How Students Learn in Differentiated Classrooms

No one knows better than a parent that children differ in so many ways. Kids may look alike and know the same jokes, but they are not made from a single recipe. For that reason, no single recipe can tell teachers how kids should learn, right? That's why a teaching method called "differentiated education" can spice up the classroom.

Picture an orchestra. Each section is made up of many musicians. All the musicians are grouped according to their strength--their instrument--and all the groups make up one larger unit--the orchestra. The musicians have the same objective--to play the song. But to make the song complete, each section plays a different part.

At the head of the symphony is the conductor, who starts everyone off and keeps the musicians on tempo. During the song the conductor keeps watch and directs each section as needed. Sometimes the violins need more attention, and at other times, the cellos. Each section receives the guidance it needs when it's needed most.

That's the idea of differentiated education (D.E.). Teachers guide individual students toward goals at the rate and intensity they require. This is important because research tells us that intelligence has many levels.

Humans think, learn, and create in different ways. The amount of information we understand is affected by the match we make between what we learn and how we learn. And intelligence can change. If you stimulate your kids' brains in the ways they learn best, they'll grow!

It's a fact that vigorous learning changes the makeup of the brain. And the brain learns best when it can come to understand things by making its own sense out of information, rather than just memorizing or repeating. That's why D.E. is so important for kids.

Marching to a Different Drummer

First, let's talk about what D.E. is not. D.E. is not a recipe for learning. It is a way of thinking about teaching and learning. It tells teachers how to teach, not what to teach.

It's not about learning styles, although to have it, teachers must pay attention to individual needs. D.E. is not individualized instruction, either, which would require a different lesson plan for every student. Instead, D.E. asks teachers to use a lesson plan that is fair for all students and their individual learning styles, instead of teaching to a middle ground and hoping for the best.

Basically, D.E. means "shaking up" what goes on in the classroom. It gives students many options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. Teachers can shake up the class by teaching small groups or individual students based on readiness, interest, or experience. Your child could be in one group for math (based on her readiness) and another for reading (based on the book she chooses).

Teachers can also use "tiered activities," where they teach all students the same concepts but allow kids lots of different ways to approach them. Teachers also ensure that a student competes against himself as he grows more than he competes against other students.

Turn the Beat Around

The only real problem with D.E. is that it's so hard to define. Most people who use it, however, agree that D.E. is:

* Proactive, using methods like hands-on projects.
* More about the quality of learning than the quantity of learning.
* Aimed at offering many ways to the content, process, and products of learning.
* Student-centered, instead of class-centered.
* A blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction.
* Based on broad concepts, not facts.

Creating Harmony

If D.E. is hard to define, it's even harder to ask teachers to use. Still, every day more and more teachers are finding out how important it is for kids, and are putting it to work in their classrooms.

They are teachers who work hard to do whatever it takes to make sure that struggling and advanced learners, kids with different cultural heritages and children with different background experiences grow as much as they can each day, each week and throughout the year.

Find out if your kids' teachers are using it, and if they're not, ask why. Traditional schools are designed for students who think using logic and reasoning rather than discovery and creativity. However, researchers believe this type of learning fits only one-quarter of the population. D.E. can be a great way to teach the remaining 75 percent of kids who aren't being reached in traditional classrooms.

How can you tell if your child's teacher is differentiating education? First, you could ask. Second, talk to your children about what they do all day. If teachers are using D.E., you should hear about:

* Hands-on projects that let kids investigate and discover.
* Discussions and projects that last for long periods of time and link many subjects. For example, a class might study food chains throughout an entire marking period, including them in science, social studies art and English.
* Kids learning why and how instead of just gathering facts.
Group projects.
* Lots of options for students to show what they learn, like writing papers, giving presentations, or creating projects.

Urge teachers to pay attention to students' unique needs. Offer ideas and suggestions. Above all, don't give up! Your kids' excitement about learning will be music to your ears. By Lisa Hayes - EduGuide - Education.com

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