Catering for Learner Diversity

Scenario One: Curriculum Content

Mr Ho is a new teacher and he is planning his class lessons. His colleague has told him that the students in F.4C are very different in their abilities – there are some students who are very bright and some are very slow ones. Mr Ho is not sure whether he should make the materials more difficult or less difficult. He thinks it may be best to follow the textbook. When he went to the library to prepare for teaching, he met his diligent PGDE classmate Miss Wong who told him that she has decided to ‘differentiate’ – she will produce three sets of materials/worksheets each with COLOR codes for high, medium and low-ability students and she has labeled her students accordingly.

Scenario Two: Classroom Activity

Miss Lee was a (maths) teacher teaching a class of students with varied abilities. She had gone on explaining for a while and given some examples and then realized she had no idea if students had understood or not. Many times she asked “Do you understand?” and most students just nodded. She did not know what to do and thought it would be best to keep explaining. After a while, she started to ask some questions but usually it was the same few students who put up their hands. In a way she was glad that someone could answer her questions correctly. When she gave them some questions to practice, she sat at the teacher desk to monitor the whole class so they would not make too much noise. At the end of the class, she assigned the same set of questions and she found out the next day many could not do the questions.

Scenario Three: Assessment

Mr Cheung was setting some homework exercises for his students with varied abilities. He heard about differentiation but he wondered if it is fair to set different kinds of questions for his students. His colleague Miss Wong told him she would use three sets of homework assignment COLOR-coded for high, medium, and low-ability students whom she has labeled and grouped but he felt uneasy about that. Mr Cheung knew some of his students could understand the answers and had good ideas but they could not write too well. He wondered if it would be fair to let students produce their work in different forms.


How would you respond to these situations? Do you agree with these teachers? What could be done to cater for individual differences?

Common Views of Individual Differences

  • Individual difference/learner diversity should be eliminated
  • How can I teach to so many different levels?
  • Teachers teach and students should learn
  • Students fail to learn because they have low ability, weak background and no family support
  • Learning is like a competition, it is inevitable that some will win and others lose
  • Students should achieve in similar ways (One type of product according to fixed standards and procedures)


New Views of Individual Differences

  • A community of diverse learners
  • Students and teachers form an interactive and supportive body.
  • Individual differences as resources
  • Flexible procedures and pace
  • Students mutual help emphasized
  • All students can learn and improve…..
    • Although some weaker students or students with special needs may never be able to perform as well as the bright ones, they can all learn and improve.
    • Does our teaching widen the gap between the bright and weak students? Or do we teach in ways to help everyone make progress?


Differentiated Instruction: Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment

A) Curriculum Content: Should students cover identical content?

  • Identify concepts of different levels of difficulty (flexibility in presentation)
  • Core concepts (Big ideas)
  • Basic concepts for all students
  • Make concepts more accessible for weaker students
  • Enrichment for stronger students
  • Nature of learning tasks can vary similar content
  • Know and learn from your students…
    • How do you know which concepts are difficult or easy…..
    • Prior knowledge and misconceptions
    • Tackle difficult points

B) Classroom Activities/Process

  • Problem of learner diversity can be problem of teaching such as too much emphasis on whole-class teaching; closed-end questions; not finding out what students know; not making use of opportunities to scaffold students
  • Suggested differentiated strategies to help with teaching mixed-abilities:
    • Give more assistance to some students
    • Re-teach some concepts
    • Questions pitched at different levels for different individuals
    • Monitor works closely
    • Allows for variation
    • Activities may vary in complexity


Other newer approaches

  • Multiple Intelligences (Linguistic, mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal & more…)
  • Constructivist and activity-based approach: Many opportunities for individual & group work
  • Cooperative Learning and Learning Community…

C) Assessment and Learning Products

  • Differentiation for students with learning difficulties
  • Assignments with different formats…such as use of learning portfolio
  • Learning contract
  • Focus on learning progress not just products
  • Students can choose from the questions
  • Examples of Different Learning Products
    • A drawing (not regular writing)
    • A performance
    • A product/model
    • A practical activity
    • A listening or speaking activity
    • An emphasis on student improvement not just on actual marks…
    • A portfolio with different pieces of work


New Approaches to Tackling Learner Diversity – Learning Community


“Learners are much more alike than they are different; so we should be trying to find ways of making general teaching methods highly effective in order to minimize the impact of differences among learners, rather than seeking complex ways of teaching differentially.” 



Further Reading

(2002)《利用個別差異 建立學者群體》香港大學及香港公開大學顧問團:陳桂涓、鄧廣威、何敏華、劉國賢, 香港:香港教育署。