Diversity is a powerful and integral part of any classroom. Students come from a variety of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds and have their own learning styles, speeds, and strengths. The IB recognises that and seeks to promote inclusive education, embracing the learning differences of students and finding ways to make education accessible to everyone. However, if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in a classroom, IB or otherwise, you know how challenging the mission to differentiate can be. After all, you may be responsible for the education of over a hundred students, all of whom have their own unique academic needs. While there are dozens of them, there is only one of you. How can you be expected to keep up?
The Principles Behind Differentiation
Differentiated instruction is an educational philosophy that seeks to address individual student needs and adjust whole classroom instruction to meet those needs. It’s founded on the notion that one curriculum at one speed is not practical for a whole class. Inevitably, some students will fall behind, finding the pace of instruction too much for them.Others excel but find themselves unchallenged by the work.
Differentiated instruction asks teachers to develop adjusted teaching speeds and assignments to meet students where they are at. While most educators recognise the importance of addressing individual student needs, differentiating instruction sometimes seems to create more problems than it solves.
Not only do students learn at different rates, they learn in a variety of ways – from Kinaesthetic and Didactic learners to Visual learners. As a teacher, it’s increasingly challenging to recognise different learning styles, let alone accommodate them. This makes differentiation even more difficult.
The Challenge of Differentiation
We’ve already mentioned the obvious challenge this style of teaching presents for the teacher. After all, it’s easy to say “teach them where they’re at.” But it’s harder to do when “they” refers to multiple classes filled with students.
Some teachers have sought to differentiate instruction by providing tiered assignments that cater to every level. For example, students at a lower reading level may find themselves working on a reading packet significantly less challenging than the rest of the class. Students who need more of a challenge may find themselves doing extra work for a class project in order to earn the same grade. Many teachers favour these strategies because they are easier to do when handling a large roster of students.
Such strategies are in the spirit of differentiation, but they risk being labeled unfair. After all, they make allowances for students who aren’t performing at grade level, while seeming to punish motivated students with more work. Real differentiation does not alter what is required of students. It simply alters the path those students take to reach the same point.
Technology and Differentiation
True differentiation asks teachers to keep track of the progress of dozens of students, know those students’ strengths and weaknesses, and assign tasks to help those students address those specific strengths and weaknesses. Teachers must do this all while keeping educational standards universal within their classes.
Sounds impossible, right?
Fortunately, in the 21st century we have the tools we need to make it happen. Technology and software are making differentiated instruction easier than ever before. Dedicated programs can track individual student progress and make it visible to both the student and the teacher. They also allow students to pick up on assignments and projects exactly where they left off.
Some programs even tailor assessments to individual students, helping them practice the skills or subjects that they need to work the most on. Students are no longer completely at the mercy of a paced classroom; they are free to focus on where they are at in the material and what they need to do to move on.Teachers who use these technological tools to help inform classroom instruction will find it easier than ever to keep track of individual student progress. What’s more, they’ll be better able to spot trends and see which topics are most in need of classroom review on a broader scale.
At Kognity we aim to help teachers not only differentiate in their class but allows them to individualise their lessons and teaching style based on the needs of their students. Through Kognity, teachers continuously monitor each student’s progress and can pinpoint the areas that individuals need help in. By sending individual assignments that are automatically corrected, teachers can also in a time-effective way help students with their specific needs, and gain an insight into what parts of the theory need to be addressed in class. This very much ties into our belief that the concept of Flipping the Classroom is an effective way to differentiate teaching! By helping our teachers to differentiate we are allowing teachers to really hone in on each of their students and their specific needs.
Unfortunately, the only way to create the perfectly differentiated classroom is to assign an individual tutor to each and every student. However, technology can provide educators with the next best thing: an easy and efficient way to track progress, identify areas of need, and allow students to work at a pace that suits them. More and more tools are emerging to help teachers differentiate their teaching and we are likely to see many more emerge in the coming years, but the factor that impacts students grades has been and always will be great teaching!
What challenges to do you meet when trying to differentiate within your classroom?
Author: Abigail Bryant
Abi is Head of Support at Kognity, where she works closely with teachers and students getting them set up and ensuring their experience with Kognity is a great one. Previously she worked as an English teacher working with International Schools in South East Asia.