Differentiated instruction (DI) strikes a balance between dividing children by ability, causing potential social stigma, and teaching everyone at the same pace with identical resources, which can be demotivating.
By applying methods of differentiation, children with varying learning abilities and different learning styles can all be catered for, facilitating the best educational experience. Technology in schools provides teachers with more varied, engaging resources, but how far does it go to help teachers cater for mixed-ability classes?
Facing the challenge of keeping their pupils stimulated, teachers of mixed-ability classes often rely on creative methods and interactive resources. According to Carol Tomlinson of the University of Virginia (UVA), the best means of teaching different learning abilities is to
“Shake up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.”
Technology is a powerful instrument to revolutionise activities the classroom. But first, let’s address different learning abilities.
What is a mixed-ability class?
A pupil’s learning ability is not synonymous with their readiness to learn or their level of motivation. These three learning conditions are interdependent and a child’s learning profile is a unique combination of these circumstances. A mixed-ability class includes pupils with varying levels of readiness, motivation and academic capability. Each profile presents different challenges to teachers, and may require creativity and outside-the-box thinking to inspire learning in different ways.
Howard Gardner published his Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983, and subsequently led a revolution in teaching methods. His theory pushed the traditional boundaries of one singular form of intelligence that could be measured in one standard way.
“A belief in a single intelligence assumes that we have one central, all-purpose computer and it determines how well we perform in every sector of life. In contrast, a belief in multiple intelligences assumes that we have a number of relatively autonomous computers, one that computes linguistic information, another spatial information, another musical information, and other information about other people, and so on. I estimate that human beings have 7 to 10 distinct intelligences.” Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Gardner, in response to the impact his theory has had on education and teaching three decades later, has the following advice for educators.
Do not follow a one-size-fits-all approach. Pupils are individual, so attempt to learn as much as you can about each student. Through that knowledge you can teach each student in the way they find comfortable and learn most effectively. This is easier to accomplish with smaller groups, but digital apps make it possible to individualise for everyone.
Teach your pupils in multiple ways, not in just one singular, linear style. By using multiple materials and resources including stories, works of art, subject matter experts, technology and role play, you can reach students who learn differently. Not only that, but presenting information in many ways conveys the message to students that approaching a subject from multiple angles cements broader understanding, rather than taking a topic one dimensionally.
Methods of differentiation
Differentiation was defined by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) as, ‘the process by which differences between learners are accommodated so that all students in a group have the best possible chance of learning’.
To inspire and engage pupils across all learning abilities, there are seven tried-and-tested principal methods of differentiation that educators have been using for decades.
The seven core differentiated instruction methods are:
- Flexible paced teaching
- Facilitating collaborative learning through group work
- Setting progressively challenging tasks
- Working with different resources (including technology)
- Giving varying levels of verbal support
- Setting tasks with variable outcomes
- Ongoing student assessment and feedback
These flexible learning methods give teachers the opportunity to tailor their classroom tasks, schedules and outcomes to different abilities. What’s more, most (but not all) of these traditional teaching methods can be successfully supplemented and enhanced through the use of technology.
Through digital applications, teachers can facilitate a more flexible approach to tasks in the classroom with less advance, complex planning. Not only that, they can digitally monitor and assess pupils’ speed and ability, and provide feedback and additional tasks to faster workers without adding unnecessary pressure to slower-paced learners. Software like ClassFlow gives pupils more transparency over their teacher’s feedback and fosters self-management skills, helping them feel recognised and accountable.
Is technology important in the classroom?
There is a lively, ongoing debate assessing which medium pen and paper or digital technology allows students to work more competently and comprehensively. Advocates of traditional teaching methods cite research illustrating that students absorb and retain information more effectively through hand-written notes. Digital evangelists, however, consider technology in schools an essential tool to engage the youngest generation. They believe digital applications provide interactive, collaborative and flexible learning that can be tailored to specific needs.
The pragmatic answer, then, is a hybrid approach. Deploying a combination of traditional teaching methods enhanced with supplementary technology allows for a more holistic, student-led approach. There is no question, though, that technology is advantageous for teaching mixed-ability classes.
“Incorporating technology into the curriculum not only benefits the students with new ways of learning the topic at hand, but technology also assists the student to learn new skills they may acquire by learning how to use technology programs.” Viorica-Torii and Carmen
Take a student with a lower academic ability than his or her peers, or a niche learner for example. These pupils may struggle with traditional learning methods, and may lack motivation when they realise their pace is slower than other students. A lack of ability or enthusiasm, however, is certainly not an indication of future failings.
These students may have a passion or skill that sits outside the traditional academic spectrum. Technology can be the precise catalyst to emphasise this skill, or pique their interest by activating their minds in a different way. It is not unusual for niche learners with unique personal passions to go on to be successful entrepreneurs. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, famously focused less on traditional education to follow his business dreams.
“I was dyslexic, I had no understanding of schoolwork whatsoever. I certainly would have failed IQ tests… if I’m not interested in something, I don’t grasp it.” Richard Branson, Virgin Group Founder.
A perfectly primed learner with high levels of readiness, interest and ability, however, is arguably a teacher’s dream. This pupil, it must be noted, does not come without his or her challenges. A highly able and motivated learner needs constant stimulation to keep their mind engaged.
It requires creativity on the part of the teacher to keep this pupil excited, and relies on a mix of resources to inspire them. Technology in the classroom, among others, is a perfect way to give this pupil mental stimulation while ascertaining which other resources work best for which student.
Keep digital resources relevant
Contrary to the fears of traditionalists, using technology in the classroom does not replace human resources or require less skills or teaching ability. Using technology requires absolute familiarity and confidence with the tools and software, and most importantly it takes thoughtfulness to ensure the use of technology is relevant to the teaching objectives. Technology enhances teaching, it can’t ever replace it.
The key to using technology to it’s full potential in a mixed-ability classroom is variation. Educational consultant John McCarthy recommends that teachers design ‘one or two processing experiences for every 30 minutes of instruction’. An eclectic mix of interactive and traditional experiences gives students a break from one form of learning, and provides teachers with time to ascertain which pupils need additional instruction and those who don’t.
This differentiated use of digital and traditional resources gives all students the opportunity to learn effectively. What’s more, one type of technology can meet the needs of more than one learning ability, and one learning profile can be reached by more than one type of technology. All pupils, regardless of their readiness to learn or their levels of motivation can engage with material in a way that most suits to their needs. The ultimate goal of pedagogy is to bring out the most potential in every student. A flexible, resource-rich approach to teaching facilitates exactly that.
Creative teachers that think outside the box when planning their lessons can use a different type of technology for all profiles and learning styles. The intelligences listed by Howard Gardner over three decades ago can still be used today to design a technologically-rich classroom that will energise and inspire every student. A digital platform like ClassFlow is the ideal tool to deliver varied and interactive lessons for all learning abilities.
Teaching a mixed-ability class certainly involves energy and creativity. Above all else, educators should have a desire to understand how all their students learn best. Technology in schools puts all the right applications and tools at their fingertips to do exactly that. What’s more, differentiated instruction through this technology empowers teachers to inspire and engage each one of their students, regardless of their learning abilities.