Underpinnings of Differentiated Instruction
According to Tomlinson (2005), teachers could differentiate their classrooms in four aspects, namely learning environment, content, process, and product. The following sections elaborate on the strategies under each aspect.
The learning environment encompasses classroom learning routines, classroom settings, and the classroom learning atmosphere created through the interaction between students and teachers. Ways to construct an effective differentiated learning environment include: making each student feel recognised, welcomed, and respected; building students’ sense of belonging to the class through varied activities; balancing challenges and psychological safety for each student; providing students with individualised attention and follow-up support; encouraging students’ assumption of responsibility for their own personal growth; sharing responsibility for teaching and learning with students, and demonstrating flexibility with classroom learning routines and pedagogical resources; (Tomlinson, 2001; Tomlinson, 2005; Santangelo & Tomlinson, 2012).
Content refers to what is being taught, for instance: facts, concepts, skills, and the ways students access that information. Content differentiation could be implemented in two approaches: adjusting the content, or modifying the ways students access the content. Content could be adjusted according to students’ readiness levels, interests and learning profiles, with the aim of matching teaching materials to their abilities to understand the content. For example, texts at different reading levels could be provided, and the pace of teaching could be adjusted in response to individual student’s needs. Furthermore, content could be differentiated by linking the core components of a curriculum with students’ interests, such as using materials or examples that demonstrate the interests and life experience of students. Students’ ways of accessing information could be influenced by cognitive styles, intelligence, cultural backgrounds or genders. For instance, some students are visual or auditory learners, whereas some students are kinaesthetic learners. Some students tend to understand a concept from theory to example, whereas others from example to theory. (Tomlinson, 2001; Tomlinson, 2005; Santangelo & Tomlinson, 2012).
Process could be conceptualised as “sense-making” activities that create opportunities for students to understand, acquire, and internalise content. According to students’ different readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles, teachers could differentiate process in the following ways: (i) providing students with analytical, practical, and creative tasks that lead to the same learning outcomes; (ii) providing students with clear and specific task directions and flexible time arrangements; (iii) designing tiered activities and supplementary materials; (iv) allowing multiple options for students to explore learning content; (v) encouraging students to work together or independently and grouping students according to students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles; (vi) providing students with a systematic learning structure through examples, peer tutoring, mini-workshops, and personalised feedback; (vii) encouraging students to suggest other learning modes and to co-design learning tasks (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2018; Tomlinson, 2003, 2017; Tomlinson & Allan, 2000; Tomlinson & Eidson, 2003; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010; Tomlinson & Moon, 2013; Westman, 2018).
Product refers to the way students demonstrate learning. Effective product display should facilitate students to rethink, apply, and extend what they have learned. In the process of differentiated instruction, product display could be adjusted according to students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles. Some methods include allowing students to use varied formats to express their knowledge, understanding, and skills, using tiered products and varied resource as options to cater for different students’ readiness, interests, and difficulties in tasks; encouraging students to work independently or in groups to display products; making effective use of homogeneous or heterogeneous grouping in accordance with students’ readiness, interests, or learning profiles; guiding students to develop their products with clear directions and flexible timing; providing various scaffolding such as tutoring, workshops, and worked samples for students’ reference; developing tasks and assignments that enable students from different cultural backgrounds and experience to express their perspectives; setting rubrics or benchmarks based on both grade-level expectations and individuals’ learning needs; allowing students to set personal goals for their products; and suggesting ways for product display when appropriate (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2018; Tomlinson, 2003, 2017; Tomlinson & Allan, 2000; Tomlinson & Eidson, 2003; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010; Tomlinson & Moon, 2013; Westman, 2018).
- Santangelo, T. & Tomlinson, C. A. (2012) Teacher Educators’ Perceptions and Use of Differentiated Instruction Practices: An Exploratory Investigation. Action in Teacher Education, 34:4, 309-327.
- Sousa, D. A. & Tomlinson, C. A. (2018). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom (2nd Edition). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
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