Catholic educators believe that the worth of every child is immeasurable. We know from Scripture that God knows every child intimately and that all are made in His image. Subsequently, every child has an undeniable dignity and worth that must be respected by all. The recognition of a child’s human dignity can never be dependent on factors such as race, gender, social status or academic achievement. Therefore, it is essential that every child has access to the curriculum and that the right of all children to learn is recognized and respected. One way that we do this is through the provision of differentiated instruction.
There is no one size fits all model to education. Each child’s progress is individual to them, and different children develop at different rates. The physical growth is obvious to an observer, but simultaneously, children are developing intellectually, socially, emotionally, morally and spiritually. Every child is a complex individual, and no child moves suddenly from one phase of development to another, and children do not make progress in all areas simultaneously. Children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates, and all areas of learning and development are equally important and inter-connected.
To ensure that all children’s learning and developmental needs are met, the classroom teacher must differentiate all classroom instruction. The process of differentiated instruction is, by its very definition, the mechanism by which the needs of each individual learner are met. Given that children learn in different ways and at different speeds, a lesson must be planned to cater to all the learning requirements. Every child has a right to access the curriculum and learn, and thus the teacher has a duty to ensure that all lessons are structured to enable all children to achieve success. The implication is that the curriculum must be accessible to children with special educational needs while academically rigorous for the ablest children in a classroom.
There are many ways that a teacher might differentiate instruction to allow all children access to learning. An effective teacher will make sure that they utilize a variety of instructional approaches capable of accommodating their students’ different abilities and learning preferences. This should never be as simple as grouping students according to their ability. Grouping students according to ability limits the learning of many students but markedly has a detrimental effect on those students with additional educational needs (including the least able, the most gifted, those with English as an Additional Language). The best way to meet the learning needs of all students is for teachers to deliver the curriculum in a variety of ways. This should include differentiating the way skills, knowledge, and concepts are delivered and by presenting a range of tasks designed to support all students’ learning. Everyone knows from the most basic observations that children learn at different rates. Some students may grasp a point being explained by a teacher or outlined by an author without a detailed explanation, whereas some students require much more effort and support. One of my favourite methods of differentiation is the “must/should/could” formula. This formula necessitates the use of differentiated outcomes when designing curriculum maps and lesson plans. This methodology recognizes that sometimes some of the students can only access some of the work but never the less during a lesson or across a unit of study. They will have covered the “must learn” content, skills, and concepts. Moreover, this methodology ensures a teacher has the highest academic expectations for the ablest students. There is always a range of tasks/materials/resources available for the brightest to be intellectually challenged. Such a methodology ensures that the inalienable rights of every learner are recognized and applied effectively focuses on the unique needs of every child.
In some cases, to meet all students’ learning needs, it is pertinent to utilize learning support services. In most cases learning support is provided by a specialist learning support teacher ‘pushing in” to the classroom. When best practice is adopted, the learning support teacher works in tandem with the Homeroom teacher in all aspects of the planning, delivery and assessment of a lesson. Subsequently, the learning support teacher is most effective in empowering the children s/he supports in accessing the curriculum and fulfilling their full academic potential. In the modern educational era, teachers are fortunate to have significant amounts of data on their students and utilise such data to gauge where each student is in their learning and build a learner profile for their whole class. This includes those students with special educational needs, the ablest but also those often-neglected students who are “in the middle.” Historically such students have quietly got on with their work and have rarely focused on the educational dialogue. The increased usage of data in 21st Century learning means that all students can have individual targets for their learning progression. Through differentiated instruction, all can learn at their own pace and be challenged according to their prior attainment. Differentiated instruction, when best implemented, enables all students to have a personalized curriculum and be the recipient of an individualized approach to learning.
The mission of Catholic educators is “that all may have life and have it to the full.” (Jn 10: 10) The effective utilization of differentiation is intrinsically linked to our mission as Catholic teachers. Children have a right to learn and to achieve their full potential. Modern educationalists might talk about “no child being left behind” and “every child matters”, but this has been the Catholic perspective since time immemorial.
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