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Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 1

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation

R. Nystuen

Edcmm 802.6

Dr. R. Schwier
February 28, 2009
Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 2

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation


Last spring, I attended the TLt “Learning in a Digital World" conference in

Saskatoon, and one of the keynote speakers, George Siemens, talked about a new breed

of learner called the "twitch learner". This, accompanied with the recent talk in the news

about "generation o"— also called “generation y”, “the Net generation” or the “Web 2.0

Generation”—started me to think about how best to engage and motivate and ultimately

reach these learners in the classroom. In this paper, I will argue for a “new” type of

classroom that is differentiated so that it taps into the needs of this “new” type of learner;

traditional methods used in schools’ today often fail to engage many learners and can

easily miss some learners completely.

Characteristics of the “New” Type of Learner

Learners today differ from the past. Engaged, motivated, self-directed, and

diverse learning styles characterize contemporary learners. Today’s learners are wealthy

in terms of access to media and communication, and they demand engagement in

everything they do (Prensky, 2005). Prensky claims that the students of today all “have

something in their lives that’s really engaging—something that they do and that they are

good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it” (Prensky, 2005, p.

62). Further to this, Junco and Mastrodicasa (2007) state that this “net generation”

shares seven main personality characteristics that include the following. First, this

generation believes they are special, because their baby boomer parents took an active

role in their childhood development. They have always been sheltered from any type of

harmful situations. This generation is confident in that they expect to hear good news,
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are skillful negotiators and expect beneficial results. Another personality trait of this type

of learner is that, unlike their rebellious parents, these learners are very conventional.

These learners are more connected to each other and are very team-oriented, and believe

in achieving. Finally, because they are so achievement oriented, these learners also feel

pressured (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007). As such, the new type of learner has several

unique characteristics that differentiate him or her from the traditional classroom learner.

In the traditional classroom, the teacher decides the scope and direction of learning, as

well as evaluation which usually occurs at the end of a unit of study and which is the

same for all students. In terms of motivation, today’s learners do not respond well to this

type of instruction and evaluation. Today’s learners respond better to evaluation that is

on going and meaningful. Prensky (2008) says that better results occur when students are

allowed to “take the lead on technology products”, students share the evaluation with the

teacher, so that “the teacher takes on the valuable role of explainer, context provider,

meaning maker, and evaluator/coach” (p.45). Thus, rather than waiting until the end of a

unit of study to evaluate, the evaluation happens en-route, and the students share the

evaluative role. Furthermore, schools, according to Prensky (2008), are most often about

the past and what has happened up until now, but this is no longer relevant for learners

who are most concerned about the future. Today’s learners want to be able to connect

their learning to the here and now. They want to know how the learning they are engaged

in will help them later on in their lives. As Prensky so aptly says, “covering the material

and preparing kids for the test is not preparing them for the future” (p. 45). Another

characteristic of this learner is that role models are no longer parents or teachers, but

peers. Students of today are far ahead of their parents in the technology level, and more
Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 4

often than not, instead of nurturing their skills in this area by encouraging them to explore

technology and develop their skills critical thinking about the various uses of technology,

they tell their children to get off the computer, get off the phone and get outside. They

would do better to sit down with the child and engage in the use of technology with them.

In this way, perhaps the guidance of parents and teachers would gain credibility because

now, even though a teacher or parent may have better skills than the peers of learners,

peer-to-peer modeling often has more effect (Driscoll, 2005).

This new learner is also more self-directed than learners of the past and much of

their learning takes place away from school when they participate in blogs, and all of the

various social networking such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as participating in

alternate reality worlds such as Second Life. They also extend their learning by

uploading videos onto YouTube or by playing complex video games (Prensky, 2005). In

Lessons From Skateboarders, Sagor (2002) talks about how skateboarders, similar to the

learners of today, achieve mastery by trying a particular stunt hundreds of times and they

do this in supportive groups. They push themselves to achieve personal bests and are

unconcerned about how they compare to others in the group.

Finally, this new type of learner engages in three diverse learning styles, mainly

visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and uses all of Gardner’s multiple intelligences while

engaging in their self-directed learning (Web 2.0 Learning Styles, 2008).

