Novice Teachers' Conceptions of Differentiated Instruction and Related Practice

Dack, Hilary, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Tomlinson, Carol, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

As public school classrooms in the United States grow increasingly diverse in terms of students’ socio-economic status, race, and academic readiness, the expectation exists that all teachers will have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to meet the needs of all learners in a general education setting. At the same time, state accountability systems have frequently influenced teachers to focus their efforts on teacher-centered instruction and one-size-fits-all test preparation. As a result, educational experts and professional organizations have issued calls for the personalization of curriculum and instruction to better fit the needs of individual learners. One approach to recognizing and responding to individual student differences in the general education classroom is Tomlinson’s (1999, 2014) model of differentiated instruction.
Differentiated instruction presents a philosophy of data-driven, responsive teaching that attends to students’ individual readiness, interest, learning profile, and affective needs. Although a growing body of research indicates that, when implemented with fidelity, differentiated instruction may yield significant benefits for diverse student populations, this pedagogical framework has not been implemented with fidelity in most schools, where one-size-fits-all instruction remains prevalent. The absence of the model in many American schools may be due in part to teachers’ uncertainty about the nature of the model and its potential manifestations in a classroom. This uncertainty may stem from not adequately developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to teach responsively as preservice teachers. No identified studies to date have examined how preservice teachers make meaning of Tomlinson’s model of differentiated instruction in a teacher preparation course in which differentiation serves as the primary focus of instruction. Likewise, no identified studies to date have examined how novice teachers make meaning of Tomlinson’s model of differentiation across both a teacher preparation course on differentiation and experiences in their early teaching careers. The present study addressed these two significant gaps in the literature.
This qualitative longitudinal multicase study examined the experiences of two participants as preservice and then first year teachers while they made meaning of differentiation as a complex philosophical approach to teaching and learning. The study occurred in two phases. Phase 1 was conducted in spring 2014 when participants were enrolled in a course on differentiating instruction taught by Tomlinson at the University of Virginia during their final semester of coursework. This phase explored (a) participants’ conceptions of differentiation at the start of the course, (b) how those conceptions changed during the course, and (c) how factors external to the course were related to their developing conceptions. Data for Phase 1 were gathered through four one-on-one interviews spread throughout the semester; informal observations during all class meetings; and participants’ course assignments, including reflections.
Phase 2 was conducted in fall 2014 after participants had graduated from their teacher preparation program and entered their own elementary classrooms. This phase explored (a) participants’ conceptions of differentiation at the start of the fall, (b) how those conceptions changed during the fall, (c) the relationship between their conceptions of differentiation and their teaching practice, and (d) the relationship between contextual factors and aspects of their teaching practice related to differentiation. Data for Phase 2 were gathered through five one-on-one interviews with participants spread throughout the fall; one one-on-one interview with the participant’s principal or mentor; four classroom observations spread throughout the fall; and classroom artifacts. Data were collected and analyzed and conclusions were drawn through a theoretical lens informed by the situative perspective of teacher cognition and symbolic interactionism. Data analysis was conducted using the multicase study analytic approach and techniques of constant comparison supported by analytic memoing.
Key cross-case findings from Phase 1 involved the deepening of participants’ complex conceptions of differentiation throughout the Differentiating Instruction course and participants’ conclusions at the end of the course that differentiation would be important for their own professional success and their future students’ academic success. Key cross-case findings from Phase 2 indicated that, as new teachers, both participants routinely differentiated instruction, particularly in language arts and math through modification of instruction based on student readiness, and that they recognized numerous ways in which they hoped to improve their practice related to differentiation. Participants attributed much of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that supported their work with differentiation to their experiences in the Differentiating Instruction course. Findings suggested four assertions regarding (a) the relationship between participants’ preservice coursework and their developing conceptions of differentiation, (b) characteristics of schools of employment that supported participants’ implementation of differentiation as new teachers, (c) the relationship between seeing differentiation modeled and participants’ conceptions of the model, and (d) the role of mindset (Dweck, 2007) in how participants made meaning of differentiation. Implications for teacher education are considered.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
differentiated instruction, differentiation, teacher education, preservice teachers, academic diversity
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