Hack Your Classroom: Week 6 - Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners

This is a topic that has long been close to my heart. It really began with a two day conference with Carol Ann-Tomlinson, the woman I consider to be the guru of differentiation. It was her analogy of likening teaching through one mode or strategy as being akin to playing Ten Pin Bowling with just one ball - some days you were lucky a pulled off a strike, but more often you than not,  you only knocked down one or two or more likely achieved a gutter ball. It was this analogy that caused a light bulb moment where I realised by having a singular approach I was quite possibly robbing many of my students of the opportunity of being engaged and learning the best they could.

Tomlinson's approach to differentiation has three layers. She argues that we should be differentiating for student readiness (not the same as ability), student interest and/or student learning style. Learning can then be differentiated by Content (or context), process, product or learning environment.

There is a nice overview of the topic here: Differentiation of Instruction

For me personally, the easiest way to introduce differentiation is through student choice. The PPT below is one that I developed with David (Head of Science Faculty at EGGS) which we used as an introduction for differentiation through choice.

Differentiation and Blended Learning
There is also the fact that pedagogically speaking e-learning or blended learning is actually a no-brainer. We have a responsibility to ensure they way in which we facilitate learning and gather evidence of said learning is inclusive. All students have a right to learn and enjoy success, therefore we must be meeting the needs of a diverse group - not just the select few that learn the way you do or did in your day. Consider differentiation as defined by Carol Ann Tomlinson which seeks to provide a range of learning opportunities differentiated for student readiness' learning style and interest. This is possible in a paper based classroom, but choices will still be limited and controlled by the teacher and the resources made physically available to the learner. You might provide a small range of different activities and maybe texts that a either written or more graphic based. Consider this now in a blended learning environment where if a student can access the Internet they can access unlimited resources - written, visual and oral. A teacher may well need to support a student in locating appropriate material or may even curate a collection for them. The speed and ease in which differentiated learning can be facilitated in a blended environment is incredibly enabling. 

Universal Design for Learning
For me, Universal Design for learning is simply an extension of differentiation. It is about providing choice arounds methods and modes for learning to ensure all learning is inclusive. Universal Design for Learning is based on the idea that to be inclusive teaching and learning needs to provide multiple means of representation (i.e. visual, written oral representation of information), multiple means of expression (i.e. through spoken, written visual presentation of understanding) and multiple means of engagement (i.e. variety of time, place, online offline, pace etc). For the most part this can be achieved by giving students much greater choice and variety in the ways that they receive information and evidence their learning or understanding. 

Universal Design for Learning and Blended Learning
Similarly if you consider the diagram below with a blended learning lens it is again a no-brainer. As stated on the Cast website 

" Universal Design for Learning was initially is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone--not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs." 

Who wouldn't want this for their learners? Providing multiple means of representation (of information), means of expression (evidencing learning) and means of engagement is nigh on impossible in a purely paper-based  classroom, and again it limits it to a single teacher perception of what they think they know about the students ability, learning style, interests or even their mood or tiredness on any given day.


So I guess the #hackyrclass challenge is simple - how are you meeting the diverse needs of your learners? How are you giving them choice and ownership of using the means and modes that best meet their needs and interests?


  1. I support much of what you write in this blog and I'm certainly in admiration for how Hobsonville is pushing the boundaries, but I would like to challenge some of the thinking here if you don't mind. Hopefully it comes across as constructive and not argumentative.

    I think the answer lies in personalising learning and developing students agency, rather than differentiation. I use the former term somewhat nervously because it is interpreted in so many different ways, but for me it is about students taking ownership of the learning and developing their own pathways. Differentiation seems to be about the teacher structuring choices for students based on supposed dispositions and readiness etc. This seems fraught with danger. Why not let the students develop the choices? The teacher supports and challenges the students on this pathway. Sounds like this is what you do at Hobsonville anyway. The link says it all for me - "Differentiation of Instruction". It seems an approach that fits with more direct styles of teaching, rather than self-determined learning. Is it about the teaching or the learning? I think we sometimes overthink the former and underthink the latter.

    The Universal Design for Learning Model seems to be a far better way of framing the learning than differentiation. or am I misunderstanding what differentiation is?

    There is reference to learning styles throughout this post and the slideshow which I think is worth challenging as well. I got caught up in learning styles back in 2002-3 and i remember using VARK learn to try and sort students according to supposed learning styles. What generally happened is that it reinforced or even taught a completely distorted view of how they learn. When we survey students in NetNZ I sometimes see students commenting that the teaching doesn't suit their learning style. This always concerns me. Some learners will use it as a cop out and say "sorry I can't learn that way it doesn't suit me". The reality is the brain is a malleable thing and we all have a remarkable ability to learn in all sorts of ways. I agree with giving students opportunities to do things in a way they prefer, but teachers also have a job to challenge students and take them out of their comfort zone. Otherwise they will develop a very narrow skill set. It is matter of making it a negotiated process where students aren't forced to learn certain ways, but are encouraged to push themselves and try new ways of doing things.

    Interested in your thoughts as you have indicated you have passion for differentiation.

    1. Heartily agree Darren and I think that is why my passion for differentiation as moved to UDL. In recent years my approach to differentiation has been less and less about teacher control and more often simply about student choice and agency. That said, a teacher differentiating in a quite controlling way is still better than not differentiating at all.

      In terms of reference to VARK, I very much used as a point of interest for students and actually an argument for developing their other skills - if they erred toward being visual, how could we then develop their decoding of written texts and so on and so forth. Hence the cartoon.

      Admittedly much of this is the fault of my lazy blog writing (pulling in past resources without proper explanation) ;-)

      I don't think you have misunderstood at all, differentiation is great when used to facilitate student choice and I agree UDL is even better.

      The Differentiation of Instruction is indicative of the time in which it was written - a useful definition albeit through a teacher centric lens.

      Hope that waffily response makes sense!


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