Parents frequently express admiration for the skill of their child’s teachers, and wonder how they manage to cope under sometimes difficult circumstances.
I’ve therefore decided to write a short series about how teachers cope with the some of the conditions that they meet every day in their classrooms.
click here First, how do teachers manage to teach a class of children who have a wide range of individual learning needs?
Historically, we need only go back a few decades to a time when teachers did not have the skills to ‘differentiate’ (that is the term used for it) for the learning needs of every child in the class. Some schools tried to account for differences by ‘streaming’ children into separate classes or groups according to ‘ability’. This was a crude device, not based on research evidence, that may have suited some teachers (many others knew better!) but did not meet the children’s needs.
Today, in many classrooms teachers have learned the essential knowledge and skills needed to accommodate for different needs in order to enable every child to succeed. The skills of differentiation are one of the hallmarks of a great teacher.
There are different models of planning for differentiation, and below I will summarize just one. Like all models it is based upon the fact that the teacher knows how each of her students learns, and that she also has a deep knowledge of the curriculum.
The planning model for a unit of lessons works as follows:
- The teacher sets the same high expectations for every child. The learning goals are the same for all. No child is ‘written off’ as incapable. (Just imagine how you would feel if that child being ‘written off’ was your own son or daughter!)
- Every child’s final work is assessed against the same criteria. The teacher wants every child to acquire the same deep knowledge.
- Children may be allowed to demonstrate their understanding in different ways. The teacher may give the children two or three ways to show that they have understood what they have been expected to learn. This won’t always happen; for example, sometimes the teacher may ask every child to write an essay or draw an annotated diagram. But consider this: if a child is just learning to speak English, how can the teacher expect him to write an essay to show that he has understood? There are countless reasons why children may benefit from having a choice of ways to show that they have understood. But all children are expected –eventually – to meet the same criteria!
- When the teacher first introduces the students to the subject to be learned the teacher may give them a choice of initial learning activities. Not always, but sometimes. The skill of the teacher lies in knowing where and when to give the students a ‘menu’ of learning activities and choose the one they prefer.
That’s how teachers plan for differentiation. If this is the first time you have seen this model, you may have noticed that the end (the learning goal) comes first! That’s not a mistake: it is called ‘backward planning’. It’s the same process, for example, that athletes, generals and company directors use: they all start by visualizing the desired result.
There are some circumstances in which the classroom teacher’s differentiation skills may not be sufficient, for example in the case of a child with very severe learning or physical needs. In such cases specialist teaching and support may be required. But increasingly, children with even the most severe needs are being integrated into the same schools and classrooms as their peers.
One last point: you may think that your child’s teacher does not differentiate for your own child’s learning needs. However, maybe the teacher is doing this but hasn’t told you about it. Just ask!
P.S. if you’d like to find out more about how teachers differentiate in their classrooms, you could refer to the work of the following experts: Carol Ann Tomlinson, Jay McTighe, Ochan Kusuma-Powell and William Powell. There are many others, but these will be a great place to start.