Every child learns differently

Vaidehi Sriram

“Excellence in education is when we do everything we can to make sure they become everything they can.”

The quote above is a wonderful prelude to any discussion on strategies of differential instruction in a classroom and is attributed to Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, known for her work in this very domain. Differentiated learning is nothing but a framework for optimized teaching, where each and every child in a classroom is provided with strategies to learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.

Each teacher has a different approach towards the practice. Here, I would like to present a method that was fleshed out with enormous inputs from the principal of the school I was working in, who is also my mentor. We worked on this when we realized that many of the fifth graders in the school had very less exposure to good reading material in English and were also behind in grammar.

This activity, that we named “Back to the Basics”, allows the teacher more flexibility and also the opportunity to practice differential teaching with limited resources. I have often used this in classes with students of mixed abilities and find that it works really well for students to work on their areas of improvement without being singled out in any way.

Preparation and materials: Make four different worksheets based on the same theme. For example, if the theme is “Names of family members”, there would be four worksheets of the following type –

Worksheet # 1:  Quiz or cloze exercise (Simple vocabulary)

Worksheet # 2: Listening exercise on the names of family members

Worksheet # 3: Reading comprehension based on names of family members

Worksheet # 4: Writing based on names of family members (For ex, Introduce the different members in your family.)

The worksheets are, therefore, in order of increasing difficulty from 1 to 4. However, the students are unaware of this and just need to finish them one by one or as discussed below. The teacher needs to make enough copies for the class, or laminate one copy each to be passed around. Lamination is an effective way to reduce wastage of paper and also to keep it for future use. When using a laminated copy, students answer the worksheets in their notebooks or on sheets of paper.

The teacher also divides the class into groups of 3/ 4. The students are allowed to discuss with their peers while they work.

Procedure:

1) Students can begin with any worksheet they choose. 

2) Each worksheet earns them two points. However, if a student chooses to start with worksheet# 2 or higher, he/she will be accorded points for the previous ones automatically.

For example, a student who starts with Worksheet # 3 starts out with 4 points (For worksheets 1 and 2), even if he/ she hasn’t done them already.   

3) The students need to earn a grade of B or higher on the worksheet they choose. If their grade is lower than B, they will start all over again from Worksheet # 1 and also lose the points gained so far.

4) The group that earns the maximum points wins a special treat at the end of the activity.

This method allows the student to control his/her learning and also encourages auto-evaluation and peer evaluation. Often, I see students start out with Worksheet # 4, find it too challenging and realize that they needed extra practice. The critical act of self-evaluation has numerous benefits, so this activity is not just academic but is also useful to build self-awareness.

I have also seen students who have already earned their points do worksheet # 1 or 2, just for the fun of it. Educators often talk about the “Affective Filter” while learning a foreign language, which refers to the non-linguistic variables that affect learning, for example, motivation, self-confidence or anxiety. This method is extremely helpful in lowering this affective filter, because it makes the learner responsible for his/ her progress. The teacher is a mere facilitator.

The strategies discussed above are excellent when your resources are limited. For example, I can just pass around four laminated copies instead of 30. There’s no need for any other material other than what’s normally available, yet, the method allows you to practice a very effective way of differential teaching and learning.

Differential teaching is often thrown around as a buzzword during discussions on learning and teaching. However, this method is a reminder that one does not need to know fancy terms or acquire specialized resources to practice it. It helped me see the teaching of a language in an entirely new light and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to do so.

“If a child cannot learn in the way we teach, we must teach in a way the child can learn.”(ANONYMOUS)

The author is a  teacher and  a mentor who is extremely passionate about pedagogy. She enjoys long conversations, writing and music. She can be reached at [email protected] and runs her own website at www.alearninghut.com.

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