Definition of and evidence for differentiated instruction

Carol Ann Tomlinson is one of the leaders of the differentiated instruction movement

that, though around for at least twenty years for gifted and talented students, has slowly

begun to shape regular classrooms as a way of addressing the needs of all learners. The
Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 5

following main characteristics, according to Tomlinson (1995), identify a differentiated

classroom: instruction is driven by principles while focused on concepts; assessment of

learners is part of the curriculum and done continually so that teachers can determine the
growth of learners and their readiness to move onto new things; learners are constantly
working in different grouping patterns and while teachers guide the exploration of
learning; students own their learning by becoming responsible for it (pars. 6-9).
Tomlinson also suggests that to be truly differentiated, a classroom doesn’t just adjust the
level of difficulty of questions for students of varying abilities, nor does the teacher
simply grade some students harder and others more easily. To be truly differentiated, the
classroom has to “offer a variety of learning options designed to tap into different
readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles” by using “ (1) a variety of ways for
students to explore curriculum content, (2) a variety of sense-making activities or
processes through which students can come to understand and "own" information and
ideas, and (3) a variety of options through which students can demonstrate or exhibit
what they have learned” (pars. 3- 4). Tomlinson suggests that the differentiated
classroom would have, among other things, many different computer programs, learning
contracts, tasks and products that have been designed with multiple intelligences in
mind, criteria for final products that have been negotiated by the student and teacher, and
so on (par. 21).

Definition and Discussion of Learning Styles

Learning styles are the preferred ways that people process information or learn

new things, and the three most common learning styles include kinesthetic, visual and

auditory—learning by doing, learning by seeing and learning by hearing. The learners of

today, in general, learn while using all three of these styles. In addition to this, Lower

(2008) states that the new generation of learner prefers learning environments that are

structured, fast moving and infused with technology. Thus, to meet the needs of these
Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 6

learners, teachers should engage them in learning that mirrors the world they experience

outside the classroom. Outside the classroom, students are engaged in downloading

music, creating music, instant-messaging, discussions and even watching events such as

wars or being a part of movements to stop environmental destruction (Prensky, 2008).

Definition and Discussion of Self-Directed Learning

The ultimate goal of schools should be to create and foster the growth of self-

directed learners. Self-directed learners are active instead of passive and self-directed

learning occurs when learners take responsibility for the direction of their learning.

Initially, the teacher guides the learner, but eventually, through collaboration with others,

the learner begins to make crucial decisions about their goals, what they think is

important to learn, and how they will approach the learning task. Today’s learners,

especially those who play video games, are incredibly self-directed in that, like the

skateboarders Sagor (2002) talked about, who achieved mastery by trying a stunt

hundreds of times. Weiner (as cited in Driscoll, 2005) says that “Motivation is often

inferred from learning, and learning is usually an indicator of motivation” (p. 310). So

the question raised by Driscoll (2005) is “How do we motivate people to engage in new

learning?” (313). She goes on to ask, in this information-rich society, how a teacher can

regulate an individual’s learning and how can a teacher teach someone to become self-

regulating. The answer is that students’ cognitive processes such as curiosity and

interest, goals and goal orientation and self-efficacy must be deliberately imported into

the structure of the classroom. Driscoll mentions that individual and personal curiosity

often motivates people and piques their interest. Learners are also more apt to be
Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 7

motivated if the instruction involves a variety of ways of presenting information or

fantasy. Learners also respond well to situations that involve problem solving.

In the following section of this paper, I will consider how differentiating

instruction through the use of technology can create the type of engaged learner described

earlier. In turn, the paper will first address limitations of traditional classrooms, and then

consider pedagogical and structural changes to address these limitations.

Limitations/Failures of Traditional Classrooms

Traditional teacher-oriented classrooms with a standardized evaluation done only

at the end of a unit of study, is not effective for the learner in schools today. Bondelli

(n.d.) asserts that the traditional classroom “is not the most effective in resulting in actual

learning and has many disadvantages that are actually counterproductive to real

learning”. This is because traditional classrooms focus more on how to pass standardized

tests “ and leads students to only extrinsically value education and not intrinsically value

learning” (p. 1). The structure of schools and traditional teaching styles hinder today’s

learner because such classrooms tend to isolate learners; in the past, the individual

succeeded or failed, based on their own merits. Today’s learner requires immediate

feedback, the opportunity to explore topics on his or her own, and chances to become

involved in online environments; this holds their attention. They are not constrained by

the four walls of the classroom. Students today, have access to many socializing

opportunities such as texting, blogs, email and the like. As a result, so much of their time

is spent socializing that they need social communities to not only motivate them but to

also give them a sense of self-worth. Somehow, educators have to put that into

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 8

Creating Differentiated Classroom Environments

Differentiation can occur in a number of significant parts of learning

environments, in content, process and product. Differentiation requires that teachers

address the individual needs of learners. The first step is to differentiate the content, or

give learners different material in terms of complexity and depth, but still based on the

same themes suggested by the curriculum. In terms of the process, teachers should

actively vary the pacing of content to meet different abilities. In terms of product, the

teacher could have different requirements for students of different levels. For example, if

learners are using PowerPoint or Inspiration, their results would vary in terms of

information included and the complexity of the slides produced. Evaluation does not

have to be based solely on the product, however. Throughout the process, the teacher

could grade learners.

