Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 1

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation

R. Nystuen

Edcmm 802.6 Dr. R. Schwier February 28, 2009

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 2 Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation Introduction Last spring, I attended the TLt “Learning in a Digital World" conference in Saskatoon, and one of the keynote speakers, George Siemens, talked about a new breed of learner called the "twitch learner". This, accompanied with the recent talk in the news about "generation o"— also called “generation y”, “the Net generation” or the “Web 2.0 Generation”—started me to think about how best to engage and motivate and ultimately reach these learners in the classroom. In this paper, I will argue for a “new” type of classroom that is differentiated so that it taps into the needs of this “new” type of learner; traditional methods used in schools’ today often fail to engage many learners and can easily miss some learners completely. Characteristics of the “New” Type of Learner Learners today differ from the past. Engaged, motivated, self-directed, and diverse learning styles characterize contemporary learners. Today’s learners are wealthy in terms of access to media and communication, and they demand engagement in everything they do (Prensky, 2005). Prensky claims that the students of today all “have something in their lives that’s really engaging—something that they do and that they are good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it” (Prensky, 2005, p. 62). Further to this, Junco and Mastrodicasa (2007) state that this “net generation” shares seven main personality characteristics that include the following. First, this generation believes they are special, because their baby boomer parents took an active role in their childhood development. They have always been sheltered from any type of harmful situations. This generation is confident in that they expect to hear good news,

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 3 are skillful negotiators and expect beneficial results. Another personality trait of this type of learner is that, unlike their rebellious parents, these learners are very conventional. These learners are more connected to each other and are very team-oriented, and believe in achieving. Finally, because they are so achievement oriented, these learners also feel pressured (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007). As such, the new type of learner has several unique characteristics that differentiate him or her from the traditional classroom learner. In the traditional classroom, the teacher decides the scope and direction of learning, as well as evaluation which usually occurs at the end of a unit of study and which is the same for all students. In terms of motivation, today’s learners do not respond well to this type of instruction and evaluation. Today’s learners respond better to evaluation that is on going and meaningful. Prensky (2008) says that better results occur when students are allowed to “take the lead on technology products”, students share the evaluation with the teacher, so that “the teacher takes on the valuable role of explainer, context provider, meaning maker, and evaluator/coach” (p.45). Thus, rather than waiting until the end of a unit of study to evaluate, the evaluation happens en-route, and the students share the evaluative role. Furthermore, schools, according to Prensky (2008), are most often about the past and what has happened up until now, but this is no longer relevant for learners who are most concerned about the future. Today’s learners want to be able to connect their learning to the here and now. They want to know how the learning they are engaged in will help them later on in their lives. As Prensky so aptly says, “covering the material and preparing kids for the test is not preparing them for the future” (p. 45). Another characteristic of this learner is that role models are no longer parents or teachers, but peers. Students of today are far ahead of their parents in the technology level, and more

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 4 often than not, instead of nurturing their skills in this area by encouraging them to explore technology and develop their skills critical thinking about the various uses of technology, they tell their children to get off the computer, get off the phone and get outside. They would do better to sit down with the child and engage in the use of technology with them. In this way, perhaps the guidance of parents and teachers would gain credibility because now, even though a teacher or parent may have better skills than the peers of learners, peer-to-peer modeling often has more effect (Driscoll, 2005). This new learner is also more self-directed than learners of the past and much of their learning takes place away from school when they participate in blogs, and all of the various social networking such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as participating in alternate reality worlds such as Second Life. They also extend their learning by uploading videos onto YouTube or by playing complex video games (Prensky, 2005). In Lessons From Skateboarders, Sagor (2002) talks about how skateboarders, similar to the learners of today, achieve mastery by trying a particular stunt hundreds of times and they do this in supportive groups. They push themselves to achieve personal bests and are unconcerned about how they compare to others in the group. Finally, this new type of learner engages in three diverse learning styles, mainly visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and uses all of Gardner’s multiple intelligences while engaging in their self-directed learning (Web 2.0 Learning Styles, 2008).

Definition of and evidence for differentiated instruction Carol Ann Tomlinson is one of the leaders of the differentiated instruction movement that, though around for at least twenty years for gifted and talented students, has slowly begun to shape regular classrooms as a way of addressing the needs of all learners. The

