Richard Johnson, English faculty at Kirkwood’s Iowa City Campus, was “knocked back in his chair” by a reading from last semester’s Culturally Responsive Classroom regarding differentiated instructional strategies.  This short 8-page reading was published by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.  In his response to the reading, Richard shares that “the cutting edge idea [many decades ago] was to adjust instructional strategies to accommodate students with special ed needs.  To have even suggested doing so for students from ethnic or linguistic backgrounds would have been seen, at the time, as inappropriate, even insulting, since it would equate cultural difference with special-ed disability.  But this paper made a solid case for differentiating instruction to make it more responsive to cultural difference.”

Comic of zoo animals standing in front of a man who says, "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: Please climb that tree"
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For his final project, Richard made changes to a couple of his assignments from his first-semester education course called Exploring Teaching.  For both of them, he added a requirement to explain how they could differentiate their lesson plans.  Below is a sample of how Richard explains differentiated instruction to his students, referencing the NYU paper.

Differentiated Instruction: Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching and learning for students with different abilities in the same classroom. The theory behind differentiated instruction is that teachers should vary and adapt their approaches to fit the vast diversity of students in the classroom. Teachers who differentiate instruction recognize that students differ in many ways, including prior knowledge and experiences, readiness, language, culture, learning preferences, and interests. They realize they must change the way they teach in order to reach all students. Through differentiated instruction, students will get to the same place, but take different paths. Advocates of differentiated instruction believe that whatever the issue or problem a student might face, with the right teaching approach the student can and will learn. Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile: (1) content – what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information; (2) process – activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content; (3) products – projects that ask the student to demonstrate what he or she has learned in a unit; and (4) learning environment – the way the classroom works and feels.

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Imagine one student in your class, or one group of students, who would benefit from differentiated instruction for this lesson. It might be a sensory disorder (such as vision or hearing loss), or a physical disability (such as a missing limb or confinement to a wheelchair), or a cognitive disability (such as dyslexia or discalcula). Or the difference might not involve a disability at all but, instead, some other sort of difference from most other students in the class. For example, the student might come from a home where a language other than English, or perhaps a different variety of English, is spoken. Or the student’s background may not have prepared the student with the prior learning and experiences that would best prepare the student for your lesson. There may even be cultural reasons why the student might need to be taught in a different way from some or most other members of the class. Imagine one student in your class who comes to you with such a difference. You might alter what is taught, or how it is taught; or you might have that one student demonstrate it differently from other students. Or you might even need to provide a different learning environment for this lesson. Explain the student’s difference, and tell how you could adapt your lesson to better accommodate it.

About Richard Johnson

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Richard Johnson coordinates the English department on the Iowa City campus and teaches courses in composition and literature. He directs the campus Writing Center, and he teaches an introductory course in education for students considering careers as K-12 teachers. He also serves on the board of trustees of Scattergood Friends School.

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