Differentiation can also be expressed in the assignments and activities designed

for the new learner. Net Generation learners share several characteristics in common;

they are driven, social, multi-tasking, experiential learners (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007).

Assignments and activities need to meet these characteristics. First, to gain and sustain

the attention of this learner, educators need to pique the learner’s curiosity, which is

fleeting, and “evoke a sense of mystery and involve students in problem-solving” (p.

334). However, these students lack critical thinking skills and want assignments that are

structured and show clearly what is expected. Due to the social nature of this type of

learner the use of the traditional lecture is not as effective as group interactions such as

cooperative learning, student groups or discussions. Because they are experiential

learners this new type of learner does better with assignments where they search out the
Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 9

answer versus tradition methods of teaching where the answers are given to them.

Finally, as multi-taskers, this type of learner not only prefers to work on many tasks at

once, they work best this way. They arrive at their work in a nonlinear way, have short

attention spans, and prefer to get to the main idea on their own rather than having to wait

for a teacher to give them the main point such as in a lecture. Finally, instructors should

vary instructional presentations, and if students can’t find the relevance in their learning,

“means oriented strategies may be useful” (p. 335), which means that ideas and

information are indirectly presented by the teacher and learners construct meaning

through participation in activities set up by the teacher.

An interesting point brought up by Junco and Mastrodicasa, (2007) is that

addressing the issue of plagiarism with this generation of learners requires more

education on the issue than learners had in the past. Most of their lives have involved

uncertainty in terms of intellectual property based in technology. Learners are inundated

with “free” information from the Internet, and frequently file share with peers. They

must be specifically taught about ethical issues having to do with plagiarism. Further to

this, because this type of learner is accustomed to texting, they must be taught how to

write; most of their writing is condensed, uses incorrect grammar, and is filled with

abbreviations and slang. They also need to be taught about plagiarism and copyright and

ethical uses of digital information. As such, this requires that the teacher be also familiar

with these issues.

To attempt to help each student learn, students can be given choices as to how

they might display their grasp of the content in activities and assignments. For example,

in a research activity a student may have a choice to research the information traditionally
Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 10

by listening to a teacher directed lecture and access books from the library. Other

students may choose to research the topic through Internet searches, group discussions,

and the like. The final product may vary as well. Some students may choose to write an

essay, while others may choose to create a presentation using multi-media tools such as

PowerPoint, design a webpage with Wix, or create a bulletin board display. Having the

students show they have learned is more important than each student doing the same

assignment, and this approach is consistent with the idea of promoting self-directed, life-

long learners.

Exploration with distance learning would also allow learners to incorporate their

unique social skills into their learning. The schools in our school divisions allow open

and unrestricted access to the Internet, so students have access to the most current

information available there. They are involved with other students in group projects from

other schools and communicate with each other through Content Management Systems

such as Moodle. They can read blogs and participate in online discussion groups.

Therefore, though motivation hasn’t changed, the style of learning has. Students, who in

the past have exhibited behavioral problems in traditional classrooms, begin to thrive in

the new online learning environment. The reason for this is the style of learning has

changed. The learner has more opportunity to explore topics on his/her own; also the

learner may be engaged in research with another learner from another location. This

forces learners to think and learn in new ways. It is important for people to become

motivated to help learning, but what motivates them has changed; teachers need to be

more aware of how their students are motivated to engage learning.

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 11

The usual way to evaluate these wide-ranging activities is to use a rubric and this

should be created and given to the students prior to the assignments. This allows the

learners to know what is expected of them and reduces uncertainty about expectations. A

rubric focuses on how well the students display their knowledge of the learning

outcomes. In addition, the evaluation is not conducted as a summary evaluation at the

end of the assignment, but instead, evaluation is done throughout the process of

completing the assignment. Whether a student does an oral presentation or writes an

essay is not important. It is the ability of the student to demonstrate that the learning

outcomes, as laid out in the curriculum, have been met that is important.


The classroom has indeed changed. Teachers of today face the challenge of

reaching a new type of learner who has a different mixture of social expectations,

learning characteristics and needs than students in previous generations. Addressing the

needs of such learners begins with differentiating instruction so that students will remain

motivated and engaged, their individual learning styles and learning needs will be

Understanding Today’s Learners and Meeting Their Needs Through Differentiation 12


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Lower, J. (2008, October). Brace yourself: Here comes generation Y. Critical Care
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Prensky, M. (2005, September). Engage me or engrage me. Educause Review, 40(5),


Prensky, M. (2008, March). Turning on the lights. Educational Leadership, 65 (6),


Sagor, R. (2002, September). Lessons from skateboarders. Educational Leadership,

Retrieved December 1, 2008 from

Tomlinson, C. A. (1995). Differentiating Instruction for Advanced Learners in the

Mixed-Ability Middle School Classroom. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on
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Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). Mapping a route toward differentiated instruction. Educational

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