Differentiation is Doable

Oct 10, 2012 by

When I speak with teachers about starting to incorporate differentiated instruction and personalized learning into their teaching, some often look at it as something that seems logical and looks good on paper, but they are overwhelmed with incorporating it into their teaching, aren’t sure where to begin, or that the effort will be worth the results.  As I’ve been thinking about how to make this easier for teachers to understand, I’ve been trying to make analogies that make the process easier to understand.

Let’s take medicine as a comparison.

Each patient a doctor sees is an individual.  They need care based on whatever their current disease or problem might be, when they walk in the door, taking their history, current medicines, family history and other things into account, including the patient’s level of compliance with past treatments, when offering new therapies or treatments, especially for chronic conditions.

A doctor may order a bunch of tests for the patient as well.  These tests spew back a bunch of numbers, but unless they are put into context  based on previous test results, along with  where the numbers fit into a general range  considered Normal, the numbers themselves have little context and meaning about whether a patient is getting healthier or sicker.

Doctors learn in school how to treat disease, and that the human body, on the whole, tends to “break” in predictable patterns.  There are anomalies and rare diseases of course, but most of the time, illness follows a fairly predictable course, and standard treatments work well for the majority of patients, but certainly not all of them.  This is when personal history, family history, sensitivities or allergies to certain medicines and the like come into play, and if not taken into account, normal treatment can have disastrous outcomes  for that individual.

Now let’s compare this to teaching.

Each student (and teacher) are individuals.  Most kids learn how to read with standard curriculum, but some students, based on the way their brains process sound/symbol relationships, struggle more with learning to read- we often call this dyslexia.  However, we also know that some reading programs, like Orton-Gillingham based programs, do a great job teaching kids who have struggled learning to read, truly master the skill.  Orton Gillingham and its approach to helping students learn to read require a bit more one on one or small group instruction, but this approach and customization for a few students of the whole group teaching, means the difference between success and failure for these students.

Likewise, there are students in the classroom, who, based on prior knowledge and family background, have a wider set of experiences and may breeze through certain lessons, yet struggle in others where they have no such background to draw from.  These students can look brilliant one day and dull the next, yet their response to the teaching in the classroom that’s often one-size fits all varies dramatically based on what they bring to the table already.

Test scores, whether we’re talking about State and national tests or the results of the last spelling quiz are data points that help make up a larger picture of a child’s growth and development.  While the answer to each question on a test is like your Hematocrit, White Blood Cell Count or Creatinine score on a blood test, the answers all together, especially when compared to the results from prior tests, tell a larger narrative of how that child is learning and progressing, as well as what areas might need more support or attention.

Differentiation in the classroom is about giving kids what they need, when they need it.  It’s about being responsive, and maybe even a bit intuitive about a kid’s needs, and it does place a burden on really getting to know the kids on the teacher.  It’s also about spotting trends in a kid’s learning, having a sense of when they might struggle a bit more and encourage them to practice just a bit more in that area.  It’s about knowing when to let them go and explore, trying new things, and when to scaffold certain skills a bit more, so they are ready for the next challenge.

None of this is expensive, or requires special tools or even special training- It’s what we might just refer to as basic good teaching and mentoring.  But let’s not white wash it either- it does require engagement and investment of time.  It does require teachers to track students and look for patterns in their learning, even year to year.  Knowing that Carol or Bob seem always to have a slump in mid-November, for example, night help next year’s teacher prepare for that, or be more sensitive if they know this is the one month out of the year when the child’s Mom or Dad is always away from home, and they need a little more attention and encouragement.  Tools and apps that make keeping records easier, ranging from e-portfolios to apps that that teachers make notes during the day on a student’s performance, can certainly be helpful and help folks spot trends in the data.  What’s even more powerful is sharing that data with students and parents, so they know when to look for rough patches and how to prevent them, or prepare to spend a little more time to get through to the next level.

We expect doctors to be able to treat humans and patients as a group, but still make allowances for individuals and provide prescriptive care.  Quick check ins with students for a minute or two, even once a week,  sends a message that the teacher cares, and that, in and of itself, goes a long way for a student that may be feeling lost or alone or not understanding what the big picture might be.  A few minutes being treated as the only student, where they can be heard, goes a long way towards fostering student engagement the rest of the time.  It’s like having those few minutes alone with your doctor, where you can tell him more about what’s going on in your world, that can make all the difference in how you are treated and understood.

Don’t our students deserve this care?  Don’t you want to be the person that makes them feel valuable and worth while, even if it’s only every so often?  These small moments where we feel we matter sustain us through all those times we feel we’re just another number in life.

While much of making differentiation a reality also involves setting tasks and projects that let a student demonstrate their true mastery of their learning, the most important part of differentiation is the personalization portion- where each student feels like a valued member of a learning community, where they have something to contribute, and it’s up to teachers, as leaders of that classroom, to set this tone.

