What is the difference between differentiation and personalised learning? These two concepts have existed for decades in education and have been tried and tested. To most educators, differentiation means adapting some aspect of instruction or assessment to be more effective in teaching and learning for diverse groups of students with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom or learning environment. Personalised learning is similar in describing a school, for example, where every student in every classroom is fully engaged because their individual learning needs, interests, aspirations and cultural backgrounds are being addressed in what they are doing at any particular time.
Reading this as a teacher, you might have just broken a cold sweat and warded off a panic attack by considering another career. This perspective on personalised learning is a big call and seems impossible in the classrooms of 2016. In the New Media Consortium’s most recent Horizon Report: 2016 K-12 Education, they identify personalised learning as an imperative as well as a “wicked challenge” – one that is complex to define, much less address.
The most advanced students are 5 – 6 years ahead of the least advanced
If we reframe the personalised learning concept as a vision or goal, differentiation becomes action-oriented as the diverse range of strategies we might employ to realise the vision. When strategy is planned over a number of years and operates collaboratively at all levels in a school, from classrooms to the Principal’s office, the work is more engaging, the vision more realistic and the goal more achievable.
Differentiation typically entails modifications to the content to be learned (based on what students already know), process (how the lesson is designed), products (the kinds of work products students are expected to create) and assessment (how teachers measure what students have learned). The real complexity of differentiating instruction and realising a vision of personalised learning emerges because students in the same class are likely to be at very different points in their learning and development. The most advanced students in any school year in Australian schools are typically five to six years ahead of the least advanced students.
Relationship between effort and success
If all students are to be engaged in learning that stretches and challenges them, it must be differentiated to meet the needs of all students and ensure that every student achieves the growth we expect. If we approach education with the assumption that students in the same year of school are more or less equally ready for the same learning experiences and challenges, less advanced students will struggle. For some of these students, low grades year after year sends a message that they are inherently poor learners and fails to acknowledge the long-term progress they are actually making, undermining their confidence in the relationship between effort and success. At the same time, more advanced students can remain unchallenged and are able to easily reach expectations of performance, because they start each school year ahead of their peers. Actual year-on-year growth can be difficult to identify for these students and the relationship between effort and success is not so clear.
Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset is a vital part of any personalised learning culture. Regardless of where students are in their learning at any particular time, every student is capable of making further progress. Although students in the same classroom may be at very different points in their learning and may be progressing at different rates, every student is considered capable of and commended for successful progress if they are engaged, motivated and provided with appropriately challenging learning opportunities and activities. Excellent progress becomes an expectation of every student, no matter where they start.
With a vision for personalised learning, differentiation the strategy and expected progress for each child the success indicator, achieving learning differentiation can become a reality.
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