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?
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.
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:
“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.”
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:
“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.”