“All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think.” —Sir Ken Robinson
Elementary school learners generally vary greatly in their learning readiness, their interests, and their learning profiles, as Carol Ann Tomlinson, William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, has explained.
Teachers understand the different challenges each learner may need to master to thrive and sustain their intrinsic motivation to discover the world around them. Here are strategies to differentiate instruction in any one or all of four areas to successfully meet learners where they are.
This area refers to the concepts, competencies, and information that children need to learn or develop. One effective path to differentiation is to use a KWL chart and display it in the classroom for everyone to see. This chart has three columns: What I Know, What I Want to Know, and What I Have Learned.
The chart might have another column, for KWHL: “How to learn” about the topics or questions in the second column, What I Want to Know.
As learners work to complete this chart, their developmental and learning needs will become visible to the teacher and themselves, giving teachers the information they need to design a suitable learning process.
This is how the learners will work in order to learn the content (concepts, competencies, and information) in a meaningful way.
One possible strategy might be to group learners according to the content they want to learn and plan different activities on the topic at hand using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a reference. Some learners, therefore, will be working on understanding the topic and remembering some key vocabulary, while others may be working on analyzing or evaluating different aspects of the same topic.
At the same time, there might be other learners creating documents, dialogues, or even games based on the knowledge they had and the new knowledge they’ve learned to answer the questions they have set in the KWL chart. As a result, the teacher will be working with one broad topic but will allow learners to meet the challenges they’re ready to face and to develop the skills that will make it possible for the learners to succeed.
In this area, differentiation is possible by varying how the learners will show they’ve learned the content (concepts, competencies, and information), through applying the learned knowledge and even extending that content.
The teacher will need to let go of some control and allow learners to show their learning through a wide diversity of evidence of achievement, and then invite the learners to use different resources such as a game, a dramatic play, a poster exhibition, or a podcast, according to the learning process they went through.
Teachers can use different learning contexts to invite learners to participate in the learning process. Teachers need to offer all learners a safe and motivating context, designed or chosen according to the learner’s previous knowledge, the content areas each learner is willing to learn more about, and the skills the learners need to develop. The learning context might be in person or virtual.
As an example, here’s a plan for a first-grade (6-to-7-year-olds) class of 27 learners.
The content: While the learners were in class, one learner spotted an ant and asked, “Why do ants come into the classroom?” Immediately many learners provided possible answers:
- Because they are cold
- Because they are looking for food
- Because they are lost
- Because they are lonely
The teacher then started a KWL chart. As many of the learners didn’t read or write yet, the KWL was created with drawings and one or two words. Then, as a group, they decided how they could gather information to answer that first question, and some possible research routes were designed:
- Ask parents, grandparents, or caregivers
- Ask a veterinarian, later changed to a biology teacher
- Ask the teacher next door
- Ask older students
- Google it
The teacher divided the children into groups to start the research. All the groups worked at school under the guidance of the teacher, but the children were invited to ask their parents, caregivers, or grandparents at home. The different groups were in charge of different tasks.
Group one (learners who had developed writing skills): In charge of writing down the ideas from the class for the questions to ask a veterinarian, later a biology teacher.
Group two (learners who needed to develop social skills together with strong-skilled learners): Preparing the interviews of the teacher next door and older students.
Group three: Looking for information on Google or YouTube.
Group four: Searching for information in science books—strong and developing readers were grouped together.
Group five: Organizing the information gathered and displaying it on the bulletin board.
This is how it all started. The groups were reorganized after this first stage of collecting information, and new paths of learning were designed.
When learners feel they are all being considered in the learning process, they’re open to walking the path of developing and growing. They know they will fail sometimes, but their peers and caring adults will be there to help them move on steadily.