Differentiated education is a relatively new term for a style of teaching that describes instruction that includes a variety of methods for teaching and accessing all learners. Every year teachers are presented with a new classroom full of students. Some of the challenges each year will be similar to others we have encountered, but the exact balance of student interest and ability is never the same from one year to the next. Even with a classroom of “average” students, each student will have his own learning style and preferences. Some students are primarily auditory learners and, therefore, flourish in a traditional classroom. Others are visual and must have material presented in some format that they can see in order to learn. Many of them are kinesthetic learners who need to move, touch, and interact with new material in order for it to leave a fresh wrinkle on their brains. When you include a few students who struggle with ADD, ADHD, learning disabilities, Autism, Down’s syndrome, etc., the challenge intensifies. How can you help all of these students be successful in your classroom? The goal is to ensure that each one of them is able to learn and perform to the best of his God-given ability – without spending every weeknight and weekend working on individualized lesson plans?
What is differentiated education?
“Differentiating instruction means changing the pace, level, or kind of instruction you provide in response to individual learners’ needs, styles, or interests” (Heacox, 2002). In Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom, author Diane Heacox lists characteristics of classroom environments that support differentiation (Heacox, 2002). These classrooms reflect environments that:
- Promote acceptance of student differences.
- Affirm the learning strengths of all students.
- Acknowledge the differing learning rates and styles of students.
- Recognize that in order for work to be fair for all students, it will sometimes be different for some students.
- Accept that success means different things to different people.
- Allow students to work with various people, depending on learning tasks and student needs.
- Recognize that student interest is the key to motivation and that students have different interests.
- Promote personal responsibility for classroom learning.
- Build feelings of self-confidence and confidence in learning.
- Value effort.
- Nurture students toward independent learning.
- Support and celebrate student success.
- Encourage the development of student strengths, interests, and learning preferences.
- Nurture students’ creative spirits.
- Honor the work of all students.
Is differentiated instruction fair?
The term “fair” is a Biblical term that is used to describe beauty, but we have turned the term into something else that describes circumstances that are equal and with equal consequences. Christian educators need to re-examine the interpretation of “fair.” We are not all created with the same physical, intellectual, or social gifts, so it is unreasonable to expect that we will all be successful in the same areas. This is actually God’s way of making sure that His work is carried out efficiently. If everyone were gifted with a beautiful voice, who would serve in the nursery or run the sound system or take up the offering? Everyone would be in the choir, but no one would enjoy listening to it. Giving each child what he needs to reach his God-given potential is “fair.”
What is not “fair” is that many disabled children from Christian families are shut-out from a Christian education because they cannot keep up with a college-prep curriculum. I have faced many parents who have cried while they tell me how grateful they are to find a Christian school where their sweet disabled child would be welcome, safe, and given a Christ-centered education that would match specific learning needs.
The goal of differentiated education is not to give disabled students an unfair advantage over their non-disabled peers but to level the playing field for each student and make success possible for each one – regardless of individual gifts and weaknesses. When our students learn because we have provided them with a God-focused education in a challenging, nurturing environment, we have met our objective.
What do we differentiate?
Some concepts are more important to master than others. Focus on the most relevant material or skills that students should learn. Some disabled students may never master long division or multi-digit multiplication because of the number of steps that they are required to memorize. By teaching them how to use a calculator, you can spend more time teaching them which operations to use in real-life applications.
Pre-assess your students to determine their level of mastery before presenting new material. If you are teaching English or math, begin each new chapter with a pre-test to determine the specific weaknesses which need to be addressed in the coming weeks. Pre-assessments help determine which students need to be given extra attention and which ones may benefit from enrichment activities.
Allow students to choose topics to explore more deeply through the use of independent projects. If you are teaching a unit on World War II, have the students choose from a variety of topics to research based on their interests. Some may choose to study the weapons or the use of airplanes in warfare. Others may be fascinated by the music during the war age. Let them choose topics that they enjoy.
