Differential Instruction

What is learning? Is it the acquiring of some knowledge, fact, idea, or information from a ‘teacher’ to a student? Does ‘Teacher’ necessarily mean a living person lecturing or showing you something with the intention of teaching you? Could ‘Teacher’ be a book? Could it be a man/woman standing at the end of the next block, waiting for the traffic to clear so they can cross? According to some learning is “[a] change in an individual caused by experience” (Slavin 116). Another way of putting it is that it is “[a] systematic, relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs through experience.”(“The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View, 2nd Edition (King)“)

So learning is something that changes an individual, whether it is a visible change or an internal mental restructuring that can’t be perceived, taking them from one state to another because of an experience they have gone through, whether it be good or bad, and whether that change is positive or negative.

Experiences differ. No one experiences the exact same thing or perceives it in the exact same way. My wife often mentions to me how she remembers incidents differently from her brother, who blatantly denies that things happened in the way that she describes. Our background, how we grew up, the things we like or dislike all effect the way we perceive the experiences we go through in life and the lessons we take away from them. You might go to class, listen to a lecture on how to raise children and come away thinking the speaker was talking a load of rubbish and has never had the responsibility of raising a child because what he or she is saying does not fit in with your experience raising your own son(s) or daughter(s). Another person may come away from the speech praising that same speaker, agreeing with every point and strategy that he offered, and it might not be because they don’t have any children, it could be that they have children and what the speaker said fits in with their worldview or their own experience of how to rear children effectively.

If learning is caused by experience, and experiences differ, the people absorbing these experiences differ and have different perceptions, the manner in which they learn will also differ. This is beyond just what you learn from an experience/lesson, and is about how you acquire these new changes in yourself, or this new bit of information.

Ibn Khaldun, the historian, mentions in his Muqaddimah: i’ᶜalam anna ṭalqīn al-ᶜulum lil muṭ’allimīn innamā yakūnu mufīdun idha kāna ‘ᶜalā al-ṭadrīj shai’an fa shai’an wa qalīlan qalīlan [you should know that instructing students will only be beneficial when it occurs in stages, little by little, bit by bit]. (533) This orderly manner of instruction and learning allows the student to fully understand the subjects being taught, and when this is accomplished, leaves the student in a calm state, allowing him/her to, as Kung-fu-tse says, “keep his head in the presence of a tiger”. (38)

The teachers problem, then, is finding that orderly manner of pedagogy that will be most efficacious in the face of disparate students each having their own individual experiences that influence how they receive and accept the instruction being given. A one size fits all methodology may leave some in the class with a weak understanding, if any understanding is gained at all, and as they progress, again, if at all, the blocks of knowledge being added to their weak foundation will leave them struggling.

Thus, it is essential that the teacher keep in mind that students  not only “vary in their skills and preferences in how they receive information”
(Webb & Metha 390) but also differ in the way that information is recieved, some being “imaginative, analytic, common sense, and dynamic”(Webb & Metha 390), and include varied ways of teaching the same subject in their lesson plans.

There are many areas of the classroom as well as instruction that can be modified to assist students in grasping the lesson:

Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile: (1) content–what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information; (2) process–activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content; (3) products–culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and (4) learning environment–the way the classroom works and feels. (“Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest.”)

If teachers keep in mind these points when attempting to teach it is hoped that they will be able to  reach a greater portion of their class, while keeping in mind that sometimes students will not pick something up. In such cases where there is a problem “the teacher [should] bring[…] the student to the attention of others who help decide whether special education services are warranted.”(Friend 50)


Works Cited


Confucius. The Great Digest. In The Unwobbling Pivot & The Great Digest: Trans. Ezra Pound. 1947. Print.

Friend, Marilyn Penovich, and William D. Bursuck. Including Students with Special Needs: A Practical Guide for Classroom Teachers. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2009. Print.

Ibn Khaldun, Abdur-Rahman. Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldun. Beirut, Lebanon. Dar Ihya Al-Turath Al- Arabi. n.d. Print.

“The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View, 2nd Edition (King).” Key Terms. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. <http://glencoe.mheducation.com/sites/0076593770/student_view0/chapter6/key_terms.html>

Slavin, Robert E. Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice. 10th Ed., International ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest.”Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. N.p., n.d.Web. 11 Feb. 2015. <http://www.ericdigests.org/2001-2/elementary.html>

Webb, L. Dean, and Arlene Metha. Foundations of American Education. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013. 390. Print.

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