You can do it.  Other professions do it every day- doctors, lawyers, hairdressers, even your dry cleaner- you can, too.  Kids are people, not widgets on a conveyor line, and needed to be treated as unique, not uniform, to truly thrive.

Related Posts

Differentiation becomes Personal

Apr 11, 2012 by

Like most things in life, many things sound great in theory, but when it becomes personal, it takes on new dimensions.

As most of you know, I have two kids, currently a high school junior and an eighth grader.  Both kids have very different educational needs, and would likely fall into the “twice exceptional category”, being bright but also having (relatively) minor learning disabilities.  Most of the time, the IEP’s and 504 plans are there as ground rules, which helps everyone get to know my kids and rarely requires what I would call monitoring or enforcement of the provisions.

This past month, we’ve had an issue with my older son writing a formal term paper, essentially for the first time.  The teacher set a very detailed rubric, where many of the items such as using 3 x 5 cards to organize the material, is simply a disaster waiting to happen for my son.  The cards are required to be hand written, and his handwriting is really illegible to even himself, which is why he types notes in class.  He opted to use a flash-card app on his iPad, but ran into problems with the teacher being largely unwilling to review the work unless it was in printed form, and the app does not allow printing.    The first version of the paper was a disaster, regardless, and we’re going back and redoing the process from scratch.

What I’m learning is that many of the things we advocate in the Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists are good practice for kids at every level of learning, and can help avoid those moments in school that would otherwise be classified disastrous for everyone involved.  Instead of a kid spending time doing research but not effectively pinning down a central thesis, and a teacher resistant to review information in anything other than prescribed form, a simple adaptation of organizing information to a format that’s most effective for the student solves the problem.  While I understand trying to teach a student a new way of approaching a complex and layered project, I’m not sure 3 x 5 cards are the only way to get there, especially for kids challenged with material management and organization to begin with.

It’s amazing what a little time and compassion can do for both a kid and a teacher.  Some teachers approach flexibility as giving up control or inviting a free for all.  However, simply giving kids, say, three choices for turning in notes and an outline would let students choose what works best for them, and after all, if the carry-over message is to prepare them for college and writing reports for work, finding the best way to work with their strengths provides them a much more effective template than the one way the teacher likes best.

Differentiation is about helping kids capitalize on their strengths and learn the most they can in any classroom.  It promotes taking responsibility for themselves as learners, and expressing the depth of their understanding as best they can.  The more we encourage kids to think deeper, make connections and go beyond surface thinking, the better.  Unfortunately, most of the testing I see tends to be focused on “filling in the bubble” and having just enough knowledge to recognize the right answer.  That’s probably not very intellectually satisfying to the teacher or the student.  Instead, finding ways that students can meet the end objective but take their own path there, (with supervision along the way and appropriate scaffolding, Of course) will give students more carry-over skills by understanding their own learning strengths better as well as the content of the assignment.

I often think we don’t do enough in schools, as currently designed, to help our students understand and explore themselves as students and scholars.  We may provide templates for doing projects, but we don’t explain that these templates can carry over into other subject matter or even into real life.  We don’t instill a sense of the process being as important as the outcome, and part of the process is not the pathway, but how you construct the pathway itself.   It’s like forging a path through the woods rather than travelling down pre-made trails.  And it’s only by, in a more formal way, helping our kids understand the learning process alongside content that they’ll grow to understand the interconnectedness of both.

In isolation, many of the tasks teachers set students can look pointless and dull.  I get this response when I talk to small businesses and encourage all of them to go through the formal process or writing or re-writing a business plan.  This exercise is not only useful to give to a bank or investors; it’s a process that’s incredibly useful to have you think through your business in a very systematic way, and will help you spot problems, weaknesses, strengths, and make connections you may never have done otherwise.  Likewise, having kids work through a rubric or prescribed plan of attack for a large project, like a term paper, may help them see strengths and weaknesses in their project and develop a stronger point of view as well as depth of understanding.  By explaining this to them, there’s going to be a lot more willingness to take the time to work through suggested methods, but also the ability to adapt, say, handwriting for digital tools, or seek out additional resources to clarify your subject.  You may think you want to write about pollination, for example, but end up writing more specifically about bees and colony collapse syndrome.  These things are in the same neighborhood, but they’re very different subjects in terms of the depth of knowledge and connections required to pull it off.

I hope by the end of this process, my son becomes a better writer.  I know he’s learning a lot about his subject area, and a lot about himself as a learner through the process.  The end product will be much more engaging and interesting for everyone, but most importantly, himself.  And that’s the end goal of differentiation.  We hope to help teachers walk students meaningfully through the process of learning, no matter what the subject area, and be able to engage with the material and extract the most meaningful knowledge out of it.

