Classroom Differentiation: One Teacher, One Class, Many Learning Styles. Is It Doable?

There are 22 students in your class.

Some sit still and listen. Others doodle, tap their desktops, or talk to their neighbors. One boy is in and out of his seat, looking out the window, checking out something on a bookshelf, or simply changing positions. Some students pay more attention when you write and draw on the whiteboard; others when you talk, move around the room and use gestures. Some learn more by reading, but they read at different levels. One little girl is very smart, but only seems to soak up knowledge in a one-on-one situation.

All these children need to learn the same material. What’s a teacher to do?

This is Differentiation:

The reality that everyone in your classroom has a mix of different learning styles. It makes sense in a vast, we-are-all-individuals way, but it often can feel like an impediment when you’re just trying to get a concept across to an entire class at once. Add in the probability that you may have students with ADHD or special needs, that some students may not be English-proficient, and that others may come from a difficult home situation, and you have a classroom filled with challenges. Daily.

“Teachers in differentiated classes use time flexibly, call upon a range of instructional strategies, and become partners with their students so that both what is learned and the learning environment are shaped to support the learner and learning,” writes Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor and author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners,” (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2nd edition). “They do not force-fit learners into a standard mold; these teachers are students of their students. They are diagnosticians, prescribing the best possible instruction based on both their content knowledge and their emerging understanding of students’ progress in mastering critical content.” Tomlinson’s career includes 21 years as a public school teacher; she was Virginia’s Teacher of the Year in 1974.

Everyone Learns in Unique Ways

Understanding that students have different learning styles is part science, part common sense; the term simply means that each student approaches, takes in and sorts information in the ways that make the most sense to his or her brain. Among the most prominent documented learning styles are:

  • Visual (spatial): A student most responds to pictures or visual images
  • Aural (auditory-musical): A student most responds to sound and music
  • Verbal (linguistic): A student most responds to words (both written and spoken)
  • Physical (kinesthetic): A student most responds by using the body, hands and touch
  • Logical (mathematical): A student most responds by using reasoning and systems
  • Social (interpersonal): A student most responds to learning in groups
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): A student most responds to learning on his or her own.

“Most educators agree that differentiated instruction can dramatically help students to succeed,” writes Lina Raffaelli for Edutopia, “but good differentiation needs careful planning to make sure students of all abilities are engaged, and it can be a challenge when teachers are already so pressed for time.”

What Do I Do In the Classroom?

So does this mean that a lesson plan must be presented in several different ways? Yes, and no. It means that a successful teacher will stay conscious of students’ different learning styles and incorporate aspects that will help different students access the material. Different sets of reading-comprehension questions can cover varied aspects of a book. An assignment can be made adaptive, getting harder or easier based on the student’s performance. Students can be grouped by strengths and weaknesses to work through material together.

Teachers offered the following strategies:

  • Use student surveys: Survey students on their interests and hobbies. You can tie subject matter in with some of the topics – math with sports statistics, history with food and culture. With the right questions, your students’ answers can help you separate them into learning groups.
  • Create project-based learning: When success is based on the outcome and not necessarily the journey taken to get there, students can move at their own pace.
  • Stimulate the senses: Can a subject be taught in a way that incorporates more than one sense at a time? Can it be visual, auditory and kinesthetic?
  • Use time in your favor: By adding “extension” tasks onto an assignment for quicker students, those who complete work more slowly will have the time they need.
  • Give students a choice: If there are multiple ways to complete an assignment and reach a goal, students will respond by picking the paths that most appeal to them.
  • Pick your priorities: Focus. “My answer is to not try to cover it all,” says teacher Scott Gunderson. “Choose the essential standards for your course and hit them very hard from multiple perspectives and with engaging activities and appropriate practice. Expect mastery of the core material from all students, but be reasonable. This to me is the heart of differentiation: challenge each student appropriately and engagingly.”

“Differentiation” has only been a formal education term for a couple of decades; teachers have naturally looked for ways to teach students of varying skill levels and aptitudes since schools first began. But in an era when standardized testing and core-concept learning is critical, appealing to different students’ most productive methods of learning just makes sense.

“There is no single “right way” to create an effectively differentiated classroom; teachers craft responsive learning places in ways that match their own personality and approach to teaching,” Tomlinson writes.

Dominican University understands this.

“Classroom management is one of the biggest challenges teachers face. Teachers enrolled in our classroom management courses can expect to gain a greater understanding of their teaching style, which is a step to success. Teachers will explore various leadership styles and their effectiveness.

“Since everybody perceives the world differently, information has to be presented in a variety of ways. Numerous methods should be used to process and present information, as each person has a unique way of connecting new information to what they already know.”