Differentiated Learning

From my notes watching Bill Cope’s video this week.

Differentiated learning: each according to their interest and need. Every learner does not have to be on the same page at the same time, nor complete a task at the same pace; nor do they even need to be doing the same task.

A focus on knowledge production provides an opening to valorize local experiences and engage with varied identities.

Voices are distinctive, not (just) knowledge replication.

These are the concepts that struck me most.

I teach health informatics in graduate school. While all of my students have either a medical or paramedical background, they have varied work experiences from which they engage with the learning material I provide them. Some are nurses, others are doctors, pharmacists etc.

It is a challenge for a teacher like myself to ensure that the readings I assign will be appreciated by students no matter what background. Because of this, I ended up listing so many references. I told the students they didn’t have to read them all, but choose what they thought was applicable to them. Of course, the students told me later that they’d have to read them ALL after all before they can decide what was applicable. So that wasn’t helpful at all! Since then I’ve trimmed down the references I provide per topic to only three, all of which tend to be broad and introductory in nature. I inform the students they would have to find other references more specific to their needs. This has worked quite well.

As an example, when I ask my students “How can health information systems be sustainable in developing countries?” and ask them to create a mind map, I am able to see how they approach the question differently. One student takes the health policy viewpoint, while another creates a mind map from the point of view of a physician in private clinical practice, or that of a nurse in a government hospital.

How can teachers provide differentiated instruction? Carol Ann Tomlison enumerates four ways in What is Differentiated Instruction?

Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

Content – what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information;

Process – activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content;

Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and

Learning environment – the way the classroom works and feels.

Cathy Weselby enumerates the pros and cons of differentiated instruction here.

Pros
Research shows differentiated instruction is effective for high-ability students as well as students with mild to severe disabilities.

When students are given more options on how they can learn material, they take on more responsibility for their own learning.

Students appear to be more engaged in learning, and there are reportedly fewer discipline problems in classrooms where teachers provide differentiated lessons.

Cons
Differentiated instruction requires more work during lesson planning, and many teachers struggle to find the extra time in their schedule.

The learning curve can be steep and some schools lack professional development resources.

Critics argue there isn’t enough research to support the benefits of differentiated instruction outweighing the added prep time.

When we use learning management systems, these software collect data about our learners. These data can be used to provide differentiated instruction. Take a look at this fascinating video on the future of education if everyone had a personal tutor as Aristotle was for Alexander the Great.

To end, while differentiated instruction can be challenging, the rewards are definitely immensely satisfying for the teacher. One is able to see how every student is able to bring forth learning artifacts that reflect their distinct background and personality. That is a joy to see!

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