Differentiation in an Inclusive Classroom
Special educators have delivered differentiated instruction for decades. After all, the rationale for enrolling students in special education is that in this setting, they will receive more individualized and specialized attention than would be available in regular education. Special education classes are almost always smaller than regular education classes; they have as few as six students with one teacher and one or more paraprofessionals. The assumption is that the special education teacher can focus on the precise learning needs of each student. Each lesson plan contains a variety of activities or access points into the curriculum. Teaching assistants monitor each of the different activities.
Federal law mandates that public school students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment” that is appropriate according to their specific needs. For many students with disabilities, the least restrictive environment is the general education classroom, where they learn alongside their peers without disabilities. Since we as a profession are confident that inclusive education is ideal, we have devoted attention to determining how best to implement inclusive education.
Differentiated instruction has become the engine for implementing inclusion. General education teachers are now infusing flexibility into their lesson plans, so that all students have the opportunity to engage deeply with the material. When you observe a second grade classroom today, you might find some students solving arithmetic problems with pencil and paper, while other students are using concrete manipulatives to solve the same problems. Facilitating instruction in this way is not an easy feat, especially since general education classes often have 20 or more students. Yet the teacher is still responsible for planning and supervising differentiated learning that is tailored to meet the needs of each child in his or her care.
Teachers have created brilliant strategies to meet the challenge of providing differentiated instruction in the 21st century classroom. Some of these strategies are described here, and the further questions that they raise and the new directions for the field will be discussed.
Many teachers recognize that a well-organized classroom can put in place a level of differentiation. It is now standard to see a classroom library organized according to reading level. Books have different colored dots on them, representing different reading levels. Students as young as first grade know how to select a book that will provide a moderate amount of challenge: challenging enough to improve their skills but not so challenging as to be frustrating. The mindset that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach enables students who do not have identified disabilities to receive instruction that is more individualized. It gives all children more choice and empowerment than existed when there was a teacher who stood at the front of the room and delivered the exact same lesson to all 20 students who sat before her.
Nonetheless, regardless of whether we categorize books as “A books” and “B books” or use red and blue dots, kids know who the “good readers” are. They also know who is struggling. And let’s be honest, kids can be mean. Left unanswered is how to facilitate differentiated instruction and simultaneously ensure a classroom environment that is welcoming and supportive of difference. This is a primary challenge for teachers today. We live in an era of competition and cyberbullying, and as we appropriately move towards more inclusive education, our classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse.
So not only do teachers provide multiple access points to the material, they can also use this opportunity to teach tolerance and respect for differences. Continuing with the example of reading level, teachers can empower students to choose a “just right book” for themselves. They teach strategies such as, Choose a book and read the first page. Count with your fingers the words that you cannot figure out. If you have five or more fingers up, you should pick a different book. If you have four fingers or fewer, you have a “just right” book! Such strategies enable children to take control of their own learning. They are taught to be proud of correctly identifying an appropriate book, and they can make this choice subtly. Meanwhile, the fact that the teacher might deliver an entire lesson on choosing a “just right” book signals to the class that there is diversity within the room, and this diversity is normal and appropriate.
In a sense, then, the teacher is preparing the students for the diversity that they will encounter throughout their academic, professional and social lives. At the same time, it instills within each student a sense of responsibility for selecting their own challenges. This is a valuable lesson in self-advocacy, a critical skill for students to acquire while they are still in our care. Students with disabilities must be effective self-advocates. For example, college students with disabilities do not receive academic accommodations unless they request them and provide the necessary documentation. Even if younger students don’t need these skills yet, it is never too early to plant the seeds. Self-knowledge and self-advocacy are also important for students without disabilities, as they begin to select colleges, go on interviews and make career decisions.
Teachers must undertake all of these tasks at a time when others are writing about whether teachers are needed at all. In 2015, The Atlantic published a provocative article titled “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher,” which asked, “When kids get their lessons from the Internet, what’s left for classroom instructors to do?” The need for differentiated instruction in the inclusive classroom renders this question irrelevant. Teachers are still responsible for selecting material for each student and interacting with students in a way that ensures meaningful engagement with the material, whether this material is finger paint or an article on the Internet. They are also on the front line of efforts to raise a generation of children who are respectful of difference, celebrate diversity and take personal responsibility. Teachers still have plenty to do.