Teachers continually need to develop strategies to address the different levels of cognitive development of their students. Make sure you read the information from learning guide 3. Please refer to the readings where appropriate. Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson understands the challenge of providing appropriate learning experiences for all students. Once a classroom teacher who had to simultaneously meet the needs of kids struggling to read at grade level and those who were ready for Harvard, she turned to differentiated instruction. A veteran educator, Tomlinson works with teachers across the U. She is the author of more than articles, book chapters, books, and other professional development materials. Tomlinson shared with Education World some insights into how differentiated instruction works and how teachers can get started using it in their classrooms. Carol Ann Tomlinson: On some level, differentiation is just a teacher acknowledging that kids learn in different ways, and responding by doing something about that through curriculum and instruction. In what ways is differentiation a blend of old and new educational philosophies? Tomlinson: Anything worthwhile we do in schools is inevitably a blend of old and new. The basic issues and challenges of teaching are constants. How we address those challenges evolves as our understanding of teaching and learning evolves. Ideas of varying materials, meeting with students in small groups, providing scaffolding suited to student need, and so on, are certainly not new. Some of the particular strategies we use to respond to learner need may be new — or newly adapted to provide support for particular groups of learners such as English language learners or students with learning disabilities. Our understanding of how students learn is continually evolving. That enables us to refine or better target our assistance to students. Tomlinson: Individualized instruction proposes that each learner have materials and tasks based on the very particular needs of that student. In addition, during the heyday of individualized instruction, our sense of student learning was based on behaviorism absorption, drill, repetition — and curriculum had that orientation. Now we understand more fully the role of the brain in learning — the need for students to make sense of what they learn. Individualized instruction tended to have more of a drill orientation. Differentiation focuses also on helping students understand ideas and apply skills so that they develop frameworks of meaning that allow them to retain and transfer what they study. Education World: Based on your experience, how do students respond to differentiated instruction? Tomlinson: I think kids are keenly aware of differences among themselves. I think they fully understand they are not cookie-cutter images of one another. They see that in many facets of their lives. When teachers engage kids in talking about their particular strengths, weaknesses, interests, and ways of learning — and in developing a classroom where everyone gets the help and support they need to grow as much as possible — I see kids who are very enthusiastic about that approach to teaching and learning. Education World: How do you recognize a differentiated classroom? Is there a feature that immediately suggests to you that a teacher is using this method? Tomlinson: I think the two most readily visible hallmarks are flexibility and student-focus. In addition, it would likely be clear that the teacher puts the kids at the center of learning — as well as involving them in making decisions about how the classroom is working for them and for their peers. I think we often worry particularly about students who pose behavior issues in the classroom and conclude that in more flexible settings, the problems would intensify. In fact, they often lessen because the system is working better for the student. Education World: How do you counter those who suggest that this method can be too difficult and time-consuming for the regular classroom teacher to implement? Tomlinson: We can do nearly anything we need to do in a classroom as long as we are a willing to begin developing the necessary skills, and b willing to persist in ensuring that the skills mature. It makes much more sense to begin working with responsive teaching in small ways, and building on those over time. Trying to do too much too fast is likely to overwhelm and discourage us.
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