Opinion: The value of differentiated learning

Opinion: The value of differentiated learning

Differentiated education offers an alternative to the common approach of “teaching to the mean” in narrowing the gap between students with different learning abilities

If you measure people’s heights, you find that most are around the average, with very few being extremely tall or short. When plotted on a graph, this distribution of data forms a bell-shaped curve, something which educators and parents in Hong Kong should know all about.

That is because most schools in the territory still use the concept of “teaching to the mean”. In essence, they teach at a level best suited to children clustered around the average.

This means that those in a classroom who are either struggling to keep up or more gifted are not receiving meaningful instruction. This is a particular concern for those at the lower end since their academic struggles are only likely to increase if not properly addressed. A widening gap can easily affect their self-esteem and feelings towards education in general.

But differentiated teaching offers an alternative. It is the opposite of teaching to the mean and focuses on individual strengths and weaknesses. The aim is to work with each student at a level that challenges them appropriately, while also providing different avenues to success.

For example, a dyslexic child finding it hard to spell non-phonemic words may have a strong visual memory. So, being taught to use visual mnemonics can help their spelling. In such ways, differentiated teaching empowers all students to access lesson content and plays to their strengths.

Another version of the same principle might see struggling and advanced students taken out of the classroom and given specialised instruction. Already, this is fairly commonplace in Hong Kong schools and, within defined limits, it is a good start.

Ideally, though, differentiated learning should be done within the classroom. The intention is to create a learning environment where students at various levels engage with each other, but are still taught in ways appropriate to them.

Doing this avoids the possible social stigma of students being pulled out of a classroom, something they are all aware of to a certain extent. It also normalises the idea of working in mixed-level, inclusive groups.

This helps students learn to empathise with others and accurately reflects the types of situation they will encounter outside school hours and in adult life. If we want to pay more than lip service to embracing individual strengths and weaknesses, we should create classrooms which reflect that.
The bell curve is emblematic of this desire to improve our education system. We cannot simply disregard the needs of those who are at either end of the curve or pigeon-hole those outside the mean.

Whether assessing literacy, numeracy, focus or any one of the many metrics we can use, we must remember that the bell curve is a spectrum and that all students are at different points along it.
We can no more deny them a meaningful education for being on the lower end for, say, attention span or language acquisition that we could for being taller or shorter than the average.

Looking at the bell curve in this way is at the heart of the differentiated and inclusive approach to education. We believe that falling outside the mean should never be a reason to end up outside the classroom.

Henrik Hoeg is the director of literacy at the Jadis Blurton Family Development Center and graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Psychology.