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Mel Gravely

Embracing Technology for Differentiated Instruction

This blog was provided by Dr. Nermeen Dashoush, Chief Learning Officer at MarcoPolo Learning and Clinical Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. The Gravely Group recently partnered with MarcoPolo Learning on a free webinar titled “How Can Technology Provide Greater Access for Families?”

A big part of my work in early childhood education involves listening. Listening to children in classrooms asking hundreds of thought-provoking questions, teachers and administrators talking about what is or what is not working for them, and busy families talking about how they support their children’s education. It is through this listening that I can learn what is needed and help serve the educational community through my work in the field, whether it be through the courses I design and teach as a professor, my work as a curriculum designer, or my work in educational technology and children’s media.

In my listening tours, two topics emerge that educators might see as unconnected, but I see differently. I often hear from educators that differentiated instruction is essential in meeting the learning needs of young children they work with. Consistently, they recognize the difficulty in doing this as it involves getting to know the child well and planning differentiated instruction, which means different lesson plans, learning materials, access points, groupings, etc. When most of those educators are asked how they use technology in the classroom, they either denounce it entirely or don’t see the connection between differentiated instruction and their use of educational technology.

Two major reasons most likely cause the unwillingness to embrace technology in the classroom. One, there are a lot of misconceptions about the harm that screen time causes young children. The truth is that all of those harmful benefits are only when technology is used excessively, replaces hands-on learning, or low-quality tools are selected without care. Research has consistently shown that high-quality educational technology has multiple learning benefits when used as part of a learning experience. Secondly, discounting educational technology in the classroom could result from not recognizing its potential benefits for differentiated instruction.

Technology is Part of Different Modalities

Think about how often you didn’t understand a water molecule until someone showed you a diagram or how difficult it would be to know how magnets worked by mere description unless you held them and tried to push them together. All learners, including children, benefit from being presented with information in many ways that engage their senses differently. The absence of technology in a classroom also means the lack of videos, visuals, animated diagrams, etc. Educational media and technology can look different. It could be digital games that teach letter sounds, songs that teach a child how to get ready in the morning, or videos that allow a child to learn more about the parts of a worm that they found interesting on the playground. One of the most trusted and highly used assessments of quality teaching, the CLASS framework, focused on the importance of having a variety of modalities and instructional materials. It is becoming increasingly clear that quality instruction involves various modalities, which includes technology.

Expanding Access for Language Learners

Linguistic diversity is a beautiful characteristic of classrooms across the United States. Differentiated instruction means meeting the needs of language learners. While the use of various modalities described above can provide entry points for language learners, technology offers direct access to a child’s home language. High-quality educational technology creates a wealth of resources with language learners in mind, making English-only educational material a thing of the past. Educators all recognize the benefit of a book when it comes to instruction, but technology can easily make that same book available in multiple languages. Using educational technology gives the teacher access to media and printable materials available in dozens of languages at the tip of her fingers. It is a library of differentiated resources that would be otherwise unfathomable without using high-quality technology in the classroom.

Cultivating Their Strengths

Meeting the learning needs of children through differentiated instruction also means cultivating their strengths and interests. It means engaging them in the content they want to learn more about and giving them multiple ways to explore the world around them. The children in our classrooms are digital natives, meaning that technology has always been and will continue to be a part of their lives. The selection of high-quality educational technology in the classroom can develop their digital skills and open up a world of possibilities for exploring topics and seeing themselves as researchers. For an emergent reader, learning more about a topic of interest, such as a flying squirrel, is no longer limited to their reading ability due to the opportunities provided by technology.

When it comes to the selection of technology, as with the choice of any classroom resource, care is undoubtedly necessary. However, completely discounting it is a lost opportunity to leverage a wealth of resources that can revolutionize teaching and learning. Technology can be the powerful educational tool needed to reach more and more learners in each classroom.

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