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Empowering Teachers with Differentiated Practice in the Classroom

Posted on 25th February 2020 by Annabel Stanley

Differentiated or personalized learning is not a fundamentally new concept. Debates about the benefits of personalized, differentiated, or individualized learning have played an important part in education for decades. Perhaps the most prominent example of this — the Montessori Method — has been established for more than a century. Yet growing access to educational technology is breathing new life into this vital pedagogy debate.

Reality vs Utopia

Differentiated learning is founded on the principle that every individual student should be supported through a personalized learning pathway. In this educational utopia, the strengths and weaknesses of students can be identified and addressed on a truly personalized basis, enabling a learning environment which enhances both engagement and educational achievement. The reality is that such engagement is often aspirational at best for many educators, constrained as they are by the realities of limited time and resources. Yet finding ways to support a more personalised learning approach, despite these real-life challenges, remains a key focus of many educational institutions.

The United Kingdom’s House of Commons Education and Skills Committee stated in The Schools White Paper that “Personalisation is the key to tackling the persistent achievement gaps between different social and ethnic groups. It means a tailored education for every child and young person, that gives them strength in the basics, stretches their aspirations, and builds their life chances. It will create opportunity for every child, regardless of their background.”

It’s true that this stated ambition may sometimes seem in conflict with a push for standardization in schools to assess achievement level. Standardized tests are of course a particularly fraught subject, with a centralised desire for standard achievement measures often in contrast to the push for more personalized learning approaches. A similar argument around the concept of standardization and educational streamlining is found in the potential impact of standardized class ‘setting’, ‘streaming’, or ‘work setting’.

To set or not to set

The ‘setting’ of defined ability groups at an early stage has been shown to negatively impact children at both ends of the ability scale. Influential educational psychologist Carol Dweck highlighted the fundamental psychological challenge of this technique in her famed ‘growth mindset’ approach. Her conclusion was that lower ability groups suffer from low self-esteem and lack of motivation by the perceived lower status of their educational group. Meanwhile, streamlined higher ability groups often suffer from negative pressure of expectation. The central principle of the growth mindset approach is that we should nurture a mindset that encourages children to believe that talents and abilities can be developed through personalized challenge, with the appropriate educational support.

A longitudinal two-year analysis published in the British Educational Research Journal in 1999 found that “Ability-grouping was associated with curriculum polarisation. This was enacted through restriction of opportunity to learn for students in lower sets, and students in top sets being required to learn at a pace which was, for many students, incompatible with understanding. The same teachers employed a more restricted range of teaching approaches with ‘homogeneous’ groups than with mixed ability groups which impacted upon the students’ experiences in profound and largely negative ways. Almost all of the students interviewed from ‘setted groups’ were unhappy with their placement.” (Boaler, William, Brown, 1999)

The profound implications of unhappy students needs no explanation for educators. The importance of engagement in education through fun is at the heart of Sumdog’s own core values. It is also a critical element of what proponents of differentiated learning argue it can deliver, by providing personalized engagement that promotes educational achievement. That’s particularly true when it comes to providing an educational framework that supports children of all ability levels.

It’s all about achievement

The Scottish Government report, Closing the Attainment Gap, What Can Schools Do?, cites OECD (2008: 9) that “Learning sciences research suggests that more effective learning will occur if each learner receives a customized learning experience.”

The UK’s Department for Education and Skills (DfES) commissioned a study in 2007 looking at the value of personalized learning. While the report focuses on secondary school education, it draws attention to studies by Hargreaves (2006), Rudduck et al. (2005) and Leadbeater (2005), highlighting “These reports suggested that personalized learning was characterised by high levels of participation of students and staff in the schools, learning to learn and student voice.”

Studies undertaken in the United States seem to corroborate findings which show benefits in educational achievement from differentiated learning. A RAND study published in 2015 examined the achievements of 62 public charter and district schools in the US pursuing personalized learning practices. More than two-thirds of participating students were in elementary grades. “The achievement findings indicate that compared to peers, students in schools using personalized learning practices are making greater progress over the course of two school years, and that those students who started out behind are catching up to perform at or above national averages.”(Pane, Steiner, Baird, Hamilton, 2015)

Meeting student needs through technology

Meeting the needs of a diverse student group is central to effective personalized learning practice. A 2008 study carried out in the United States analysed the impact of enriched and personalized learning in closing the achievement gap in a single elementary school, with a particular focus on culturally, linguistically, ethnically, and economically diverse groups.

“This enrichment approach resulted in improved student achievement and the reduction of the achievement gap between rich and poor and among different ethnic groups… They were designed to actively engage students in unique and enriched learning experiences and to provide children with opportunities to apply the skills they had learned during the school day in new settings.” (Beecher, Sweeny, 2008)

The body of evidence supporting differentiated learning in the classroom is why Sumdog has established its own personalized learning functionality. This empowers teachers to offer simple, user-friendly, and individualized practice that can help support educational achievement for students. It is positioned to leverage the identified benefits of differentiated learning, while acknowledging the substantial time and resource challenges for educators in planning fully personalized learning pathways. It also recognises the importance of providing children access to personalized learning opportunities beyond the school day.

Personalized learning offers a promising approach to promote educational achievement in mixed ability classrooms. Such classrooms are likely to require an equally mixed ability approach to learning. Technology can play a part in that, as this powerful article by Sal Khan of Khan Academy spells out. Personalized learning through Sumdog aims to offer teacher-friendly opportunity in realising the benefits of differentiated practice. The ability to set individual learning objectives not only provides a direct method of differentiation support for students, but also frees up teacher time, enabling them to provide a more direct teaching approach to other students who might need it. Technology cannot, and indeed will not, ever replace teachers. What it can offer is a powerful tool to support teachers to deliver a more differentiated classroom in practice.


Discover more:

Why and how to implement differentiated learning – advice from a teacher in New Jersey

Perspectives on personalized practice from a teacher in London