Differentiated instruction offers individualized approaches

Sid Hastings
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An afternoon math lesson among kindergartners at St. Norbert School was an exercise in cooperation and listening.

At the center of each table was a pile of shapes in several colors and sizes. Their task: separate the pile among three attributes: number of sides, color and shape.

"Think about one attribute at a time," teacher Laura Ernst instructed her students. Coming around to each table, she observed how the children worked together to figure out how the shapes needed to be separated.

"What is this?" Ernst asked student Katie Soloman.

"Big yellow; small yellow" she responded, describing the piles of shapes before her.

While the lesson taught the students about attributes, Ernst also intentionally grouped students with different learning abilities to help push them to their personal limits, while meeting their individual learning needs.

It's part of a concept called differentiated instruction, in which students are accommodated according to their specific learning abilities. The concept isn't brand new; it's only been around for the past 20 years, but in terms of educational approaches, that's still considered relatively new.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, an early developer of differentiated instruction, first published on the topic in 1999, She wrote that the approach advocates for classroom planning that keeps students' learning differences in mind — using a heavy dose of common sense.

This fall, Catholic elementary schools in North St. Louis County will implement differentiated instruction into their classrooms, thanks to a $100,000 Beyond Sunday capital campaign grant to the North County Federation of Catholic Schools.

Specifically, the grant will provide one classroom set of 30 Chromebooks for each school, as well as access to professional development opportunities in using Google G Suite and differentiated instruction techniques. Each school will also have at least one teacher on staff who is or will become a certified Google educator.

Teachers recently discussed the details of the grant in their professional learning teams, which bring the North County schools together to share best practices for grade levels and subject areas.

St. Norbert principal Rebecca Nestor worked with Cara Koen, director of advancement for the North County Federation, to write the grant. In her first year as principal at St. Norbert, Nestor has brought an enthusiasm for differentiated instruction to the school. Her staff already has a jump start, reading Tomlinson's book, "The Differentiated Classroom," as part of a group study.

In her first year as a teacher nearly 16 years ago, Nestor immediately picked up on the vast differences in her students' learning abilities and styles, and approached her principal for advice. After watching a video and reading Tomlinson's first book on differentiated instruction, Nestor was hooked.

"Each year as a teacher I was able to see the benefit of it," she said. Instead of using a standard method of teaching the entire class by reading from the book and having them write the answers to questions, she grouped them according to their abilities, and incorporated elements that use different approaches in content, process, learning tools (such as the kindergartners' shapes) and learning environment.

"Kids were catching on, and I was able to target their abilities," she said. "It was 'How could I reach each kid,' and 'What are they good at?'"

The approach has helped improve academic scores and also addresses behavior within the classroom, especially among students who are advanced or struggling. "If they're bored, they're going to act out, and if they're struggling, they might act up as well, because they are going to give up," Nestor said. "You're reaching those two ends. The kids in the middle benefit from all of it."

The support of the North County Federation will make the new approach a team effort among the schools.

"This is an example of how the federation works," Koen said. When one school has a particular strength in education approaches, that "can bleed into the other schools, to principals who may not have that experience. Their teachers will be affected by that, and in turn their students." 

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