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Diversity Series: Learning styles and differentiation

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Every student has a different way of learning and expressing the information that has been taught to them. This introduction to learning styles and differentiation kicks off Dialogue magazine's Diversity Series, exploring how to understand and approach these differences in the classroom and what types of methods and activities will suit individual students.

Dialogue diversity series

Unique Learning Styles

Howard Gardner coined the term Multiple Intelligences first in 1983 to describe the evident fact that there are many different ways that people learn. Some people learn from listening, some from watching and others from doing. People also have different ways to express what they have learned: verbally, kinaesthetically, artistically, etc. As educators, it is imperative that we recognize these unique learning styles in our students and allow them opportunities to engage in their learning through equally unique modes. We also need to frequently review the definitions of Multiple Intelligences and how our current students could benefit from changes in our programmes.


Differentiation is a popular term frequently used in educational circles to mean several different things. For some it can mean that lessons need to be different for each student, for others it just means to acknowledge students' differences. As an educational community, it is vitally important for us to come to a common understanding of the term differentiation so that we can apply the philosophy to the utmost benefit of our students.

If we begin with the premise that all students are inherently unique and have different interests, learning styles, strengths and experiences, then it follows that they will require different instructional strategies to help them reach their potential as learners and beyond. Differentiation suggests that teachers acknowledge the individuality of each student and provide a variety of instructional strategies tailored to the unique needs of the individual. It doesn't always mean a different lesson, only the possibility of different materials, or different modes of delivery and/or assessment to ensure that each student is learning and communicating their learning effectively.

The most common strategies of differentiating are:

  • Varied groupings of students
  • Alternate activities for teaching or assessment
  • Providing students more time for completion of activities
  • Providing choice for students to allow them to engage with their learning constructively

Developing Individual Intelligences in the Classroom

While it is important to allow students choices over how they learn and present their learning, it is equally important that they are exposed to all modes of learning to balance out their skills. It is impractical to present new material to students in only one way, and it is just as impractical to allow them to always choose an "easy" way of presenting their learning. The most important role of an educator is to develop all types of intelligences in their students. Use a chart or graphic organizer, like the examples below, for each unit to ensure you are incorporating as many learning styles as possible.

Below are some ideas to get you started thinking about how to incorporate different learning modes in your classroom. Remember to change things up frequently to keep all learners engaged!

Learner Type Teaching and Learning Ideas
Verbal / Linguistic
  • Language!
  • Provide opportunities for reading, writing and verbal responses.
  • Make connections between concepts using linguistic clues and word origins.
Mathematical / Logical
  • Charts!
  • Ask students to summarize information using charts and lists.
  • Incorporate mathematics into other curriculum areas (it's always possible!)
  • Build activities following the Scientific Method.
  • Songs!
  • Memorize key terms using songs.
  • Ask students to change the words to a familiar song to make it about the concept being taught.
Visual / Spatial
  • Images and Graphic Organizers for new concepts!
  • Give students graphic organizers to summarize and present information.
  • Infographics are a great way to have students present their learning–many online tools are available to make awesome infographics.
Bodily / Kinesthetic
  • Hands-on!
  • Provide opportunities for students to get up and stretch frequently.
  • Give hands-on activities for learning–making dioramas, building models, cutting and pasting to match key terms with definitions.
  • Group work! Mix and match students with different strength and provide opportunities for them all to share.
  • Discussions!
  • Reflect!
  • Ask students to reflect on their own learning, even just as a quick 2 minute activity–they can use such reflections to get to know themselves better as learners and to discover what they do well and what they find difficult.
  • Explore the world around us!
  • Use nature and environmental examples when possible and make connections to the world.
  • Provide opportunities to work outdoors.
—Kelly Farrel 
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