Students with disabilities have the opportunity to shine on these projects because their peers see them in their best light. Since everyone in the class is doing a different topic and presentation style, no one is singled out as being obviously “better” than another.
Auditory learners need to hear it to learn it. Increase the variety of strategies that you use to teach or review material. Traditional teaching fits auditory learners well because it usually includes class lectures, group discussion, audio clips, life stories, anecdotes, music, and examples. Visual learners need to see it to learn it. They need to see graphs, diagrams, textbooks, whiteboards, videos, handouts, and colorful activities – posters, flashcards, puzzles. Kinesthetic learners need to touch it to learn it. They learn best with hands-on activities, practice, role-play, group presentations, manipulatives, highlighters, and markers. The best lessons are the ones that incorporate elements from each learning style. Students should be given many opportunities to develop as many learning strategies as possible. Auditory learners need to be exposed to visual and kinesthetic strategies and vice versa in order to become well-rounded learners.
At least once or twice a year, assign tasks that demonstrate students’ learning based on their learning styles. You may know your students well enough to identify their learning styles. If not, you can administer a learning styles assessment to determine their strengths. Group the students by learning styles and then have each group share their products with the class. If you are teaching a unit on Jamestown, the visual learners could research and design a poster of the settlement at Jamestown. The kinesthetic learners may design a 3-D map of Jamestown, and the verbal/auditory learners may write a booklet of journal entries by a fictitious resident of Jamestown. Group disabled students together with stronger students who will be patient and compassionate. A cooperative learning environment which includes diverse learners is good for all levels of students.
What does differentiated instruction look like?
It should be rigorous.
We should challenge all students to push themselves to do their best, and we must remember that “best” is defined differently for every single student we teach. Some students can and should do more challenging work (not just more work) if they have mastered the basic concepts. Some need less challenging work or fewer problems if processing speed is a weakness for them. Keep in mind the amount of time you expect each child to spend on homework assignments because not all children will take the same amount of time to complete a given assignment. You can cut the number of problems that each child is responsible for based on how long you expect that it will take the child, and you can give more difficult problems to the student who needs a challenge. You are not being unfair; you are simply doing what is best for each child. Today’s curriculums make this task easier than ever. Many math and English curriculums include re-teaching pages, review pages, and enrichment activities that you can assign individually. The students know that they all have homework, and they may figure out that their homework assignments are not all the same, but you will probably find that our students are not as hung up on “fairness” as we are. The gifted students usually appreciate being pushed to do harder work and will rise to the challenge.
It is flexible.
Give students choices on what they learn and how they demonstrate what they have learned:
Give choices for book reports and projects: write a summary, journal, pamphlet, or brochure; make a storyboard, design a computer game, construct a time line, create a cartoon strip, make a clay or papier-mâché sculpture, construct a display, make an alphabet book, perform a skit, make a video-tape, write a song
Steer students toward books that match their reading levels. Give independent readers books that challenge their reading skills, and give dependent readers books that interest them without frustrating them because of the “big words.” Scholastic has resources to determine the reading level of popular children’s fiction (http://bookwizard.scholastic.com). You can also have the child himself determine whether or not the book is on his level or not by using the “Five Finger Test.” Have him open to any page in a given book and begin reading. He should curl one finger for each unfamiliar word or word he cannot sound out until he makes a fist. If he reaches all five, the book is too difficult. If he puts down no fingers at all, the book is too easy.
Give grammar homework based on skill level. Use the same rationale that you use for math. If the student can correctly diagram five sentence, why make him spend hours diagramming twenty-five?
For in-class grammar or math activities, ask slower students to work on every other sentence or math problem so they can be finished when the class is ready to review class work. Do not let one child always be the one who the class knows will finish last.
Cut spelling and vocabulary lists in half or give more time to learn them. Some children cannot learn twenty spelling words in a week. Instead, either give that child fewer words, or break the list up into smaller chunks to learn over several days in order to make the task less daunting.
