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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 2000 Issue #68 

Differentiated Classrooms
Jodi Tuttle
, Director
Academy at Cedar Mountain
(877) 723-3729

Is it necessary to place students in a track to teach to the level of each student? Must students be sent to specific types of private schools where each school focuses on a certain kind of student, such as bright academic achievers, low achievers, or learning disabled student? There are an increasing number of people who don’t believe it is necessary to separate students into differing groups or to label students in order for them to reach their full potential. These people are meeting the challenge of working with students of differing intelligences by altering teaching strategies in the classroom.

We now know that intelligence is variable, thanks to the work done by Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg, who showed that intelligence is multifaceted and Sylwester & Caine, who demonstrated that intelligence is fluid, not fixed. Gardner suggests that humans have eight intelligences: verbal-linquistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical- rhythmic, interpersonal, and naturalistic. Sternberg adds to our understanding of intelligences by explaining that we have three kinds of intelligences: analytical, practical, and creative. Each of these intelligences can serve as a context for describing a variety of gifts that lie within students or that can be developed in students.

Caine’s work in brain and learning research has shown how providing children with rich learning experiences can amplify their intelligence, and denying them richness can diminish their intelligence. His research also demonstrates how neurons grow and develop when actively used and atrophy when not used.

How then, can teachers effectively develop these various intelligences in their students and meet their differing needs? The answer lies in providing a teaching concept known as differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instruction, the model used at The Academy at Cedar Mountain, is a teaching philosophy based on the premise that teachers should adapt instruction to student differences. Rather than marching students through the curriculum in lockstep, teachers modify their instruction to meet students’ varying readiness levels, learning preferences, and interests. In her book, The Differentiated Classroom, Carol Tomlinson shows that teachers can differentiate three aspects of the curriculum: content, process, and product. She explains that content refers to the basic concepts, principles, and skills that a teacher wants all students to learn. Each student in the classroom would be introduced to the same core content. Tomlinson believes that all students should be taught the same ideas as their classmates, not a watered down version of content. Content also refers to the methods teachers use to give access to skills and knowledge, though teachers might vary these methods. A teacher might provide an advanced learner with complex texts, Web sites, and experts to interview, while she would provide a more modest ability student with reading buddies, videos, demonstrations, and “organizers that help make information more accessible.”

Process includes activities that assist students to make sense of the ideas or skills being taught. These activities can be modified to meet the needs of differing students. Some students may be provided activities that are more complex, while others would be provided more scaffolding, depending on their readiness levels. Examples of scaffolding might include step-by-step directions, reteaching, or providing additional models. Process, like content is varied according to student interest and learning preferences.

Product refers to the final projects that students produce in order to demonstrate and extend what they have learned. Product tells us whether students can apply the learning beyond the classroom to solve problems or to take action. Students with different learning styles and intelligences can create different products, based on their readiness levels, interests and learning preferences.

Teachers in differentiated classrooms provide specific ways for each individual to learn as deeply and quickly as possible. They hold students to high standards and work diligently to ensure that struggling, advanced, and mid-ability students think and work hard, achieve more and come to believe that learning involves effort, risk, and personal triumph. These teachers use time flexibly, use a variety of instructional strategies, and become partners with students to see that the learning environment, and what is learned, are shaped by the learner. Although differentiated classrooms embody common sense, they still can be difficult to achieve.

Yes, this is a challenging process for the teachers. But, we ask, “What is the alternative?” We believe that it is even a tougher challenge to deal with the spillover of emotional and behavioral problems resulting from students who are either bored or frustrated as a result of being inserted into a one-size-fits-all classroom when the “fit” is inadequate. We believe that when students work at their appropriate level, pursuing their own interests and learning preferences, then they are more likely to remain engaged in the process and will progress more rapidly. In a differentiated classroom environment, bright students are no longer bored and struggling students have the opportunity to enhance their self-efficacy. Differentiated classrooms feel right to students who learn in different ways, at different rates and who bring to school different talents, interests and intelligences.

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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