Differentiated Instructions in the Middle School Classroom

Abstract

Meeting the specific needs of each student in a diverse learning environment is one of the significant challenges that teachers face nowadays. Such a scenario is based on the fact that learners have different needs, which have to be addressed adequately for a chance to boost their academic performance. The adoption of the differentiated instruction in middle school has been considered to solve this challenge as well as ensure that the academic outcomes of all learners improve. This study sought to investigate the concept of differentiated instruction with a specific focus on establishing the attitudes of learners as well as the perceptions that educators have about its adoption and implementation in schools. In addition, the study aims at establishing the definition of differentiated instruction, its effectiveness as far as the academic outcomes of learners are concerned, reasons for its implementation, as well as the various strategies of differentiation that are applicable in a classroom setting.

A total of 213 students, where female and male students were 104 and 109 respectively, were involved in this study. Out of these, 44 had various disabilities, whereas 35 were learners of the English language. The study involved control and experimental groups whereby the control condition involved the use of traditional instruction materials, while the experimental condition comprised of curriculum enhancement materials.

The results from the survey indicated that the learners had a positive attitude towards differentiated instruction, while the teachers reported that the approach was effective as far as boosting the academic performance of learners was concerned.

Introduction

Background Information

Nowadays, a lot of changes are evident in the different teaching and learning models that are used by both the teachers and learners (Bray et al., 2014). Such changes can be attributed to the introduction and use of advanced technology in the education sector. Following the adoption of various learning approaches, teachers have been able to significantly improve the academic outcomes of learners. In spite of the various teaching and learning models, teachers ought to understand the needs and demands of every student to ensure that the learning strategy used is learner-centered (Zendler & Klaudt, 2015). The differentiated instruction model is an example of such a learning approach where the emphasis is given on the adjustment of instructions for the purpose of accommodating each learner’s needs, as opposed to starting at a set point (Ruys, Defruyt, Rots, & Aelterman, 2013). This learning approach differs from the traditional instruction in that it adequately addresses the learning challenges of the advanced as well as the struggling learners, while in the case of traditional instruction, the primary focus is teaching to the middle.

Based on the diversity of the majority of the educational population nowadays, it is becoming important for educators to adopt the differentiated instruction approach. This is attributable to the fact that the increase in diversity has led to the emergence of learners who have various cultural backgrounds, as well as different levels of ability (de Jager, 2013). In spite of the fact that such learners are in one classroom, the traditional approach of teaching does not take into consideration the impact of such diversity and different learning abilities on the academic outcomes of each student.

The adoption of the differentiated instruction within the learning environment, as well as the use of constructivist-based theories, provide learners with a platform that they can use to advance their previous knowledge while at the same time using their already gained competences (Dobbie & Fryer Jr, 2013). In addition, instructors are in a position to rely on various attributes of the learners for the purpose of developing lessons that have a significant impact on all learners.

Problem Statement

The overreliance on the traditional approach of teaching does not address the needs of all learners adequately. This assertion is based on the fact that one classroom can have learners who are diverse in terms of cultural backgrounds and learning abilities. The implication is that learners with low, middle, and advanced learning capabilities require a platform that is conducive for all regardless of their competencies. Such a problem can be solved through the adoption of differentiated instruction where instructors are required to prepare lessons that take into consideration the needs of all learners in terms of their background knowledge, interests, as well as readiness. It is based on the concept that providing learners with competences and practical skills necessitates the development of an interdisciplinary understanding by the teachers for the purpose of ensuring that the education systems align with the needs and demands of the ever-changing educational environment.

In spite of the significance of this model of teaching, not many schools have adopted it due to the numerous challenges including the failure to have the required time because of tight schedules, the lack of the necessary expertise in the concept, as well as the belief that this model is one of those educational trends which are passing. For these reasons, the subject of differentiated instruction is worth investigating to provide understanding regarding its impact on the academic outcomes of learners.

Purpose of the Study

This study seeks to examine the concept of differentiated instruction with a specific focus on the perceptions that educators have about its adoption and implementation in schools. In addition, the study aims at establishing the definition of differentiated instruction, its effectiveness as far as the academic outcomes of learners are concerned, the reasons for its implementation, as well as the various strategies of differentiation that are applicable in a classroom setting.

