ISEC 2005

Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress
International Special Education Conference
Inclusion: Celebrating Diversity?

1st - 4th August 2005. Glasgow, Scotland

about the conference

Differentiating Instruction:
Lessons from a One Room Schoolhouse

Katharin A. Kelker, Ed.D. (Assistant Professor)
Mary Susan Fishbaugh, Ed.D. (Professor)

Montana-State University-Billings
1500 University Drive
Billings, Montana 59101-0298
United States


            Across the United States, one-room schoolhouses have disappeared to the point that fewer than 400 are active today (Boss, 2000).   Although they are an endangered species, one-room schools may never be extinct, partly because they serve a need in areas too remote for long distance busing of students or too isolated for consolidation (Barker & Muse, 1986).   But today there may be an even better reason for holding on to the one-room schoolhouse model, not just for its convenience in rural, remote areas, but also because such schools are living laboratories for a style of teaching that encourages cross-age and peer tutoring, differentiated instruction, high student expectations, a positive school environment, parental involvement, and emphasis on time on task (Blount, 1992).   If these characteristics sound familiar, they should because in they are in close alignment with Lezotte’s first and second generation correlates of effective schools (1991) and Tomlinson’s principles of differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 1996).  

Table 1:
Comparison of Characteristics of Effective Schools, Differentiated Instruction and Multi-Level Small Schools

            Conscientious teachers recognize it is not possible or legitimate to look at a classroom of students and pretend they are all alike, even though the students may be relatively the same age and in the same grade level (Siegel, & Shaughnessy, 1994).   Public school classrooms are diverse. That diversity includes some students with mild disabilities that interfere with learning (Winebrenner, 1996).   These disabilities affect students in virtually all subjects, but especially in reading and mathematics.   Other students are slow learners who have no disabilities, but who learn all subjects at a slower rate and require much repetition before acquiring new concepts.   Still another group of students comes to school with highly advanced skills and abilities and an eagerness to learn at a fast pace (Winebrenner, 1992).  

            Besides differences in abilities and pace of learning, another source of diversity is language and culture.   The number of students from diverse cultures and language backgrounds is predicted to increase to 24 million or 37% of the school-age population, by the 2010 (Venn, 2004).   Second-language learners obviously have different learning needs from children raised in the majority culture.   But even the second-language learners vary greatly among themselves—not only in their native tongues but also in their degree of experience with their native language and the sort of home support system that follows them to school (Ladson-Billings, 2001).   Second-language learners may also represent cultures that vary in significant ways.              

            In addition to differences in abilities and backgrounds, many students bring with them to school stresses from home that are too great for them to understand and bear.   Some students, of course, represent several of these realities— very bright students whose learning problems mask their extraordinary abilities, second-language learners whose families teeter on the brink of economic viability (Payne, 1998).
            Teachers also know that students learn in varied ways—some by listening, others visually, still others through hands on activities; some like to work alone, others in the company of peers; some learn quickly, others more slowly (Dunn, Beaudry & Klavas, 1989).   Teachers realize that individuals are intrigued or even inspired by different topics or issues, and that curiosity and inspiration are powerful catalysts for learning.   To teach well requires paying attention to this great variety of ways that students learn best.
            The dilemma for teachers is how to address this diversity while constrained by the limitations of time and resources.   A classroom teacher is only one person.   How can he or she meet the wide range of learning needs presented in contemporary classrooms?   This dilemma is heightened further by the pressures to respond to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the demands for adequate yearly progress for all students (Hunt & Marshall, 2005).

            Many school districts and individual teachers are responding to philosophical and practical demands to address student diversity by incorporating types of differentiated instruction as a teaching model (Kline, 1992).   Differentiated instruction is an umbrella term that denotes teaching that has the same learning goal for all students, but delivers instruction in a variety of ways so as to provide a closer match between student needs and teaching strategies.   According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, “whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction (Tomlinson, 2004).”

            Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

            Determining what factors, and in what combination, make small, rural schools successful is a complex task.   No one factor is likely to account for all achievement gains.   The point is that very small schools are natural laboratories for teaching practices that may have to be created and nurtured in larger school settings.   In the United States, there is evidence that smaller learning communities are attracting interest and in some states charter schools and typical public elementary schools are experimenting with ways to create more intimate schools within schools (Gates Foundation, 2001).   Even in Montana where there is a moratorium on creating additional high school districts, there are two new elementary districts that are one-room schools, especially created in remote environments where new communities are being developed and parents are choosing to have very small schools for their children (OPI, 2004).

            On an international basis in many parts of the developing world, small rural schools continue to be the norm.   Rural school populations remain significant in most third world countries and the political base in those countries for active government attention exists (Sher, 1981).   Fuller (1986), however, reports that in the poorest developing countries the quality of primary education—which takes place in small schools—is eroding.  

            Small and rural schools are so diverse, especially when viewed internationally, that one can find evidence to support nearly any characterization.   Someone wishing to describe these institutions as ineffective, third-rate, or worse can find examples of schools that deserve such criticisms.   However, another person wanting to portray small rural schools as innovative, high-performance places can justify this more positive description (Sher, 1981).  

In any case small schools are not likely to disappear in the foreseeable future.  
Achievement averages alone do not begin to tell the story of what is happening in small rural schools in Montana and elsewhere in the world.   Potential research questions that may yield fruitful results and influence practice in elementary schools and K-8 schools in areas that are rural and not-so-rural include the following:

            Although one-room schoolhouses have become more and more scarce over the decades, the tradition of this type of schooling continues and thrives in Montana.   The success of these rural schools suggests that giving greater attention to the benefits students receive in these multi-grade classrooms and the strategies teachers employ demand serious study on behalf of the great variety of young children entrusted to public schools for their basic education.


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