Differentiated Instruction: One Size Does Not Fit All

Differentiated Instruction: One Size Does Not Fit All
Differentiated Instruction: One Size Does Not Fit All

I teach students soon to be elementary and special education teachers, and they are often surprised to discover that their students are not “one size fits all.” The phrase has been around for decades and originally implied that a particular piece of clothing would fit everybody. Now, in my experience, the one size fits all scarf works for pretty much everyone, not so much for the one size fits all pair of pants or leggings.

For my new educators, “one size fits all” implies that all the students who walk into their classroom are basically the same, and this is simply not true, whether in a grade school classroom or a college classroom. Students come with varying academic backgrounds and with different skill levels. They represent a range of economic levels as well as diverse family backgrounds, cultures, and ethnic heritages. Finally, students have a range of academic abilities. Some are gifted; others may have a specific disability.

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson writes in How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms that differentiation of instruction simply means “the teacher assumes that different learners have differing needs” and teachers should have plans responsive to their learning needs. To do that, teachers must not only have an in-depth knowledge of the content, they must have the same level of knowledge about their students. They must know student backgrounds, academic levels, and learning preferences. This does not mean 30 individual lessons for each concept being taught in the classroom. It’s more a conscientious or focused effort to address the scope of learning abilities and needs, not assuming that a course with nothing but lectures will adequately meet the learning needs of everyone and if it doesn’t, well, that’s the students’ problem.

Effective teachers at every level should continually assess students both formally and informally in the classroom. That’s how to determine the differentiation needed to ensure the mastery of content and skills by all students. This too, is a difficult concept for new teachers (and perhaps for some not so new). The new teachers I work with often believe assessments are the means we use to give the student a grade at the end of the grading period. However, assessments are most effective when they are used to inform instruction. Assessments should address the following: What did the student learn? What additional areas of instruction are needed? What are the next steps for instruction? Teachers can use the information gained from informal assessments to make adaptations to instruction in “real-time” so that student learning is further enhanced before those final assessments. The goal for all teaching is optimizing teachable moments within the classroom.

Assessment and differentiation of instruction go “hand in hand” as educators work to ensure all students are learning at high levels. What teachers learn from informal assessments helps them develop a toolbox of instructional strategies that they can then use to successfully navigate the learning of each student. To concretely illustrate how that might work, consider how a portfolio can be used to assess student learning. The teacher can describe a variety of ways the material can be learned—through a collection of readings, by watching a set of videos, listening to podcasts, or through some relevant activity. The student uses one or several of these approaches to master the material and demonstrates that mastery in the portfolio. There ends up being multiple ways the student can demonstrate that they understand and can apply course content. Their portfolio might be the traditional paper and folder method or it can be presented in a digital format.

Successful teachers understand the connection between assessment and the planning of differentiated instructional next steps. It’s those connections that ensure that all students regardless of their learning differences have a meaningful and engaging learning experience. In doing this, the classroom becomes a positive learning environment for all students. “One size fits all” may work now and then in the world of fashion, but it’s a totally unrealistic expectation in the world of education!

Carol Bartlett, Indiana University Southeast, can be reached at carbartl@ius.edu.

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