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 5 following main characteristics, according to Tomlinson (1995), identify a differentiated classroom: instruction is driven by principles while focused on concepts; assessment of learners is part of the curriculum and done continually so that teachers can determine the growth of learners and their readiness to move onto new things; learners are constantly working in different grouping patterns and while teachers guide the exploration of learning; students own their learning by becoming responsible for it (pars. 6-9). Tomlinson also suggests that to be truly differentiated, a classroom doesn’t just adjust the level of difficulty of questions for students of varying abilities, nor does the teacher simply grade some students harder and others more easily. To be truly differentiated, the classroom has to “offer a variety of learning options designed to tap into different readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles” by using “ (1) a variety of ways for students to explore curriculum content, (2) a variety of sense-making activities or processes through which students can come to understand and "own" information and ideas, and (3) a variety of options through which students can demonstrate or exhibit what they have learned” (pars. 3- 4). Tomlinson suggests that the differentiated classroom would have, among other things, many different computer programs, learning contracts, tasks and products that have been designed with multiple intelligences in mind, criteria for final products that have been negotiated by the student and teacher, and so on (par. 21). Definition and Discussion of Learning Styles Learning styles are the preferred ways that people process information or learn new things, and the three most common learning styles include kinesthetic, visual and auditory—learning by doing, learning by seeing and learning by hearing. The learners of today, in general, learn while using all three of these styles. In addition to this, Lower (2008) states that the new generation of learner prefers learning environments that are structured, fast moving and infused with technology. Thus, to meet the needs of these

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 6 learners, teachers should engage them in learning that mirrors the world they experience outside the classroom. Outside the classroom, students are engaged in downloading music, creating music, instant-messaging, discussions and even watching events such as wars or being a part of movements to stop environmental destruction (Prensky, 2008). Definition and Discussion of Self-Directed Learning The ultimate goal of schools should be to create and foster the growth of selfdirected learners. Self-directed learners are active instead of passive and self-directed learning occurs when learners take responsibility for the direction of their learning. Initially, the teacher guides the learner, but eventually, through collaboration with others, the learner begins to make crucial decisions about their goals, what they think is important to learn, and how they will approach the learning task. Today’s learners, especially those who play video games, are incredibly self-directed in that, like the skateboarders Sagor (2002) talked about, who achieved mastery by trying a stunt hundreds of times. Weiner (as cited in Driscoll, 2005) says that “Motivation is often inferred from learning, and learning is usually an indicator of motivation” (p. 310). So the question raised by Driscoll (2005) is “How do we motivate people to engage in new learning?” (313). She goes on to ask, in this information-rich society, how a teacher can regulate an individual’s learning and how can a teacher teach someone to become selfregulating. The answer is that students’ cognitive processes such as curiosity and interest, goals and goal orientation and self-efficacy must be deliberately imported into the structure of the classroom. Driscoll mentions that individual and personal curiosity often motivates people and piques their interest. Learners are also more apt to be

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 7 motivated if the instruction involves a variety of ways of presenting information or fantasy. Learners also respond well to situations that involve problem solving. In the following section of this paper, I will consider how differentiating instruction through the use of technology can create the type of engaged learner described earlier. In turn, the paper will first address limitations of traditional classrooms, and then consider pedagogical and structural changes to address these limitations.

Limitations/Failures of Traditional Classrooms Traditional teacher-oriented classrooms with a standardized evaluation done only at the end of a unit of study, is not effective for the learner in schools today. Bondelli (n.d.) asserts that the traditional classroom “is not the most effective in resulting in actual learning and has many disadvantages that are actually counterproductive to real learning”. This is because traditional classrooms focus more on how to pass standardized tests “ and leads students to only extrinsically value education and not intrinsically value learning” (p. 1). The structure of schools and traditional teaching styles hinder today’s learner because such classrooms tend to isolate learners; in the past, the individual succeeded or failed, based on their own merits. Today’s learner requires immediate feedback, the opportunity to explore topics on his or her own, and chances to become involved in online environments; this holds their attention. They are not constrained by the four walls of the classroom. Students today, have access to many socializing opportunities such as texting, blogs, email and the like. As a result, so much of their time is spent socializing that they need social communities to not only motivate them but to also give them a sense of self-worth. Somehow, educators have to put that into instruction.

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 8 Creating Differentiated Classroom Environments Differentiation can occur in a number of significant parts of learning environments, in content, process and product. Differentiation requires that teachers address the individual needs of learners. The first step is to differentiate the content, or give learners different material in terms of complexity and depth, but still based on the same themes suggested by the curriculum. In terms of the process, teachers should actively vary the pacing of content to meet different abilities. In terms of product, the teacher could have different requirements for students of different levels. For example, if learners are using PowerPoint or Inspiration, their results would vary in terms of information included and the complexity of the slides produced. Evaluation does not have to be based solely on the product, however. Throughout the process, the teacher could grade learners. Differentiation can also be expressed in the assignments and activities designed for the new learner. Net Generation learners share several characteristics in common; they are driven, social, multi-tasking, experiential learners (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007). Assignments and activities need to meet these characteristics. First, to gain and sustain the attention of this learner, educators need to pique the learner’s curiosity, which is fleeting, and “evoke a sense of mystery and involve students in problem-solving” (p. 334). However, these students lack critical thinking skills and want assignments that are structured and show clearly what is expected. Due to the social nature of this type of learner the use of the traditional lecture is not as effective as group interactions such as cooperative learning, student groups or discussions. Because they are experiential learners this new type of learner does better with assignments where they search out the

