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Adaptive Instruction for Teacher Education: Inclusive Approaches, Resources and Technology
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What Are Differentiated Instruction and Universal Design?



In Ontario we are faced with a large diverse student population, which includes many students who have special learning needs, exceptionalities, in all classrooms.  While we still need to identify the specific difficulties some students face in the regular class, we need to use their strengths and abilities to learn, to ensure that these students have access to information, processes and skills that are taught to all students in the class.

So to deal with this issue there needs to be a shift to being proactive in the design of lessons that will meet all of the needs of all of the students in our class.

There are several current approaches that suggest ways to address this issue, namely Universal Design, Differentiating Instruction and the use of current technologies - Adaptive Technology.  

Universal Design
Differentiated Instruction

Universal Design

The notion of Universal Design is applicable in many different situations.  It suggests that what is designed for one purpose, or to assist one group of people may, in fact, have a more universal or broader applicable for more than its initial intent.  As an example, a ramp in a building that is included to facilitate the entry by people in wheelchairs, in fact may be used by many other people such as mothers with strollers, seniors who have difficulty climbing stairs, etc.  So this idea has become accepted as a basic principle that ramps should not be an 'add-on in a building' but is and should be an essential part for design in all buildings. 

These principles have an equal application to education. 

To quote from Education for All,

"The notion that assistance targeted at a specific group can help everyone, bolstered by recent research on inclusion and new technologies, has now made its way into the field of education. Educators have begun to realize that a teaching strategy or pedagogical materials that respond to the special needs of a specific student or group of students can also be useful for all students."

(2005, Ministry of Education of Ontario, p. 10)

The use of adaptive technology,  may be needed by specific students in the class to experience success.  Universal Design suggests that one should include such technology as an integral part of lesson planning so that many or all students have access to the technology. This helps to ensure that even students who have not been identified as having special needs may also benefit from its use.  

Instilling the flexibility brought by the rapidly evolving communication technologies into methods and materials, which may include the use of technology and specialized adaptive technology, maximizes learning not only for students with identified disabilities, but for all students.

Universal Design is not "just one more thing:" it is an integral component for improving student learning, compatible with the approaches of education reform.

In short, Universal Design suggests that what one may use for one student may have equal application for many or all students.


Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated Instruction is effective instruction that is responsive to the learning preferences, interest and readiness of the individual learner.

It is best thought of as an organizing structure or framework for thinking about teaching and learning.  It is not an imitation, a program, or the latest fad.  Nor is it simply a new label for something we are already doing.

Curriculum informs teachers what to teach, but doesn't instruct teachers on how to teach, nor how to address the wide range of learners in each class. The notion behind Differentiated Instruction is that it guides teachers on how to teach it to a range of learners by employing a variety of teaching approaches.

To quote from Education for All,

"The theory behind differentiated instruction comes from the views of Vygotsky (1980). According to Vygotsky, social context and the interactions of the student within that social context play a fundamental role in the acquisition of knowledge. Students in their 'zone of proximal development' can, with assistance, resolve a problem that they could not have resolved alone and move on to another level of knowledge. Teachers can help accelerate students' cognitive development (Vienneau, 2005) by supporting children in resolving problems, by questioning their conceptions, and by asking them to justify their positions (Lafortune & Deaudelin, 2001). They can also provide specific interventions, known in this context as 'scaffolding'."

(2005, Ministry of Education of Ontario, p. 14)

When we respond to student needs, we differentiate - to some extent, some of the time.  For optimal success, however, we need to be aware of the decisions that we make and take deliberate action to meet the needs of all learners.  Ultimately our aim is to shape the learning experience so that it is appropriate to the learning preferences, interest and/or readiness of each student.

In short, Differentiated Instruction suggests that although we plan to teach the whole class, we need to focus on the needs, preferences and interests of the individuals in the class.

Planning for Inclusion

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Universal Design for Learning
Differentiated Instruction

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Broad Learning Principles
  • Equitable use
  • Appropriately designed space
  • Flexibility
  • Simplicity
  • Safety
  • Different modes of perception
Focused Structure for Instruction
  • Differentiated content
  • Differentiated process
  • Differentiated product

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Assessment Framework

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Teaching Strategies

Adapted from Education for All (2005, Ministry of Education of Ontario, p. 17)

For more details on how to differentiate instruction, see the submenus on the right.

An Analogy compares differentiating instruction to being the conductor of an orchestra.

How to Differentiate Instruction gives a brief overview of how to differentiate instruction by three important concepts: Content, Process and Product.

Bibliography and Resources provides a listing of additional texts, articles and web resources.