlwind of information they are caught in Source: Pixabay Credit: Ivan Pais

Tutoring: the Ultimate in Differentiated Instruction

It has long been ascertained that teachers are being pulled in too many directions at once.

Thus, it would be no stretch to contend that traditional teacher-led instruction is more than a shout away from effective teaching.

Furthermore, the required summative assessments – the exams at the end of every study unit, semester and significant key stages compels teachers to tailor their lesson plans to exam results rather than exploring the subject they are so passionate about.

Tutors, on the other hand, have plenty of leeway in determining how best to work with their students.

Providing individualized guidance and instruction, tutors are free to devise learning activities that will promote student achievement and mastery of the subject in question.

How do the best tutors manage to help their students meet learning goals so consistently?

Simply by doing what proponents of differentiated instruction advocate for: glean a bit of background knowledge about each student, tailor instruction to each student’s individual learning style and conduct an ongoing formative assessment throughout the mentoring relationship.

Come to think of it, isn’t that what tutors have been doing for millennia?

Dear Tutors, it is time to finally put a name to your brand of lesson planning. It is called differentiated instruction and you are at the forefront of this exciting educational revolution.

You can read more about how your teaching methods are vital to student success and maybe even pick up a few tips to expand your teaching repertoire.

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