The premise of teaching used to be simple. The teacher had knowledge s/he was tasked to impart; the students must acquire that knowledge and demonstrate mastery through periodic exams.
Since the 15th century, when the Aztecs implemented the first universal compulsory education system, learning has been treated as a one-size-fits-all proposition.
If you are this age, you should be capable of understanding these concepts and performing those tasks.
Early educational philosophies did not take into account socioeconomic differences, any particular ability or disability to learn on the students’ part, and certainly paid no mind to learning preferences - all factors which have been shown to impact a student's ability to learn.
Gender was a factor in formulating educational standards, but only with regard to how much schooling female students would be exposed to and what subjects they would study.
Male or female, conformity was the order of the day and if students could not adapt and learn, they were generally held to blame.
So what if you couldn’t read, didn’t understand arithmetic and your writing was illegible? It was all your fault; you just weren’t working hard enough!
This educational philosophy did not change significantly until the mid- to late-twentieth century, when great leaps were made in understanding how both the human brain works and how people absorb knowledge.
Now we’re seeing a revolution in pedagogy, one that inevitably empowers students by addressing their multiple intelligences in a learning environment designed to encourage them to thrive.
Certainly, these changes are a boon for students of every type; the onus is on the teachers to break away from the traditional model and embrace new teaching methods.
How hard can it be?
Superprof wades into the fray. We’ll talk about the misconceptions that shroud traditional teaching and the differentiated model, cover the premise of both methodologies and draw our conclusions.
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Humans are hardwired to respect authority – that is no misconception; it is a fact.
For as long as there have been teachers, those beings have been considered all-knowing, especially by younger students. And don’t parents encourage their young learners to listen to and obey Teacher?
Don’t parents all urge their students to ask their teacher any questions they might have about their homework, or if something is not clear?
Because surely, that worthy is the authority on their subject matter... right?
Common Misconceptions about Traditional Teachers
Are teachers all-knowing? No, they are fallible, just like any other human.
Obviously, teachers have extensive knowledge of their subject matter.
That doesn't mean that they are the absolute authority on it - unless they are well-published and have conducted extensive research into their particular field, as Carol Ann Tomlinson has (she is the authority on how to differentiate).
Another popular misconception is that teachers impart knowledge. If we accept the definition of 'impart' as 'pass on information', then in fact, that is exactly what teachers do.
The misconception is the idea that the information the teacher communicates will be received, understood and assimilated to its fullest degree.
The accepted proof that the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student has been successful is high marks on examinations.
If an entire class scores particularly well on exams, that teacher is generally thought to be exceptional, regardless of any background information that might impact students’ efforts, such as working with a tutor and how much effort s/he put into mastering it outside of class.
Perhaps because of its relative newness as a teaching strategy, there is plenty of misconception about differentiation.
It is individualised instruction: not true.
Teachers would drive themselves mad trying to teach each of their 30+ students individually!
Differentiated instruction does involve some individual attention but by no means would teachers be called on to work with each student one on one.
Whole group learning is still very much a facet of differentiated learning, as are small groups – as long as group work is complemented by learning activities that promote mastery.
Differentiated learning is student-led: not true.
Students do not choose the curriculum or select topics – that remains the teacher’s function. However, students are accorded a measure of input on how they receive instruction and work with it.
By no means are we suggesting anarchy in the classroom or that you cater to your students’ every whim.
Students may propose ideas for work and learning activities but, ultimately, it is the teacher’s responsibility to exercise classroom management and determine students’ workload.
Some education professionals read about differentiated instruction and think it must be a magic bullet to solve all of the problems inherent in our educational system.
Unfortunately, that too is not true.
Differentiating instruction is a step in the right direction on many levels but it does not provide an easy solution to the challenge of educating learners of all types.
What, exactly, is differentiated instruction, then?
We all know that the traditional educator dispenses information and that students’ demonstrate mastery through homework assignments and periodic exams.
We also know that summative assessment – exams at the end of a learning unit, a semester and indeed at the end of one’s primary and secondary stages of education are not necessarily the best indicators of student achievement.
Differentiation of instruction calls for formative assessment, meaning that teachers maintain an ongoing evaluation of student performance that allows adapting learning materials to students’ potential.
It sounds like a lot of work but, once you have gathered all of the background knowledge you need about your students – their learning style, their competencies and interests, it will be very easy to notice and record their progress.
In a differentiated classroom, learning is facilitated – as opposed to students being taught.
In effect, the traditional teaching model calls for students to essentially be passive in their learning.
Differentiated instructional strategies require students to take an active part in their education – not just by completing assignments and sitting exams but by having a measure of input on how they learn and what work is required of them.
Find out how deeply differentiated instruction impacts students' learning...
Historically, teaching has been a one-way communication: Teacher talks, students listen and, hopefully, learn.
How many of you have had a teacher who, when asked a question, directed you to read your textbook and find the answer yourself?
The lecture style of teaching has its merits. Just ask university professors who may have more than 100 students in class at one time. For mature learners who know how to learn, attending lectures and taking notes is a very effective way of picking up new information.
Primary and secondary school students do not yet understand their learning methodology so it is up to their mentors – their teachers to show them how.
And that’s what differentiated instruction is really about: teaching students how to learn.
Whereas traditional lesson plans call for teachers to do a lot of talking and involved little to no student engagement, differentiation demands student-centred learning.
In fact, the teacher does not take centre stage at all. Students are assigned:
- Project-based learning, which involves students working together to complete a curriculum-related project,
- Inquiry-based learning, when groups of students are given questions to answer or scenarios to resolve
- Problem-based learning, in which students learn by solving open-ended problems.
In such classroom activities, the teacher’s job is to circulate from group to group, posing questions designed to encourage students to come up with solutions on their own.
Through these activities as well as cooperation with others, students learn to challenge their own intellect, making learning an activity in itself.
Meanwhile, the teacher has plenty of time for curriculum development and to observe their students’ learning processes.
What does differentiating in the classroom leave for tutors to do?
We all know the outcome of traditional teaching strategies. As passionate and knowledgeable as teachers can be, those qualities still don’t guarantee those students will gain mastery – or even a deep understanding of their subject material.
That uncertainty is evidenced through test anxiety; a very real phenomenon that affects a surprising number of students. One of the primary causes of test anxiety is feeling unprepared for such an assessment even after having done plenty of studying prior to the exam.
What is the outcome of differentiated teaching?
Because it is a student-centered learning initiative rather than a direct instruction model, those prospective test takers have gained an understanding by design.
Nobody told them what to think of the subject matter; through a variety of means, they found how to think about it by themselves.
They have gained a thorough understanding of the material on their terms and in their own way, meaning that, in the course of their learning, they also gained empowerment.
Isn’t student empowerment the ultimate goal of effective teaching?
Now calling on every teacher who wants to make a difference in their students’ lives and learning:
Would you incorporate differentiation strategies in your classroom if it meant different learning styles you have been tasked to teach were all addressed?
If your gifted students were assigned classwork more in tune with their intellect than their age group, and your lesson planning allowed for even your SEN students to keep up with the curriculum?
Of course you would!
Now discover the ultimate in differentiating education!