Dulce Morales | Photo by Jamie Bodo

Custom-Made Education

March2014TitleTreatmentHow teachers are making education work for all learning styles

Article by Arin Gencer
Photo by Jamie Bodo

Flexibility is at the heart of Carrie Hess’ English classes at Spencerville Adventist Academy (SAA) in Spencerville, Md. That flexibility is manifested in several ways: Assessing students before test days and rescheduling if they haven’t quite grasped a concept. Allowing some to do alternate assignments or giving others more time to complete papers if inspiration has yet to strike. Coming to school with an agenda that can change once she gauges where her class stands.

“You’re not lowering your standards, but the way you’re able to get your students to that standard may vary from student to student,” says Hess, who teaches juniors and seniors. “It’s about doing what’s right for that student at that point in time.”

Hess’ approach to teaching embraces a concept that education officials in the Columbia Union hope becomes common practice. Differentiated instruction (DI) emphasizes viewing students as individuals and factoring in their learning levels, interests and styles when teaching so that all—whether struggling, on level or advanced—have the opportunity to learn and succeed. The union is in its second year of a five-year initiative to encourage a more intentional focus on this approach and, ultimately, improve student learning.

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“Differentiated instruction speaks to good teaching,” says Donovan Ross, the Columbia Union Conference’s associate director of secondary education. “It forces the teacher to expand his or her repertoire of teaching strategies.”

The concept also aligns with “what [Seventh-day] Adventists believe: that every child can learn; every child has God-given talent,” says Ileana Espinosa, the union’s associate director of elementary education.

Differentiation: A Quick Primer

Differentiation is “just a way of thinking about the classroom,” says Carol Tomlinson, chair of educational leadership, foundations and policy in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, who has researched and written extensively on differentiated instruction and curriculum.

“It begins with the belief that kids come to you with different learning needs, and as teachers, we have to make a decision whether we do anything with those differences,” Tomlinson says. “The core of it is really the decision about whether a teacher needs to study his or her students and responds to what the students bring.”

Research shows students bring three key elements to the classroom, Tomlinson says, all of which differentiation responds to: a readiness to learn, which can vary by subject; personal interests; and learning profiles—a combination of gender, culture, how children’s brains are wired and their learning style (i.e., whether they learn better by reading or listening).

Readiness—assessing where a child is in a given subject on a given day—is the most important, she says. “Addressing readiness is necessary for academic growth. If we don’t get a kid … in the right ballpark, they don’t learn. They can’t learn.”

As classrooms have grown more diverse in the past 15 to 20 years, more people have seen the need to differentiate, Tomlinson says. “Differentiation is very broadly accepted as good practice, and in public schools in the United States and Canada, it appears as a key element in systems for evaluating teacher effectiveness.”