Teachers face new challenges every day and currently these challenges are strongly connected with the great diversity of their students. The teacher’s main task is to guide and support his/her students and enable the optimal progression and development to each one of them. This demands teacher’s understanding and recognition of different students’ characteristics and readiness to change and differentiate instruction. In the doctoral dissertation, we therefore focus on differentiating instruction to students’ previous knowledge and their interests; these are namely two fundamental factors of quality instruction. Effective learning is based on knowing and acknowledging students’ previous knowledge with which new facts and generalizations are constructed and transformed into new knowledge as well as linking the learning contents with students’ interests. When new knowledge is connected to students’ interests, it is “meaningful” to the students, which increases their motivation for learning and persisting in this process.
In the theoretical part we present the meaning of differentiating instruction to students’ characteristics as an essential factor of quality instruction, teacher’s professional development and factors of its encouragement. Within that, we paid special attention to the teacher’s conceptions of differentiated instruction, the importance of teacher’s involvement in his/her own planning of professional development and the importance of work environment. School leadership and its role in teacher’s involvement in teacher education and support of professional development are particularly highlighted.
In accordance with the research questions, we carried out the research, presented in the empirical part. We included 723 primary school teachers from all nine regional units of the National Education Institute Slovenia. With the help of the instrument, designed specifically for the purpose of the research, we investigated the teacher’s perceptions of the importance and the need for instruction differentiated according to students’ previous knowledge and interests, teacher’s perception of their own pedagogical work in the field of differentiated instruction and the discrepancy between the estimated need and the actual differentiation of instruction as well as the teacher’s contribution to students’ learning success and the intertwinement of different factors with the above mentioned teacher’s perceptions.
The main findings of the research show that teaching based on the individualised approach is connected to three different areas; the area of evaluation of differentiated instruction, the area of the evaluation of teacher’s work and profession and the area of the institution evaluation. There were statistically significant differences in evaluation of these three areas between teachers of different groups in reference to the number of years of teaching or phase of professional development, their professional title, work position and gender. Regarding the differences between teachers in reference to the number of years of teaching, we can identify three stages of teacher’s professional development that we called early stage, middle stage and mature stage of professional development. We found out that in evaluation of differentiated instruction teachers in the early and middle stages do not differ. There are, however, statistically significant differences shown in the third i.e. mature stage of professional development. The research also showed that primary teachers attribute higher ranks to the meaning of differentiated instruction and the contribution of teaching to the student’s learning success than specialist subject teachers. Correlation and regression analyses show that teacher’s opinions are connected to the teacher’s judgment of obstacles in differentiating instruction. The results of regression analysis also show the factors that influence teacher’s perception of his/her own teaching, judgment of his/her own competence for differentiating instruction that is based on individualised approach, judgment of the teacher’s contribution to the student’s learning success and teacher’s perceptions.
The findings of our research confirmed that the competence “differentiating instruction” is one of the most complex competences in teaching, which is only fully developed in higher stages of the teacher’s professional development. These results comply with the current research findings from the field of teacher’s professional development models. It is important to stress that intentional attention should be devoted to gaining the competence “differentiating instruction” in all the stages of professional development. Based on our research findings and other findings from the field of teachers’ professional development we designed a training model for developing the competence “differentiating instruction”. The model is based on the principle of continuity, peer cooperation and on the support and constructivist approach the focal part of which is facilitating cognitive conflict and offering adapted support in the process of solving it. In all the phases of the model we were attentive of the three factors that proved to be crucially connected to teacher’s teaching which is based on individualised teaching, i.e. evaluation of differentiated instruction, evaluation of teacher’s work and profession and institution evaluation.