Term Paper: Differentiation in Elementary Classrooms

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¶ … Elementary Classrooms

As children are mainstreamed into modern classes regardless of differing abilities, today's teachers can draw on lessons provided from teachers of yesteryear to manage the situation. Teachers from one-room school houses have contributed more of a legacy than once thought as they displayed the incredible skill of teaching primary and secondary children not just in the same day but in the same room. But the skills used in those rustic settings have not been lost to time. Instead, they have been preserved and improved upon to meet a new need and to serve a new purpose. Today, "differently-abled" children are all taught in the same classroom and while they are similar in age, the techniques used by current teachers to assure that differentiated lesson plans are delivered effectively are some of the most critical skills needed in the classroom.

Delivery of a differentiated class curriculum at the elementary level is an important system to understand. Effective use of the techniques that are involved can be the difference between a child feeling like a cipher in an academic wilderness or feeling like a valued and contributing part of the class. Teachers that understand these concepts have learned to reach and teach children of vastly different abilities regardless of class size and in spite of the inherent difficulties with so-called "mainstreaming." As new teachers enter the field they are wise to research this topic and understand its idiosyncrasies so that they too can use it to enable them to be as effective as possible.

To provide this paper with direction and to allow the reader some guidance there are two major components included. Part one of the paper provides information on the background and fundamental elements of differentiated instruction. The information in part one serves as the foundation to part two which includes a brief description of success stories of the application of differentiated instruction. Two stories have been included so as to provide the reader with an idea of how the concept of differentiation has been applied in different elementary classroom settings.

PART I

What is Differentiated Instruction?

At its most basic level, differentiating instruction means 'shaking 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." (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 1)

In basic terms, differentiated instruction involves the presentation of materials in a way that corresponds to the ability of the children being taught. The pedagogical model is transformed into a multi-level approach that challenges each student without causing boredom or confusion that naturally occurs at the various levels through traditional instruction. The point behind differentiated learning is to empower children to achieve at the ability level that s/he is at and avoids the complications that come from confusion that results from children being forced into lessons that are beyond their comprehension.

Differentiated instruction is not a new concept. It is simply a change in the paradigm that has been forced partly by circumstance and partly from enlightenment. As classrooms have grown and money for new schools and teachers has become scarce, many districts have opted to integrate classrooms with children that have significantly different abilities. Money is not the sole driving factor behind this move because significant research indicates that teaching children in the same environment with "differently-abled" students assists both groups of children in learning to interact and value the contributions of one another. "In order for students, including those with disabilities, to feel psychologically safe in their school environment, they must feel accepted by their teachers and peers. This implies the need to develop respect for differences." (Voltz, Brazil & Ford, 2001, p. 23) but this integration has caused some teachers to reexamine the tack they have been using to determine if there is a better way to reach every member of the class.

The importance of differentiated learning is evident from the manner in which students were being affected by the integration. Students who caught on to various materials more quickly frequently became frustrated by the slow pace of their counterparts. Frequently, these students became nuisances in the classroom forcing the teacher to spend valuable time managing behavioral problems. Simultaneously, students who were taking in the course material at a slower pace were often confused and frustrated by the pace of the class. This led to lowered self-esteem and behavior problems in this group as well. In response, many teachers adopted this differentiated methodology of teaching to assure that children from all groups were being provided with the course material at the speed at which they could accept it. Rather than simply focusing on whether standardized curriculum goals were being met, a better measure of education was adopted by many teachers who believe in differentiation. These teachers "define a 'good' education as one that helps students maximize their capacity as learners... [This] definition encourages continual lifting of ceilings and testing of personal limits, it would seem to make the best sense for all learners." (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 8)

Teachers can use various features of a lesson that correspond directly with the skill level of the different groups in the class. To do this, teachers often create groups based on Tomlinson's "Learning profiles."

Learning profile refers to ways in which we learn best as individuals. Each of us knows some ways of learning that are quite effective for us, and others that slow us down or make learning feel awkward. Common sense, experience, and research suggest to us that when teachers can tap into routes that promote efficient and effective learning for students, results are better. The goals of learning-profile differentiation are to help individual learners understand modes of learning that work best for them, and to offer those options so that each learner finds a good learning fit in the classroom." (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 60)

For example, a first grade class could be divided into three groups for work on natural science concepts. Each group could be given a picture of a tree with the name of the tree on the card. One group that may be unable to read is given the assignment to draw the tree and to write down letters that they can hear in the word. Another group that is beginning to master phonics could write down the words on the card and discuss what kind of tree is depicted on the card. Another group that has more developed writing skills could not only write the name of the tree but could include additional descriptive features of the tree. The point is to draw upon the various strengths that the students possess so that each child can excel within his/her sphere of development without the detriment of feeling overwhelmed or bored.

This is not to imply that the use of differentiation within classrooms is the dominant approach. Certainly, there are different levels to which it is applied but frequently the uses end just short of significant classroom improvement. Many teachers are simply unwilling to implement differentiation within their classrooms because of the standards that they are held to with respect to standardized testing. As teachers are squeezed to generate specific levels of achievement, they have become more leery of alternative methods of teaching, especially if the methods require them to teach at levels beneath the require curricula. In addition, using differentiation requires significant planning and organizational skills to assure ability groups are created appropriately and that lesson plans challenge the various skill levels effectively. In most states, teachers are underpaid and much of the work they are currently doing has to be completed outside of the classroom leaving them susceptible to burn-out. These teachers are naturally less apt to adopt a program that may require even more work from them on non-school hours. The point is that many teachers simply don't see the value in conducting this method of teaching without support from administration.

One problem with implementing differentiated curricula in classrooms is that teachers often feel that they have to "reinvent the wheel." Many teachers are completely unaware of the tools, lesson plans and assistance that is available to put such a program in place. Additional training is crucial to ensure that teachers learn about how the program works and from what resources they can receive help. To overcome this barrier to differentiation, administrations must first be taught the concepts and must fully support the idea.

Administrations on the district and school levels should work with teachers to improve the understanding of the program. Perhaps the most important consideration that they should keep in mind is that the value of the program will not be seen in just a few weeks. Implementing a differentiated instruction model requires a systemic change within the classroom or the entire school that is sustained and supported for a long period of time before real change can be measured. Therefore, teachers and administrators involved must be patient and committed to the program. The results will become evident… [END OF PREVIEW]

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