Inform a struggling reader ahead of time that you will call on him to read and give him time to practice the selection overnight. This will allow him to feel confident about his performance in class in front of his peers.
Walk around the room as you teach. Peek at students’ papers as they complete independent work before calling on them to answer questions aloud. Call on a student who does not usually volunteer to answer a question that you have seen that he has answered correctly on paper.
Suggest that students with reading disabilities get their textbooks on audio tape or mp3 format (www.rfbd.org). Many Christian textbooks have been recorded by volunteers for Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic. The benefits are two-fold. A struggling reader is able to hear and process the content that he needs to learn, and by reading along while listening, he is strengthening his reading decoding and reading fluency skills.
It is relevant.
Identify the critical material that students must learn. Children with more significant disabilities may never be able to understand higher math, but we should recognize what their potential is and work to reach it and beyond. In order to be independent and less vulnerable, disabled students must at least know the value of money and how to make change. They need to tell time and know how to use it effectively. They should communicate as clearly and appropriately as possible with adults in various situations. Most importantly, they must know how to read and memorize God’s Word. We do not know God’s plans for these children, so it is critical that we equip them as best we can in the short amount of time that we have them in our classes.
How do we differentiate effectively?
Find out who your students are.
- Study past records (achievement test scores, psychological test results, IEPs from public school, grades, teacher comments, notes from family conferences, etc…).
- Assess reading levels and math skills early in the year.
- Pre-assess students before beginning new units to determine the skill level of students (use pre-tests included in some math and English curriculums).
- Do not just assign more work but more challenging work for advanced students.
- Adjust the challenge and variety of activities for students with disabilities. Research to get ideas from other teachers, books, and the internet.
What about tests?
Perhaps the greatest need of students with LD and ADHD is to modify the requirements for demonstrating what they have learned. Providing alternative means of demonstrating their knowledge is appropriate.” (Easom, 2007). The following are appropriate accommodations that may be made to tests:
- Allow students to highlight textbooks.
- Provide copies of notes and/or study guides (yours or a peer’s) for every chapter.
- Allow extended time for taking tests and completing projects.
- Provide a word bank for short answer sections.
- Limit multiple choice answers to only three choices.
- Read the test aloud and reword questions as necessary.
- Alter the test format.
- Limit the information to be tested.
- Allow re-takes on tests after re-teaching the material.
- Consider adding a few challenge problems for extra credit in order to allow gifted students to get a higher grade without frustrating the lower level learners.
- Recognize students who show improvement in their grades. Display a “BUG Roll” with the names of students who have improved in one letter grade in any subject area (without going down a letter grade in a different subject). Give these students the same perks and recognition that Honor Roll students receive (Winebrenner, 1996).
Remember that all disabilities are not visible outwardly. We are usually very quick to show understanding and patience to a child with an obvious disability, but sometimes we forget that children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Autism have the same difficulties. Creating a classroom that meets the needs of all levels of learners requires extra time, effort, wisdom, and compassion. God is honored by the love that you show these students by including them in Christian education, and your efforts will return a blessing not only to your students and their families, but to you personally. It is exciting to imagine how God will use us in the lives of these precious children. We must accept the responsibility of preparing each child to be used in whatever service God has designed for them.
Bos, C. S., & Vaughn, S. (1998). Strategies for teaching students with learning and behavior problems (4th ed.). Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon.
Easom, M., & Irwin, D. (2007). Serving learning disabled students in Christian schools: A program management manual for teachers and administrators. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs.
Heacox, D. (2002). Differentiating instruction in the regular classroom: how to reach and teach all learners, grades 3-12. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Pub..
Winebrenner, S., & Espeland, P. (1996). Teaching kids with learning difficulties in the regular classroom: strategies and techniques every teacher can use to challenge and motivate struggling students. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Pub..
Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn’t always equal: assessing & grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse Publishers.