Differentiation: How Classrooms Should Cater for All

Education has the potential to serve a select few while neglecting others. This is because students of different backgrounds, abilities, and personalities possess a range of learning styles and respond differently depending on the approach taken by the teacher. From those who struggle the most with learning to gifted learners who can become bored and agitated, every child poses a unique challenge for their teacher. To overcome this, teachers should focus on differentiation.

Differentiation means diversifying your curriculum and approach in the classroom so that it promotes the highest education standards for all students. Teaching should be dynamic, adaptable, and responsive to the needs of learners. It should be inclusive and accessible so that all students have an equal opportunity to flourish.

The Role of Labels

The inclusion of labelling in teaching strategies is the subject of fierce debate, with strong arguments on both sides. On the one hand, attaching a label to a student singles them out and may draw negative attention to them. By attaching the label of autism or ADHD to a student, you may be unconsciously branding them with a range of negative presuppositions. Other students may view this learner as slow, easily distracted, unsocial, or just plain naughty.

Understandably, many students do not want to be labelled. To define something is to limit it so to define a student as having a disability is to limit them; to suggest they can’t achieve what others can. As a result, many teachers choose to throw out labels altogether. Students are equal, though diverse, individuals. They all have the potential to succeed academically and a label only exists to hinder them.

On the other hand, labels have their uses. If a teacher is to use differentiation to improve education standards in the classroom, then they need to understand the unique requirements of students. Being aware that a pupil has autism, ADHD, or any other learning impairment means that a teacher is able to adapt their approach in the classroom to help this student reach their best possible academic performance. Rather than viewing labels as limiting, governments and schools should work to remove the negative stigma of labels and view them as an opportunity for increased understanding.

In terms of legislative requirements, there should be legal protections for the equal treatment of all students, regardless of whether they have a learning disability. Differentiation should be encouraged but discrimination should lead to serious repercussions. Children who show any prejudice towards differently-abled students should also face harsh punishments so that we can create an inclusive learning environment.

Teachers should dedicate some of their classroom time to educating about and understanding disabilities. It must be taught that no student is better than any other but all have unique learning requirements. It’s important to highlight the strengths that children with disabilities possess and to focus on these rather than weaknesses. Beyond this, teachers themselves must understand the different impairments that exist in their classroom and be able to adapt their curriculum and lesson plans accordingly.

In order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of disabled students, I would make it a rule that all labels are kept anonymous. No student would be forced to reveal whether they have a disability. Each week, we’d have lessons on inclusive, respect, and understanding, so that students are educated and informed about the topic. The school must take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and prejudice.

How I Approach Differentiation

It is important to understand the diverse range of challenges faced by teachers in the classroom. In my class, I will be tasked with educating children with differences in the following characteristics:

  • Culture: I’ll need to be aware of differences in behaviour according to culture. For instance, on Ramadan, a Muslim student my be fasting during the day and I’ll need to design a schedule that fits in with their meal times.

  • Language: My classroom contains students who are not native English speakers. I’ll have to modify my language so it can be understood by all and ensure this student has access to an online translator tool.

  • Social and emotional skills: Some of my students are underdeveloped in understanding the emotions of others. They will get extra teaching time for learning these social skills. I will be careful not to punish a student for behaving in a way that seems rude but instead gently foster their potential to be more socially and emotionally aware.

  • Cognitive and physical ability: Although I am reluctant to attach labels to students, I will ensure I’m up to date on the medical diagnoses of each child. I will spend extra time understanding different conditions and consider how my lesson plan can be adapted to be more inclusive to students with disabilities. My curriculum will also include education on such conditions so that other students can be understanding and informed.

  • Learning capability: I will endeavour to understand the learning style of each and every student. I will be sure to give extra time to slow learners and utilise teaching assistants to help the students who require it the most.

  • Socio-economic status: I understand how a child’s home life affects their education. I am aware that not all students have access to the same technology, help from parents, or even the same level of nutrition. Where possible, the school must rectify socio-economic injustices. This may mean providing free meals to the poorest students or allowing children to stay late and do their homework on the school computer.

These six differences are the main focus of my differentiation strategy. By seeking to understand the behavioural and social needs of all students, I can create a classroom atmosphere based on inclusivity. For me, the backbone of this approach is in education. Extra time will be set aside to teach students the importance of respecting differences. This creates a climate in which all students will feel comfortable and welcome. When students are relaxed and happy, behavioural problems are minimised. This allows the whole class to work as a team in devising the best possible education strategy.

Gifted Students: How to Help Them Achieve Their Potential

It’s not just those with learning difficulties who suffer in a busy classroom. At the other end of the spectrum are gifted and talented students who can be overlooked. Teachers looking to improve their differentiation strategy and provide the best quality education to those who need it the most are, by definition, pulling resources away from the fastest and most gifted learners. As a result, those at the top of the class may fail to reach their potential.

