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Differentiated instruction has become a distinguishing feature of today’s curriculum realities. With the growing emphasis on learner-centered instruction, teachers and education professionals seek to utilize learners’ brain adeptly and in ways that reveal its natural potentials. The current state of research confirms that, although the human brain shares certain commonalities and general characteristics, the way it processes new information and deals with the challenges presented by the environment varies considerably across individuals. In order to translate neuroscience research into practice and create a differentiated atmosphere in the classroom, teachers should respect each student, flexible grouping, ongoing assessment, and regular feedback to inform the learning progress. Students should be able to provide an input in curriculum development and instruction in their classroom.
That brain supports differentiation is a well-known fact. An extensive body of neuroscience research confirms the importance of differentiation and provides profound implications for the learning and curriculum processes. The general idea behind differentiation is that, despite certain common characteristics, individual brains display considerably different features and capabilities to process new information. Crawford (2008) speaks about the way individual brains recognize, process, and assign emotional significance to everything new. “Brain imaging of neural activity during learning discloses an astonishing multifaceted communication network that is comprised of three smaller networks, each functioning distinctively and collectively as students learn” (Crawford, 2008, p.7). These include the network of recognition, the strategic network, and the affective network (Crawford, 2008). These networks parallel the three main aspects of Vygotsky’s theory of learning – information recognition, learning engagement, and strategic processing (Crawford, 2008).
Each of the three neural networks has specialized tissues, whose functions are different. Some of them are designed to respond to auditory stimuli, while others operate to recognize and process visual information and patterns (Crawford, 2008). For instance, in the affective netork, specialized areas and tissues can assign positive or negative emotions to various aspects of the learning process (Crawford, 2008). The learning process always involves all three neural networks, with the recognition network processing the new information, the strategic network identifying the chief learning goal and developing a strategy, and the affective network providing emotional responses to the learning progress (Crawford, 2008). Needless to say, in different students, these neural pathways operate in entirely different ways. Each student has certain strengths and weaknesses, talents and habits. Consequently, learners cannot be reduced to stable categories. Rather, they need access to diverse learning methods and approaches in order to succeed in their studies.
The current state of neuroscience research confirms the importance of differentiation in the classroom. It is due to the differences in brain processing capacities noted above that teachers must avoid standardization and uniformity in their instructional decisions. The benefits of differentiated instruction are obvious. First, in a differentiated classroom, all students participate in the learning process and benefit from it. They control the pace of their learning progress and are in charge of their learning decisions (Anderson, 2007). Differentiated instruction is student-centered, which means that it is designed to meet students’ exclusive needs and help them achieve the predetermined learning goal in ways that best suit them and their brain capacity. Differentiation in the classroom is importance, as it reflects the unique features and talents of students. At the same time, it enables students to assume responsibility for their activities and classroom work (Anderson, 2007). Differentiated instruction makes teachers more flexible in how they respond to students’ talents and decisions. It promotes creativity and openness in classroom activities (Anderson, 2007). In the differentiated classroom, teachers are responsive rather than reactive, since they are more aware of the unique personalities, abilities and backgrounds of their students (Anderson, 2007).
The main question is how neuroscientists’ findings can be translated into a student-centered curriculum. Sousa and Tomlinson (20011) suggest that differentiated instruction is not a set of specific learning strategies but, rather, a way of thinking about learning and teaching. The concept of differentiated instruction provides a framework for the development and implementation of various learning activities but, at all times, teachers who pursue differentiation should show respect for their students and, at the same time, develop their individual profiles. It is through respect that teachers can engage students in a variety of learning activities and tasks (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011). It is by creating students’ individual profiles that teachers can develop better awareness of their unique talents and learning needs (Anderson, 2007). Here, differentiated instruction can also involve flexible grouping, when grouping configurations with students are different at each level of the learning process (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2007). Finally, ongoing assessments and challenging tasks should become part of the learning process in the differentiated classroom. The results of the ongoing assessment and regular feedback should continuously inform the curriculum development process and provide teachers with the information they might need to update the curriculum and make sure the learning resources they provide respond students’ diverse knowledge needs.
Contemporary research confirms that individual brains differ considerably in their information processing capacity. Neural networks are designed in ways that make individuals exclusive in their learning needs. Different learning activities result in different emotions, depending on the student and context, which further confirms the importance of differentiated instruction. Differentiation is essential, since students have different learning needs, abilities, and talents. It is through differentiation that education professionals can engage students in diverse learning tasks and empower them to assume responsibility for their learning progress. The way differentiated instruction is implemented will vary, depending on many factors, but respect for every student, flexibility, creativity, ongoing assessment, and challenging tasks should always be part of any differentiation strategy in the classroom.
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