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  • Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn

One Size Does Not Fit All (S&C Editor's Note)

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

Learning is certainly not a “one size fits all” kind of experience. We learn in many different ways, through many different modalities, and from many different sources. Teachers have always been aware of these learning differences and have tried to accommodate and individualize learning to fit student’s needs. At times this task of differentiating can feel overwhelming and insurmountable when thinking in terms of how to address each child’s need separately or mistakenly through defined learning styles.

Dr. Howard Gardner, the progenitor of Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory, laments the misappropriation of MI as it has become erroneously mixed with terms such as learning styles. Labeling students as visual learners or impulsive carries unnecessary consequences and are not helpful in the ultimate goal of reaching children. Dr. Gardner encourages the elimination of “learning styles” from the conversation.

So how do we go about differentiating lessons in a preschool or elementary class filled with students with individual needs? Do we Individualize, pluralize, or both? How do teachers begin to address the need for individualized work through multi-measured presentations with consistency?

First, teachers will need to develop a pedagogical mindset and toolkit for assessing (read all about formative assessment in the July issue of Science and Children) and incorporating differentiation fluidly and with fidelity, therefore, enabling students to make sense and connect learning as they develop skills and strategies within a framework of varying levels of support.

We can all harken back to the days with the Red, Yellow, and Green tiered groups for reading and math. These were not differentiated groups, rather wholistic groups of students deemed to be above, on, or below grade level. Students were not treated as individuals, and with little chance to move between groups, the labels limited their ability to grow, expand, and celebrate strengths or accomplishments.

Differentiation needs to be case-by-case and day-by-day. Teachers need to rely on real-time data and information to make decisions about what supports are most prudent so that all students can move the learning needle forward. Rather than relying on summative results, teachers must attend to and collectively work with students to help them achieve goals and increase their level of independence in their learning. Celebrating growth in all aspects of learning, whether content, skill, strategy, or other defined element, should become the norm.

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