A recent controversy over representation of how students are taught in public schools has served to highlight the impact of differentiation on contemporary classrooms. Differentiation is, essentially, teaching the same material to all students, but tailoring it to individual students using varied instructional strategies, content, processes, and expected student products. Instruction is differentiated to best meet the needs of learners, who come into our classrooms with varied learning styles, preferences, and competencies. Some learners, for example, prefer and/or excel with content that is presented visually, others aurally, and still others by moving or “doing”. Along these same lines, learners also possess varying competency in areas outlined by Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. These include: linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, visual-spatial intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and naturalistic intelligence. This quiz can help you find where you rank in each of these areas; for me, I proved to be strongest in intrapersonal intelligence, i.e. self-awareness and management, musical intelligence, and linguistic intelligence, i.e. facility with words in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. These results are not surprising; I intentionally engage in regular personal reflection, I have spent a lifetime and career teaching and performing music, and I have found success in academic settings as both a student and a teacher; along with logical-mathematical intelligence, verbal-linguistic intelligence is a key indicator of likely success in school. Therefore, for a learner like me, activities that include self-reflection, creativity, and the opportunity to both read, write, and exchange ideas with others are effective. For another learner, of course, the exact opposite may be true; hence, the need for differentiation.
In instructional design, we do our best in the analysis phase of a project to identify our target audience, i.e. our learners, including their demographic makeup, strengths and weaknesses, prior learning and performance, and more. This is done so that we can tailor instructional activities to best meet learner needs. However, in a case where specific data on learners is unavailable, or, like a project I am working on now, the content is targeted to a generalized audience, such as “all ninth graders in the state of Texas”, then instructional designers must take a different approach to learner-centered design. In such a case, the designer must simply assume that learners will present with varying degrees of learning styles and competencies, and then design learning-theory-backed activities that make use of multiple modalities of instruction. As discussed in previous posts, this can be accomplished through application of Constructivist learning theory and Project-Based Learning. In this way, the instructional designer differentiates his or her designed instruction, in the hopes of increasing the likelihood of learning objective mastery from the learner.