Memorizing facts, while still useful in math, is less useful in the age of the internet.  Knowing what to do with the information at hand, and transforming it into true knowledge and wisdom- that requires developing what we call 21st century skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaborating and communicating.  In reality, we know that these skills have always been what separates out most students- those that are content with surface knowledge and those that dig deep and really immerse themselves in learning.  Now that teachers and schools are no loner the sole gateway for information and education, the value add required is not just parsing out factoids, but it’s making kids care about the task at hand and making it meaningful in a way we didn’t worry about so much when the jobs at the other end were factory based.  We need people able to take the wealth of information at hand and transform it into new ideas, by knowing how to engage deeply with a topic and solve problems.  And that’s the end goal with differentiation and understanding by design.  It’s about making learning count.

Related Posts


Cultural Change

Mar 16, 2012 by

As I look at Differentiated and Personalized Instruction, I see it as a philosophical approach to teaching.  It requires that learning become more student centered, and even student-directed, which is a big cultural shift in most classrooms.  So many classrooms remain “Captain of the ship” oriented, where command and control is valued over interaction.

Likewise, teachers remark about how administrator 10 minute observations often seem silly or not reflective of what happens most days in the classroom.  Teachers feel comments are not particularly helpful nor do they seem to offer any mentoring guidance that the teacher finds useful in day to day practice.  The end all and be all seems to be evaluation by pupil performance, and the interest in instructional methods starts and ends there.

But I worry students, like my sons, are losing the joy that learning can be.  Creativity is undervalued.  Collaboration is undervalued.  Kids are merely widgets moving through the system rather than people.  And in part, this is because the teachers and administrators as well are being treated as objects rather than people by every part of the system.  This cog is either doing its job or needs to be replaced.  But in reality, each member of the system can perform better when its “gears” mesh better with the other parts of the system, and it doesn’t have to do all the work alone.

It’s the reason setting a positive culture in your classroom and in your school is critical to success- probably even more so than test prep.  Let’s take the psychological phenomenon of priming as an example.   If kids and teachers feel valued and like they are doing good work every day, they will naturally feel more competent when it comes to test time.  Confidence and a belief in success is perhaps not as important to the outcome as the actual knowledge, but feeling like the task ahead is manageable and not hopeless is key to everyone’s engagement in the process and ultimate accomplishments.

The heart of making differentiated instruction work is creating an environment of trust and collaboration- creating a classroom that values mutual respect and cooperation- a community.  The classroom should function like a family.  Sometimes, it may be more dysfunctional than we’d like, but striving for an environment where everyone feels valued is simply a more humane environment that will foster and facilitate learning even without a lot of other changes.

If there’s one thing I could wish for all of our schools, it would be that they become a much more compassionate and community oriented institution, where competition of individuals for a few precious resources takes a back seat to making sure everyone gets what they need rather than just what they want.  It’s a subtle shift, but critical.  As long as we continue to push schools to be factories of knowledge cramming, we lose more and more of the humanity we need to instill in our kids as well as our teachers.  A loss of this sort is less tangible than test scores, but all the more devastating by the wreckage it leaves in its wake.  As Seth Godin said recently, we have to Stop Stealing Dreams and start learning how to create schools that foster them instead.



Other priming links worth your time:




ASCD Conference Appearance

Mar 16, 2012 by

Both Jenifer Fox and I will be at this year’s ASCD conference in Philadelphia.  Jenifer will be speaking, and we’ll both be signing copies of The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists at the Jossey Bass Booth, so please stop by and say hi!

Related Posts


Differentiating Instruction and Assessments

Mar 2, 2012 by

There was an interesting note on Mashable this morning about a new iPad app that not only saves your child’s artwork, but allows them to talk about their artwork and record that at the same time. This made me think that while this is logical progression technology-wise, it’s leaps ahead of where we are in terms of differentiating assessments for kids, and adults alike.

We’re getting better and better about helping teachers understand how to differentiate the delivery method of education- ie teaching to different learning styles, but when it comes to assessment, we’re still largely behind in understanding what a child learns and takes away from the classroom and the work we assign them.

A teacher I know recently had her class contact a prescreened list of adults, to ask them about the creative process they used in their careers, or make something themselves and describe the creative process they used.  This was an attempt to try to get the kids to see the similarities in the writing process and the creative process, and how these same  “tools” were in use long after the classroom was nothing more than a memory.  It was a great project, but as would be expected, some kids invented new devices, some did do interviews, and others made duct tape wallets or other small craft projects.  I hope in the end, each child took something away from the experience, but I wonder whether grading their writing samples about their creative process and that reflection may not have been better served by something like a video or an iphone app where kids would talk and record their process as it took shape, and as ideas were considered, discarded, changed, bounced around, etc. culminating in the final product.

I think we’re on the cusp of really figuring out how kids are thinking and absorbing what we’re trying to get them to understand and appreciate.  When we figure out how to truly differentiate the assessment of students, we may finally begin to make more headway in making school and the lessons we want them to learn more meaningful and personal.  However, it takes so much more work on everyone’s part to truly evaluate learning.  Grades, tiers, and other numerical classification systems are just too easy, and they won’t go away any time soon, even if the meaningful evaluation of the creative process is becoming easier to document every day.