Review of Past Research

The background of differentiated instruction is founded on the constructivism theory, and hence, it draws support from various theorists. This can be inferred from the fact that persona experiences are important in the construction of right and wrong during the process of learning. In addition, it is practically impossible for learners to understand as well as use given knowledge instantaneously, as they are required to create their own knowledge with a lot of support from past experiences (Hargreaves, 2013). As such, the success of learners especially in the case of differentiated instruction, there is a need for emphasis to be put on previous knowledge. Such consideration is based on the fact that people are different as far as their knowledge base is concerned.

In the case of differentiated instruction, teachers are considered to be facilitators of information, whereas learners are the receptors of such information, which can be expanded through research. Empirical evidence indicates that learners are quite successful in cases where collaboration is adopted in the course of teaching and learning (Ruys et al., 2013; Hargreaves, 2013). As such, active participation of learners among themselves develops constructivism.

Despite the belief among some educators that the differentiated instruction is another passing whim, which is new to the education sector, it is important to understand that this concept has been there for long even during the one-room-schoolhouse times. Following the passage of the ‘Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004’, as well as the ‘No Child Left Behind Act in 2001’, there has been an increase in the level of differences that teachers encounter within the education setting nowadays. For this reason, there have been concerns over the need for qualified teachers who can handle learners with all forms of differences. This is attributable to the fact that the passage of the two Acts championed for the education of learners with various disabilities in one classroom with their counterparts who have no disabilities. Such a scenario has since presented teachers with numerous challenges as they try to adjust their teaching approaches in order to take care of the needs of all students. However, the adoption of the differentiated instruction model of teaching has greatly helped educators to ensure that the requirements of the federal laws that advocate for the education of learners in one classroom regardless of their disabilities are met.

Following the enactment of the above laws, it has become possible for all learners to be treated equally in terms of academic standards without any form of discrimination based on disability status. In spite of this, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires students who have any form of disability to be provided with numerous chances to participate in inclusion educational setting. As such, the adoption of the differentiated instruction can be significant in ensuring that learners with disabilities compete favorably with the counterparts.

Defining Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction can be defined as a teaching approach where consideration is given to the needs of all learners (Janine, 2014). As such, this approach seeks to ensure that all learners achieve a common goal despite the strategies adopted for them to get there. However, a number of definitions exist (Michalsky & Schechter, 2013). For example, some scholars define differentiated instruction as a deliberate as well as conscious approach to planning and teaching, which is based on the provision of numerous learning avenues to students and aims at achieving clearly defined goals (Hargreaves, 2013). According to other scholars, this approach can be considered to be any plan that focuses on a teaching methodology that, though applicable to a whole class, specializes in meeting the individual needs of each learner (Bray et al., 2014).

Despite the different definition of differentiated instruction, the basic idea is that teachers ought to be equipped with skills that help them to address the academic needs of all learners despite the varied differences.

As such, the primary focus of the idea of differentiated instruction is the need for teachers to emphasize on the essential elements of learning, understanding and responding to learners’ differences, effective collaboration between learners and teachers, as well as establishing the link between instruction and assessment. This assertion explains the fact that despite different definition of differentiated instruction, the primary objective is the same (Hargreaves, 2013; Janine, 2014). Based on this statement, it is evident that this approach uses unique methodology for each learner to achieve the set goals depending on the unique needs of each learner. This is instigated by the fact that the majority of the classes constitute of learners with different level of understanding and hence, the differentiated approach ensures that the needs of such types of learners are met irrespective of their grade levels. Therefore, such an approach is important in the contemporary education sector as far as the needs and demands of struggling students are concerned.

Efficiency of differentiated instruction

The success of this approach is determined by the understanding of the learners’ knowledge as far as academic performance is concerned. As such, all teachers are required to carry out effective pre-assessment of their students before implementing the differentiated learning approach as such investigation provides them with the necessary information about the specific needs of each student (Janine, 2014). On the other hand, educators are required to have a reflection of classroom activities aimed at ensuring that the needs of all learners are met.

Several studies have been carried out that examine the efficiency of differentiate instruction in the improvement of academic outcomes of learners. For example, Michalsky and Schechter (2013) investigated its role in the motivation of learners to read and found put the grades of the majority the students studied improved significantly. According to de Jager (2013), learners are likely to improve their performance when subjected to the differentiated instruction. On the other hand, Haelermans, Ghysels, and Prince (2014) observed that this model of teaching was highly effective and had positive bearing whenever used in any setting as it led to the improvement of learners’ achievement. This is attributable to the fact that such an approach focuses entirely on the needs of every student. The implication is that any student-centered approach has a high probability of promoting motivation as well as the general learning process.

