Differentiated Instruction: Meeting Individual Needs

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The United States has always been a country of immigrants. Today, it is one of the most diverse countries in the world in term of origin and ethnics. As a result, the American schools also become much more diverse. With classrooms that are becoming increasingly diverse educators and researchers are looking for ways to teach so that all students can learn effectively. As a response to the failing of one-size-fit-all teaching approach, differentiated instruction is a paradigm. The model is a new approach that has a vision of success for students by recognizing and addressing the variance in learning styles and abilities. This paper is an analysis of literature in this area to present why we need differentiated instruction, the underlying philosophy, as well as practical implementations of the idea to meet individual needs.

Why Differentiated Instruction?

Back in the early 1900s, Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, has paved the road for differentiated instruction by his social constructivist learning theory. Since the theory became popular, school administrator, educators, and researcher has viewed the theory as an essential to instructional to instructional enhancement, classroom change and redevelopment (Flem, Moen, & Gudmundsdottir, 2000;More here). From the work of Vygotsky follwed by Wertsch, sociocultural theory has significant implications for teaching, schooling and education (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). This theory is based on the premise that the individual learner must be studied within a particular social and cultural context. Such situatedness is necessary for the development of higher order functions, and such functions can only be acquired and cultivated following social interaction. Social interaction is therefore fundamental to the development of cognition. Furthermore, as a departure from other theories regarding cognition, Vygotsky's theory views education as an ongoing process, not a product (Riddle & Dabbagh, 1999). Vygotsky's zone of proximal developmentr efers to a level of development attained when learners engage in social behaviour (Blanton, 1998; Kearsley, 2005; Riddle & Dabbagh, 1999; Scherba de Valenzuela, 2002). The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a connection between what is known to what is unknown (Riddle & Dabbagh, 1999). In order to develop the ZPD, learners must actively interact socially with a knowledgeable adult or capable peers (Blanton, 1998; Kearsley, 1996; Riddle & Dabbagh, 1999). A student can only progress to the ZPD, and consequently independent learning if he/she is first guided by a teacher or expert (Blanton, 1998; Kearsley, 2005; Riddle & Dabbagh, 1999; Rueda et al., 1992). Accordingly, responsive instruction acknowledges what the learner already knows, before a new skill is taught or new knowledge introduced (MacGillivray & Rueda, 2001. Aligned with this theory, differentiated instruction offers students the options of moving on to more complex material and offers teachers a more dynamic, facilitating role. These offers create a purposeful learning environment that maximizes opportunities for meaningful learning.

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Another theory to support differentiated instruction is Howard Gardner's theory of the multiple intelligences which is a departure from the view that intelligence is a single, measurable unit (Gardner, 1999). Gardner's theory focuses on eight intelligences, while highlighting the need for problem-solving (Campbell, Campbell, & Dickinson, 1999). An instructional program that relies heavily on only one type of intelligence limits the effectiveness of learning for students who may not possess a propensity to learn in this way (Gardner, 1999). Students who do not achieve in the traditional way might become lost to both the school and the community at large. The multiple intelligences are tools for learning and problem solving. Creating opportunities for all students, by enriching the classroom through a variety of techniques and assessment forms, help develop and bring out their strengths (Campbell et al., 1999; Gardner, 1999; Green, 1999).

Philosophy of Differentiated Instruction

Tomlinson, a leading expert in this field, defines differentiated instruction as a philosophy of teaching that is based on the premise that students learn best when their teachers accommodate the differences in their readiness levels, interests and learning profiles. One of the main objectives of differentiated instruction is to take full advantage of every student's ability to learn (Tomlinson, 2001a, 2001c, 2004c, 2005). In addition, she points out that differentiating can be performed in a variety of ways, and if teachers are willing to use this philosophy in their classrooms, they will be opting for a more effective practice that responds to the needs of diverse learners (Tomlinson, 2000a, 2005).

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Differentiated instruction reflects Vygotsky's socio-cultural theory, the main tenet of which lies in the social, interaction relationship between teacher and student. Tomlinson (2004c) points out that the teacher is the professional in the classroom, an individual who has been suitably trained to mentor and lead her wards, using appropriate techniques, assisting each to reach their potential within the learning context. Teachers are legally and ethically bound to be the expert leading the child to full development (Lawrence-Brown, 2004; Tomlinson, 2004c). The learner, in responding to the teacher's prompting, seeks to be independent and self-sufficient, striving for greater awareness of their skills, abilities and ideas, taking increasing responsibility for their lives and their learning (Lawrence-Brown, 2004; Tomlinson, 2004c). The relationship between student and teacher is clearly reciprocal, the responsibility for development becoming a shared endeavour (Tomlinson, 2004c). In addition, the difficulty of skills taught should be slightly in advance of the child's current level of mastery, linking with the Vygotsky's zone of proximal development.

Differentiated instruction presents a mean to address variance of learners and avoids the pitfalls of the one-size-fits-all curriculum incorporates current research into the workings of the human brain (Tomlinson, 2001c; Tomlinson & Kalbfleisch, 1998; Tuttle, 2000). Differentiated instruction is a also a mean to support the 14 multiple intelligences and varying learning styles (Lawrence-Brown, 2004; Tuttle, 2000). Differentiation can liberate students from labels, offering students individual opportunities to perform at their best (Tomlinson, 2003). Teachers opting for differentiation find that they can use time and resources flexibly and creatively, assisting to create an atmosphere of collaboration in the classroom (Tuttle, 2000). Hess (1999) reports that as an added bonus, differentiation can be an engaging experience for teachers as it involve a different kind of energy compared to direct instruction.