While it’s vital to improve opportunities for students who have disabilities or come from a low socio-economic background, this cannot be at the expense of other students. Even the most gifted learner needs support and guidance. In fact, without proper attention, a talented student can easily become bored, disillusioned, and disenfranchised. They may then begin acting out and exhibit behavioural problems that previously didn’t exist. Teachers should not think that they don’t have to worry about kids at the top of the class. They need stimulation, too, in order to flourish, avoid bad behaviour, and achieve their potential.

A truly inclusive classroom is able to cater for learners across the entire spectrum. The most gifted students have their own needs that are distinct from the needs of other students. For instance, they require constant stimulation. Teachers need to be able to level up their tasks and provide talented learners with course materials that will challenge them. This ensures that they make constant progress and can end the school day feeling proud and fulfilled.

Talented learners may also show other difficulties that require attention. While they may be academically gifted, these students sometimes lack the social skills you would expect for their age group. On the one hand, this can lead to a gifted student feeling superior to others and turning into a bully. On the other hand, they can become the victim of bullying and experience prejudice from other students as a result of their low social and emotional skills.

Teachers must therefore ensure that the brightest students are taught not to be prejudiced towards low ability students. At the same time, gifted students must be protected from bullying. Academic achievement should be celebrated by other students and poor academic performance shouldn’t result in contempt. This is only achieved by creating a classroom atmosphere of mutual kindness and respect.

Positive Relationships Create the Best Education

I believe that education is not just about academic facts and hard analysis. Diverse learning requires going far beyond this. The core of my work as a teacher is to foster positive relationships. In doing so, I am creating the foundations for the highest quality education. I am also helping students to achieve their highest level of wellbeing which should be the ultimate goal of all teachers.

Much of my time spent in the classroom will be focused on social and emotional education. Children will be taught to listen more, show more respect, and create an atmosphere that is friendly and welcoming. From there, we can begin to study great literature and solve equations in mathematics. Positive relationships are the foundation on which academic potential can be realised.

These positive relationships should not be confined to the classroom. I will endeavour to be in constant contact with parents and carers to ensure that these lessons are being taken out into the community. After teaching my students to be respectful and inclusive, they will carry these lessons back to their households. If parents lack the same level of inclusivity, then students won’t achieve their best. Homework is an important part of education which means that homes must strive to be as inclusive as my classroom.

Seminars and after school meetings are an effective way to get parents involved in the differentiation process. This gives them a chance to educate me further on the unique learning requirements of their children. I’m aware that they understand their child better than I do. By being an attentive listener, the teacher is able to promote differentiation and inclusive learning in a way that is sensitive to the values of parents and carers.

Parents should know that they can come to their child’s teacher at any time and discuss issues in confidentiality. They should not be ashamed to open up about any behavioural difficulties experienced at home. The education of a child is a collaborative process that occurs through the communication of schools, teachers, carers, government, and the local community. It is when all these factors work together in good faith towards a common goal that we see the best outcomes.

Differentiation is guaranteed to be at the core of all the lesson plans of every teacher and the curricula of every educational establishment. It is the method by which we are able to fully realise the potential of every single student. The teacher should be a guide, a mentor, and an educator who students are comfortable approaching. The teacher is also a vital member of the community; a single cog working with others to achieve the best outcome with regards to the wellbeing of children.

Parents give children a strong set of values; restaurants and supermarkets ensure children receive the nutrition they require; police officers keep children within the confines of the law; religious leaders allow children to explore life’s biggest questions; and teachers use differentiation to offer a tailored and effective education to every single learner.

Through differentiation, no child is left behind. Even those with the most severe learning difficulties are offered the chance to have a happy and successful education. At the other end of the spectrum, gifted learners are given the challenges they crave to help them feel satisfied and fulfilled. Everyone in between needs to be fully understood so teachers can focus on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Through differentiation, education can be adapted to the needs of students and classrooms can become a welcoming place where children flourish.

References

Baker, J. Plan to help state’s gifted students thrive. [2019]. Available at: https://www.smh.com.au/education/plan-to-help-state-s-gifted-students-thrive-20190607-p51vnx.html [Accessed 03.10.2020.]

Vukovic, R. TALIS 2018: Diversity in Australian classrooms. [2018]. Available at: https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/talis-2018-diversity-in-australian-classrooms [Accessed 03.10.2020.]

High impact teaching strategies in action: Differentiated teaching. [2019]. Available at: https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/classrooms/Pages/approacheshitsdifferentiation.aspx [Accessed 03.10.2020].

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