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Student diversity, in terms of learning needs and along many other dimensions, is apparent in most classrooms today (Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 2000; Dixon et al., 2014; Subban, 2006). Students identified within schools as having exceptionalities increasingly learn in the same classrooms as their same-age peers, and educators are expected to address all learners’ needs through their instructional and assessment practices (Roy et al., 2015; Suprayogi et al., 2017). Educators also need to ensure that all students have access to high-quality instruction and equitable academic outcomes (McTighe & Brown, 2005; Tomlinson, 2001). Differentiated instruction (DI) is defined by Tomlinson (2005) as “a philosophy of teaching purporting that students learn best when their teachers effectively address variance in students’ readiness levels, interests, and learning profile preferences” (p. 263).
Strategies that qualify as DI have been drawn upon by educators for approximately 15 years. Many countries, including Canada, the U.S., Norway, Sweden, Malaysia, and Australia, have included DI in their educational policy and resource documentation and have recommended or required DI as an approach to teaching and assessing at all levels (e.g., Cameron & Lindqvist, 2014; Gouvernement du Québec, 2007; Mills et al., 2014; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013; Suprayogi et al., 2017). However there is little research exploring whether and how school administrators’ support teachers in the development of beliefs, practices and implementation of DI. Understanding the role of school-based leadership is essential in better understanding and identifying effective ways of shifting school cultures to ones that support DI (Tomlinson, 1999).
The current study employed a concurrent mixed methods approach in order to explore the perspectives of school administrators regarding (a) their own beliefs and self-efficacy related to DI, (b) the relationships between beliefs, self-efficacy, organizational support, and support for DI practices, (c) barriers and facilitators of DI implementation. Data for the study was drawn in part from a web-based survey (n = 960) completed by school administrators of grades 7-12 schools across a large Eastern province. Quantitative survey data was analyzed using descriptive statistics as well as structural equation modeling to estimate the relationships between key variables. Qualitative data was also collected through individual interviews with six school administrators (4 principals and 2 vice-principals) and was analyzed thematically.
Preliminary analyses indicate that administrators were generally supportive of DI implementation and held positive and strong beliefs about its impact on students. They were more likely to support DI practices if they reported higher self-efficacy and organizational support. Themes emerging from the qualitative data also highlighted the many positive beliefs administrators held about the impact of DI on students; they further described pathways to innovation they experienced in their settings and challenges they perceived along the journey. Variability existed in the leadership approach evident in the responses of administrators, with evidence of instructional and transformative dimensions. Results will be discussed in relation to literature on educational change and leadership as well as DI practice and will add to the scant research base exploring in depth the use of DI in schools.