Research question

What are the perceptions of teachers as far as the adoption and implementation of differentiated instruction in schools is concerned?

Answering the above question will be useful in providing the required information regarding the concept of differentiated instruction, its efficacy, and use in the education setting.

Method

The study used 13 eighth-grade science classes to explore the concept of differentiated learning. Control and experimental conditions were put in place where, teachers were allowed to teach one control and one experimental classroom. A total of 213 students (104 females and 109 males) were involved in this study where 44 of them had various disabilities, while 35 were learners of English language. The mean age for the control and experimental students was 164.3 and 164.2 months respectively.

The achievement of the learners was based on previous high-stake tests. The experimental condition comprised of curriculum enhancement materials, while the control condition comprised of traditional instruction materials including class notes, teacher lecture, and supplementary textbooks. In the control classes, the teachers provided directions for all learning aspects through daily review, presentation of new information, as well as offering guidance and independent practices to the learners. On the other hand, the experimental condition entailed the use of identical presentations as in the case of the control classes by with a lot of time being spent on peer-assisted learning. In addition, the teachers grouped learners according to their abilities and ensured collaboration between one another.

Results

The table below provides a summary of the descriptive analysis of group and treatment condition.

Experimental Control MSE Nondisabled learners Learners w/disabilities MSE
Posttest 23.86 21.90 17.07 23.72 22.04 17.7
High-stakes test 458.87 438.05 4620.8 460.80 436.08 462.08

Table 1: Covariate-adjusted means according to group and treatment condition.

The perceptions of the teachers and attitudes of the learners towards the differentiated instruction were assessed using a survey. It was evident that the learners had varying attitudes regarding the individual activities, and ranged between 2.2 to 3.8 based on a 5-point scale where 1 signified liked very little, and 5 indicated liked very much. In addition, an attitude score was examined where, it was reported that learners with disabilities who were involved in this study had the highest score (mean of 43.0) when compared to their counterparts who had a mean of 40.9. Generally, the learners indicated high percentage of approval for the learning activities where all of them were involved.

On the side of the teachers, much value was expressed regarding the experimental materials and reported that such an approach was important for the purpose of boosting the learning outcomes of lower-grade level learners. The majority of the teachers indicated that the differentiated instruction had a high potential of increasing the learners’ academic performance.

Discussion

The current study sought to establish the perceptions of teachers regarding the use of differentiated instruction in middle school. The results from the survey indicated that teachers were more likely to adopt this learning approach since they reported that it had a high potential of improving the learning outcomes of students. In addition, the results of the study showed that the learners had positive attitudes towards the implementation of the differentiated instruction model of teaching. This was evident where the mean of learners with disabilities 43.0 compared to 40.9 for the case of non-disabled learners. This implies that the learners with disability felt that their needs were met_ which is what the model is all about.

In terms of the efficiency of the differentiated instruction, it was evident from the study that there was a high chance of learners’ outcome improving since the experimental approach provided enough room for peer-assisted learning as well as constructive learner and teacher collaboration. Such findings align with the results of past studies where it has been reported that the differentiated instruction is a student-centered approach that takes into consideration the specific needs of the learners (Hargreaves, 2013).

In spite of the fact that this the adoption of technology in education can improve the academic outcomes of learners, concerns have been raised over the requirement among classroom teachers to ensure that they meet the needs of all students. This has been instigated by the fact that some learning content is quite challenging and can be practically impossible to meet the diverse needs of all learners (Laurillard et al., 2013). However, the adoption of the differentiated learning approach can be instrumental in solving this challenge. This is based on the fact that such an approach entails curriculum enhancements, as well as peer-assisted learning tailored for the specific needs of each learner.

One of the significant challenges associated with this model is the lack of enough time for the teachers to adopt as well as implement the differentiated instruction in class since the available time is limited to covering course content (Little, McCoach, & Reis, 2014).

Nevertheless, there is a need for future studies to examine the perceptions of teachers regarding the use of differentiated instruction whenever applied in other subjects, as well as in other grade levels. Based on the results of this study, it is important for teachers to consider the implementation of differentiated instruction in middle schools for the purpose of boosting the academic performance of all students regardless of their specific needs.

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