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Differentiated Instruction at JKCS

Written on March 19th, 2014

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As Director of Learning at John Knox Christian School (JKCS) in Oakville, Edith van der Boom wants to see children benefit from an inclusive education. Perhaps it’s not surprising that van der Boom is passionate about differentiated instruction (DI), a teaching strategy that invites educators to be ever mindful of what distinguishes one individual’s learning needs from the next, in a way that affirms and even celebrates those differences.

Within a DI framework, teachers will typically respond to a student’s readiness—which refers to the student’s starting point for learning— a student’s interests—which relates to their passion or enthusiasm for any given subject— and a student’s learning preferences—which refers to the multiple ways in which learners prefer to engage with information and process new concepts.

Since filling JKCS’s newly created Director of Learning position, van der Boom’s aim has been to help teachers integrate differentiated instruction into their curriculum and into their classroom practices. In February, she arranged for Dr. Richard Cash, an internationally recognized expert on differentiated instruction, to present at the school’s professional development day. Tickets to the event quickly sold out and drew over 130 educators from a wide range of schools.

Although there are many within Ontario’s Christian school system eager to learn more about DI, van der Boom knows that teachers also have reservations about the pedagogy.

“I think some people are concerned with differentiated instruction because they think it’s like working with a class where each student has a different Individual Education Plan (IEP) says van der Boom. “Teachers forget the fact that with differentiated instruction, most students are meeting the same learning goals and answering the same essential questions”. What will vary is how students go about meeting those objectives and answering those questions, she says.

That’s not to say that children with modified learning goals will take a back seat. In a class where not every child is doing the same thing, students with different learning objectives will find it easier to follow their own, individualized programs, she says.

Van der Boom believes that a DI approach can help students who excel, who struggle, or who find themselves somewhere in between—provided that the teacher is open to rethinking and revising curriculum. Educators who value differentiated learning won’t just teach something “because that’s what they’ve always taught”, she says. They’ll be willing to modify their material, depending on what the students know and on what interests them.

That kind of attentive, fine tuned teaching style can’t happen over night—which is why ongoing, communal professional development is an integral part of the culture at the school. 

“Over the last three years we’ve basically tried to go from less administrative meeting time to analyzing our structure and saying, how can we get as much collaborative conversations going in the building as possible?” says George Petrusma, Principal at JKCS.

“We used to have full staff meetings and vision meetings once per month. We’ve since adjusted those significantly so that there are four or five staff meetings per year and replaced those with ten professional learning community times (PLCs) where we’ll spend a lot of time focusing on differentiated instruction and curriculum reviews.”

During a recent PLC led by van der Boom, a number of teachers created choice boards— graphic organizers that invite students to select three assignments based on their strengths, interests, or readiness level. A choice board might function like a tic tac toe game, says van der Boom, with the more challenging activities displayed horizontally and easier assignments presented in a diagonal formation. Allowing students the chance to make these sort of decisions, is an important piece of differentiated instruction, she says, because it allows them to take responsibility for how and what they learn.

The role of choice in education also factors prominently into van der Boom’s current PHD work. As part of her research around diagnostic assessment and learning awareness, she’s exploring the ways that students can develop cognitive skills, create goals for themselves and self regulate their own learning. 

Although her research provides the school with a direct link into what is going on academically in the educational scene, van der Boom readily admits that she “doesn’t have all the answers”.

“But I’m thrilled to be making this real and work it out with our teachers,” she adds. “It’s all over the Ministry of Education documents that differentiated instruction is the way to go, and I would love to see our Christian Schools take even more leadership in that!”

Do you have DI related ideas and questions? You can connect with Edith van der Boom through her newly created eCurriculum differentiated instruction group.

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