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 9 answer versus tradition methods of teaching where the answers are given to them. Finally, as multi-taskers, this type of learner not only prefers to work on many tasks at once, they work best this way. They arrive at their work in a nonlinear way, have short attention spans, and prefer to get to the main idea on their own rather than having to wait for a teacher to give them the main point such as in a lecture. Finally, instructors should vary instructional presentations, and if students can’t find the relevance in their learning, “means oriented strategies may be useful” (p. 335), which means that ideas and information are indirectly presented by the teacher and learners construct meaning through participation in activities set up by the teacher. An interesting point brought up by Junco and Mastrodicasa, (2007) is that addressing the issue of plagiarism with this generation of learners requires more education on the issue than learners had in the past. Most of their lives have involved uncertainty in terms of intellectual property based in technology. Learners are inundated with “free” information from the Internet, and frequently file share with peers. They must be specifically taught about ethical issues having to do with plagiarism. Further to this, because this type of learner is accustomed to texting, they must be taught how to write; most of their writing is condensed, uses incorrect grammar, and is filled with abbreviations and slang. They also need to be taught about plagiarism and copyright and ethical uses of digital information. As such, this requires that the teacher be also familiar with these issues. To attempt to help each student learn, students can be given choices as to how they might display their grasp of the content in activities and assignments. For example, in a research activity a student may have a choice to research the information traditionally

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 10 by listening to a teacher directed lecture and access books from the library. Other students may choose to research the topic through Internet searches, group discussions, and the like. The final product may vary as well. Some students may choose to write an essay, while others may choose to create a presentation using multi-media tools such as PowerPoint, design a webpage with Wix, or create a bulletin board display. Having the students show they have learned is more important than each student doing the same assignment, and this approach is consistent with the idea of promoting self-directed, lifelong learners. Exploration with distance learning would also allow learners to incorporate their unique social skills into their learning. The schools in our school divisions allow open and unrestricted access to the Internet, so students have access to the most current information available there. They are involved with other students in group projects from other schools and communicate with each other through Content Management Systems such as Moodle. They can read blogs and participate in online discussion groups. Therefore, though motivation hasn’t changed, the style of learning has. Students, who in the past have exhibited behavioral problems in traditional classrooms, begin to thrive in the new online learning environment. The reason for this is the style of learning has changed. The learner has more opportunity to explore topics on his/her own; also the learner may be engaged in research with another learner from another location. This forces learners to think and learn in new ways. It is important for people to become motivated to help learning, but what motivates them has changed; teachers need to be more aware of how their students are motivated to engage learning.

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 11 The usual way to evaluate these wide-ranging activities is to use a rubric and this should be created and given to the students prior to the assignments. This allows the learners to know what is expected of them and reduces uncertainty about expectations. A rubric focuses on how well the students display their knowledge of the learning outcomes. In addition, the evaluation is not conducted as a summary evaluation at the end of the assignment, but instead, evaluation is done throughout the process of completing the assignment. Whether a student does an oral presentation or writes an essay is not important. It is the ability of the student to demonstrate that the learning outcomes, as laid out in the curriculum, have been met that is important. Conclusion The classroom has indeed changed. Teachers of today face the challenge of reaching a new type of learner who has a different mixture of social expectations, learning characteristics and needs than students in previous generations. Addressing the needs of such learners begins with differentiating instruction so that students will remain motivated and engaged, their individual learning styles and learning needs will be addressed.

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 12 References Bondelli, K. J. (n.d.). An evaluation of the ineffectiveness of the traditional education system. Retrieved January, 31, 2009, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/6849051/Evaluation-of-Traditional-Education-System Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Pearson Education. Junco, R., & Mastrodicasa, J. (2007). Connecting to the net generation. U.S.A.: NASPA. Lower, J. (2008, October). Brace yourself: Here comes generation Y. Critical Care Nurse, 28 (5), 80-83. Prensky, M. (2005, September). Engage me or engrage me. Educause Review, 40(5), 60-65. Prensky, M. (2008, March). Turning on the lights. Educational Leadership, 65 (6), 40-45. Sagor, R. (2002, September). Lessons from skateboarders. Educational Leadership, Retrieved December 1, 2008 from http://homepages.wmich.edu/~sayers/6440%20Skateboarders.pdf Tomlinson, C. A. (1995). Differentiating Instruction for Advanced Learners in the Mixed-Ability Middle School Classroom. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education ERIC Digest E536. Retrieved online on December 14, 2008 from http://www.ericdigests.org/1996-3/mixed.htm. Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). Mapping a route toward differentiated instruction. Educational Leadership, 57 (1), Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://www.ascd.org/pdi/demo/diffinstr/tomlinson2.html. Web 2.0 Learning Styles (2008). Retrieved December 14, 2008 from http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Web_2.0_Learning_Styles.

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