If you’ve been tutoring for any amount of time; if you, in fact, earn your living as a tutor and especially if you are a teacher who spends evenings and weekends tutoring, you are most likely familiar with the strategies of differentiated learning.
Perhaps you didn’t know that what you have been doing all this time actually has a formal name.
Teachers in one-room schools have been differentiating learning for centuries but that teaching method did not have a name until Carol Ann Tomlinson, American educator and spearhead of the differentiation initiative so christened it.
Now that the concept has been formalised; now that there are seminars and workshops and countless web pages, texts and books detailing the particulars of differentiation and how to differentiate, it is time for tutors to take a look at these techniques.
Together, we’ll examine facets of teaching and learning and differentiating instruction so you can measure what you’ve instinctively known as effective teaching against the learning activities carried out in a differentiated school classroom.
Differentiation of Instruction: What Does That Mean?
Historically, children in the appropriate age range would attend classes in one room, no matter if they were four or 14 years old – especially in rural areas.
Ireland still has several such schools!
The teacher would spend time educating the older, more knowledgeable students, and then the younger and finally the youngest, constantly dividing her time, attention and intellect as equally as possible between all of the groups.
No disrespect to male teachers intended; in those days, teachers were almost always female.
This practice of addressing students’ learning needs at their levels is the foundation of the differentiated learning philosophy – even if, back then, the differentiation was because of age groups rather than ranges of intellect and scholastic ability.
In the early 1900s, education boards initiated standardised testing. That concept was predicated on two beliefs:
- that all students learn the same way, and
- that all students of a given age should have acquired the same amount of knowledge.
So, based on those two popular ideas and the practise of teaching to age groups, our public education system was built.
Through the bureaucratising of education, another timeless practice flourished: private tutoring.
Tutors have been educating on an individualized basis for millennia. Since the time before great scholars such as Plato founded their schools, tutors have been invited into households to educate.
What Is most interesting is that, through the passage of thousands of years, teaching strategies have changed dramatically but the methodology of tutoring has not changed significantly.
- Tutors work with students one to one or in small groups
- Tutors modify their pedagogy to work with students’ learning styles and interests
- Tutors help students develop their thinking skills
- Tutors help their students formulate learning strategies
- Tutors create a supportive and engaging learning environment
- Tutors conduct an ongoing assessment, what is now known as a formative assessment of each student
Today, while schools bear scathing criticism for teaching to the test, private tutors continue their student-centred instructional strategies – all while helping their charges gain mastery of subject material in the preparation of said exams.
The dichotomy between these two educational practices could not be more pronounced: something has to give!
With more and more students calling on private tutors for everything from reading instruction to homework help, the Department for Education can’t help but notice that a change in classroom strategies is far overdue.
Coming to a School Near You: Differentiation Strategies
Schools all across the UK have passionate, knowledgeable teachers on their rolls.
In spite of tremendous pressure to show well through their students’ exam scores, they take the time to formulate exceptional lesson plans and maintain an active interest in their students’ lives, both in and out of school.
They are mindful of their responsibility toward their professional development while still managing to meet or exceed all of the student achievement targets set forth by our Department for Education.
To that end, everything from their lesson plan development to their classroom management is meant to provide their students with a superior learning experience, which invariably leads to student success.
Those teachers’ efforts are getting noticed and more educators are emulating them.
Could it be possible that a revolution in mainstream education, a license to differentiate instruction given to each educator that could ease the stress and burden our educators labour under today is forthcoming?
We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves...
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As of yet, there has been no mention of our schools implementing differentiated instruction strategies as a matter of policy. For now, it is up to individual teachers to employ a differentiation strategy in their classes.
What that means is that teachers may assign their students group work based on their learning styles.
They may assign their gifted students inquiry-based learning projects – a more complex exercise meant to challenge them on their intellectual level.
Conversely, their kinesthetic learners – those who learn best through physical activity may be tasked with project-based learning; building or making something to illustrate the concept at hand.
What about students with special learning needs? For those students, learning activities would target their strengths as well.
It’s long been the habit of educators to load their more advanced students with more work – not necessarily more challenging work, just more of it.
Meanwhile, those students with special education needs receive external help in various forms but are not necessarily absolved of the work that higher performing students are tasked with.
One size does not fit all when it comes to education.
Conscientious teachers have always known that this teaching model does not work well. It is these teachers who are changing their teaching methods. They are a shining example of what a teacher can accomplish.
How are they doing it?
They are clueing into the idea that multiple intelligences impact how a student learns and they are modifying their teaching strategies to address as many of them as they can.
The net result is a more inclusive learning environment for every student.
But if every student is suddenly able to keep up with his/her schoolwork and student achievement reaches levels before unseen in standardised education, what will be left for tutors to do?
Is Differentiation the Death Knell of Private Tutoring?
It would be a good bet that you did not become a tutor (or teacher) because it is a particularly lucrative venture.
Most likely, you yourself have a passion for learning and wish to impart it to as many other learners as possible. Logically, it follows that you will want to continue to tutor, come what may.
However, if, as supposed above, all students have their educational needs met through differentiation, wouldn’t that negate the purpose of private tutoring?
When it comes to working with students, individually or in a small group, the possibilities are endless.
Far from being mere dispensers of knowledge, tutors wear many hats.
Tutors are Mentors
Seldom does it happen that a tutor arrives for a learning session and only talks about the lesson at hand.
Usually, there is a conversation: about how the student has fared since the last tutoring session, if anything significant has happened to him/her unrelated to the lesson at hand...
Only after a few minutes of putting the student at ease does the tutor broach what new material s/he has been exposed to and his/her understanding of such. After that, the actual review and study begin with the tutor guiding his pupil to optimal learning strategies.
Tutors know that external factors can impact a student’s ability to absorb and retain knowledge. That is the reason for these interviews.
In the language of differentiation: tutors conduct formative assessments of their pupils.
Tutors as Confidantes
Students may not tell their parents or any of the authority figures at school that they’ve been bullied but there is a good chance they’d confide in their tutor.
Conversely, whereas a teacher may not have time to delve into the interests of each student, a tutor makes time to discover what his/her students like and don’t like – and then applies that information to lesson planning.
In the parlance of differentiated instruction, this is called pre-assessment.
Tutors as Academic Coaches
As more teachers jump on the differentiation bandwagon, more tutors are turning toward their fulfiling their role as coaches rather than supplemental teachers.
An academic coach focuses on helping students develop their own learning strategies as well as minimising stress. Their techniques range from showing students how to keep their study area and materials organised to planning a study schedule.
They also help students develop higher order thinking skills and teach them to conceptualise.
Academic coaching is another example of a tutor’s function that is enjoying new attention and focus. And, if differentiated instruction does become the norm in classrooms across the country, coaching may well become a tutor’s primary function!
All things considered, you may rest assured that curriculum development tailored to students’ learning processes is not exactly around the corner.
That means that your desire to pass on your love of learning will not soon be supplanted by any DfE policy - if it ever could be!
On the other hand, as formal education strategies evolve, you too would have to examine your role in students’ learning and perhaps embrace one that, till now, you’ve considered incidental.
Nevertheless, all of the roles that tutors play are vital to students’ success – so don’t count yourself out too quickly!
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