So That All May Learn: Differentiating Instruction in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 3 of 7

Student readiness – this refers to the knowledge, understanding and skill level that a student has. To me, ‘readiness’ is the preferred term to use to describe students’ level of competency because it is predicated on a growth mindset (Dweck, 2012) and focuses on students’ potential achievement in their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). It is not to be confused with student ability, which is a more fixed measure of competency and tends to label and pigeonhole students into an almost immutable caste.

            When crafting a new lesson, we need to consider who in the class already have some prior knowledge, skill or disposition (KSD) and who are lacking the foundational KSD needed to move on to the material we are about to introduce. Our challenge is in finding ways to build on and extend the learning of those who are ready to move on while providing basic instruction for those who are still not quite there yet.

Learning profile – Each one of us has what Sylwester (1995) calls “designer brains,” that is, each person’s brain is uniquely designed and different. Therefore how a person learns is also uniquely different. Tomlinson (2001) describes learning profile as the way a person learns best. Many people confuse learning profile with learning styles. Most teachers think of learning styles as being in four categories – visual, auditory, tactile or kinesthetic. However, learning profile is more than learning style. A student’s learning profile is influenced by factors such as his/her culture, gender, socio-economic and family background, learning and intelligence preferences (Tomlinson, 2001, Tomlinson & Eidson, 2003b; Heacox, 2002).[i]

Learning preference refers to the preferred way in which one acquires and processes information. There are a number of theories on learning preferences. Some theories focus on sensory modes – sight, sound and touch (visual, auditory, kinesthetic or tactile learners).[ii] Other theories focus on aspects such as social organization (preference to work alone or in groups), physical environment (if the room is spacious or cluttered, too bright/dark; too warm/cold, noisy/quiet) emotional climate (safety, motivation) and psychological factors (whether a student is impulsive, reflective, etc.).

 Besides learning preference, proponents of differentiated instruction also consider intelligence preference as another important factor influencing how we learn. Carol Tomlinson defines intelligence preference as the kinds of “brain-based predisposition” towards learning that we all have (Tomlinson, 2001, p.62). Two theories on intelligence are commonly used by teachers when differentiating their lessons to cater to students’ learning profiles. These are Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 2006) and Robert Sternberg’s Thinking Styles (Sternberg & Zhang, 2005). Sternberg and Zhang define thinking styles as “the preferred ways of thinking about material” and distinguishes it from learning preferences which he defines as the “preferred ways of learning material” (Sternberg & Zhang, 2005, p. 245).

Learning and thinking preferences can be harnessed in planning differentiated instruction to develop students’ strengths. A fundamental principle is that some part of instruction and assessment should match students’ preferences (whether it is learning preference or thinking styles preference) in order for students to benefit most from the lessons. The key is to have rich and varied resources that will cater to different learning preferences and to provide choice for students to demonstrate their learning. But note that there need not always be a perfect match of instruction and assessment with students’ preferences. Everyone has a unique blend of skills, intelligences and learning preferences. Some may be more intelligent in one aspect and weaker in another but no one is intelligent in only one area. For students to grow and develop in their competencies, we need to provide them with a range of challenges so that they do not become stunted in their growth if they only learn in one way or continue to demonstrate their learning in their most preferred mode. Teachers can plan for students to develop in areas where they may not be strong in by providing scaffolds for students to negotiate across that zone of proximal development.

Student Interest – As most of us know, interest is a great motivator for it is when students enjoy their learning that they will be willing to work hard. The goal of differentiating by interest is to help students connect the new learning with things that they already find appealing or intriguing. When teachers make the effort to find out students’ interests, pique their curiosity and show them how the material they are learning is connected to what they are interested in, students are more likely to be engaged and interested in the lessons. Again, we need to take note that students should be encouraged to explore new interests rather than always staying in areas which they are comfortable in. The excellent teacher is one who can inspire new interests and passions in students.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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