Classrooms are diverse environments, characterized by students from varying backgrounds, and with varying needs and skill levels. It is from this diversity and the recognition of how it contributes to the richness of a learning environment that the concept of differentiated instruction arises. Through differentiated education, students representing diversity have the opportunity to learn in environments that promote inclusion, unity, and understanding. An investigation into the effects of differentiated instructional curriculum for a fifth-grade science class demonstrated that both teachers and students reported a significantly higher degree of satisfaction with methods and materials used in differentiated instruction as opposed to typical instruction (McCrea et al., 2009). Similar results were found in a study that investigated the effectiveness of differentiated instruction in the realm of physical education curriculum (Kriakides & Tsangaridou, 2008).
Developing and putting into practice differentiated instruction curricula involves shifts in planning, execution, and assessments that require flexibility and willingness to change among teachers and administrators. There are several issues regarding challenges involving professional development associated with the implementation of differentiated instruction. The following discussion addresses these various issues and offers suggestions that lend to successful transitions to implementing differentiated instruction in classrooms.
Differentiated instruction could be conceptualized as an approach to learning and teaching that offers a variety of options for students as to how they take in instructional information, as well as formulate and understand ideas (Hall et al., 2011). The basis of differentiated instruction theory is that approaches used for teaching should vary according to the individual and diverse needs of students in the classroom, and this necessitates the utmost creativity, ingenuity, and flexibility among teachers (Hall et al., 2011). This instructional theory implies that learning is best achieved with diverse classrooms by tailoring curriculum and how it is presented to students according to their needs rather than expecting students to adapt and conform to one style of instruction offered in the classroom (Hall et al., 2011). The ultimate aim of differentiated instruction is to effectively enable a process in which students of differing abilities and needs can successfully learn in the same classroom, enhancing maximum individual growth for each student by accommodating to each student's educational needs (Hall et al., 2011).
According to Hall et al. (2011), there are several features that are integral to the successful implementation of differentiated instruction. In regards to the process used for this approach, several suggestions are made, including flexibility with class grouping, effective classroom management, regular assessment of students' learning and growth, maintaining active engagement by students, as well as adjusting expectations and requirements for students. In regards to classroom management, the authors suggest that teachers must practice instructional strategies for differentiated education that benefit both teachers and students so that no one is left in a place where their needs or well-being are compromised (Hall et al., 2011). An important part of the effectiveness of these instructional strategies is the availability of educational products that promote diverse learning needs. An integral part of a differentiated instructional environment is the ability for students to process information in ways that are most suitable to them as individuals, and furthermore express what they learned through various means, that are diverse in levels of difficulty, forms of evaluation, as well as scoring practices (Hall et al., 2011).
Several guidelines are suggested by Hall et al. (2011) regarding how teachers can successfully implement differentiated instruction in the classroom. First of all, the authors stress the importance of clarifying generalizations and main concepts for students with differing learning needs. It is the responsibility of teachers to effectively impart strong learning foundations in students that foster understanding and the promotion of continual learning in the future (Hall et al., 2011). It is the responsibility of teachers to ensure that students of all levels and backgrounds have a core comprehension of key concepts being learned in the classroom.
Second, it is suggest4ed that effective differentiated instruction is promoted by the use of assessment to further extend instruction and learning, rather than just measure it (Hall et al., 2011). Assessments should occur regularly with all students, beginning before instruction even begins, and continuing throughout the duration of the instructional period (Hall et al., 2011). These assessments should be a useful, powerful tool to teachers, which allows them to further recognize the most effective strategies for the delivery of instruction that is individualized to meet the diverse needs of students in the classroom.
Thirdly, critical thinking and creativity should be actively emphasized and promoted through the development of lesson plans (Hall et al., 2011). This takes a high level of innovation, understanding, and creativity on behalf of the teacher in order to recognize how each student could most effectively be encouraged to learn concepts and express this learning critically and with creativity. One classroom may necessitate a variety of tasks, materials, supports, and equipment in order to tailor learning strategies specifically to different students (Hall et al., 2011).
Fourthly, Hall et al. (2011) emphasize the importance of ensuring engagement by all students regardless of what diverse learning needs they present. This again necessitates a high level of innovation and creativity among teachers in order to develop instruction strategies that motivate and engage classes of students with varying learning styles and requirements.
A final guideline suggested by Hall et al. (2011) for teachers implementing differentiating instruction is to maintain a balance in classroom tasks between those that are assigned by teachers and those that are selected by students. This means teachers need to consistently assess the balance in the classroom and adjust instruction to accommodate the need for balance, with an understanding that this balance shifts according to the needs of different classes as well as the requirements for different lessons (Hall et al., 2011). The importance of student choice of tasks is also emphasized regarding its relation to instructional effectiveness (Hall et al., 2011).
Inclusive classrooms necessitate instructional strategies that can effectively address diverse learning needs and abilities. Further suggestions and guidelines were posited by Lawrence-Brown (2004), who studied differentiated instruction in relation to strategies that could be used in the classroom to encourage inclusion and that prove beneficial to entire diverse classrooms. In particular, this author presents a manageable multi-level system of lesson planning as well as suggestions for effective instructional strategies. There is also a specific recognition of areas where teachers commonly struggle. It is often difficult for teachers to effectively make decisions regarding multi-level instruction, or deciding which students learn at particular levels (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). Another area of common difficulty for teachers is the development of supplemental supports for learners who are struggling, particularly in regards to resources that do not necessitate the constant need of additional support staff in the classroom (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). Teachers may encounter difficulty with appropriate instruction for gifted students that is engaging and promotes effective learning, as well as devising instructional strategies most appropriate for students with severe disabilities for delivery within one inclusive classroom (Lawrence-Brown, 2004).
Inclusive classrooms in which students of varying learning needs and abilities receive their education side-by-side necessitate differentiated instruction. This type of instruction allows students to access a common curriculum through various means of delivery and assessment and allows students to benefit from the existence of high expectations (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). The planning process involved in implementing differentiated instruction presents one of the most important challenges for teachers in regards to professional development.
Lawrence-Brown (2004) describes how developing differentiated instructional strategies address two goals. The first goal is to attain the highest general curriculum standards at the appropriate grade level, and the second goal is the provision of appropriate, adapted curricula for students that may need it in order to achieve certain standards. These goals are achieved through the planning and development of instructional strategies that provide support for struggling students and engaging lesson delivery for all students (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). There are certain professional development factors that contribute to the ways in which differential instructional strategies can most effectively be planned and implemented in order to achieve these stated goals.
First of all, planning for differentiated instruction involves the development of high quality general lessons to be used in the classroom (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). What qualities characterize high quality lessons? Lawrence-Brown (2004) describes high-quality lesson as having certain attributes. These factors include the promotion of learning that could be considered active, various hands-on experiences, representations that draw on different sensory experiences, learning based in cooperation, and the development of skills and concepts that can be applied to real-life situations (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). These lessons also effectively connect the topics under study with the individual interests, experiences, and communities of the students (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). Furthermore, effective differentiated lessons must incorporate diverse styles of learning and multiple intelligences (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). These factors contribute to the first component of effective differentiated instructions strategies -- a foundation in strong, high quality educational lessons.
One of the most important components to effective lessons in differentiated instructional environments is the availability of supplemental supports that assist students with differing needs to achieve…