Succeeding With Differentiation

iStock-875574964_masterThis post was originally published on

Student voice is a hot topic in education, which makes me exceedingly happy—I’ve always thought that students were an educational stakeholder group that needed to be heard.

However, as a former teacher beginning my second year as a full-time consultant working with K–12 educators on differentiating instruction, I’ve come to realize that there’s another group of stakeholders whose voices are as important as students’, if not more so: teachers.


For several decades now, differentiation has been on many school districts’ lists of prioritized initiatives. The workshops I facilitate are typically not teachers’ first professional learning on differentiation. Yet differentiation is still an initiative in many districts, not a long-settled policy. Why?

The answer to this question is multifaceted. The traditional A-F grading system doesn’t lend itself easily to differentiation, and tracking students undermines it. However, there’s another significant roadblock to enacting successful, sustainable differentiation initiatives: the pervasive tendency of professional learning facilitators to dismiss teacher voice.

Such facilitators (whether that’s me, an administrator, an instructional coach, or a fellow teacher) are often guilty of inadvertently disregarding participants’ sentiments of struggle. We view these struggles as resistance instead of listening to what teachers say and differentiating our instruction for teachers’ needs accordingly.

In my experience, most examples of teacher resistance are about valid claims, not unfounded complaints. And sometimes the struggles teachers face are with specific practices that are cornerstones of differentiation, which presents a conundrum.

In an effort to help break the cycle of endless differentiation PD and find solutions for common differentiation obstacles, I’ve worked with many teachers to create work-arounds that accomplish the intended goal of the problematic practice and also respect teachers’ professionalism, as illustrated here with two examples.


Common teacher sentiment: “Pre-assessments take too long to administer, and they frequently just show that  the majority of the class has not mastered the material.”

The plain truth: Pre-assessments can take a lot of instructional time and sometimes provide teachers with little usable data.

Intended goal of pre-assessment: Teachers can use evidence from pre-assessments to plan instruction based on student need. The pre-assessment data will show teachers (among other things) which students have already mastered the material, so teachers can provide them with enrichment, which could take the form of anchor projects co-designed by the teacher and student, or challenges that allow for students to go deeper into the learning intentions by asking more complex questions.

Solution: Differentiate the pre-assessment. Instead of giving all students a time-intensive, whole unit pre-assessment, begin by giving all students a quick formative assessment on the first topic covered in the unit of study. Data from this formative assessment immediately tell teachers which students may have already mastered the content for the entire unit.

Then, give the full unit pre-assessment only to the small group of students who have shown that they have some mastery of the unit content. The results from this pre-assessment will tell teachers if they need to offer students enrichment on all or just some parts of the unit.

For each subsequent topic in the unit, offer quick formative assessments to the students who did not show mastery on the formative assessment covering the first topic. Offer topic enrichment on these topics to students as the need appears.


Common teacher sentiment: “I struggle with group work and prefer direct instruction.”

The plain truth: About 10 years ago, direct instruction began to get a really bad rap. Teachers were told they needed to be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” However, research indicates that direct instruction is highly effective for student learning.

Intended goal of group work: Students work collaboratively to process and deepen their understanding of content.

Solution: Use a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning. Let’s begin by clarifying a couple of points.

First, direct instruction and lecture are not synonymous. John Hattie has notedthat direct instruction done correctly has a greater impact on student learning than group work done incorrectly. Direct instruction is effective when the teacher instructs in short segments, with frequent checks for understanding and opportunities for students to process, practice, and receive feedback.

Second, group work and cooperative learning are not synonymous. Group work is an ambiguous term that encompasses everything from students working on a project together to students sitting in a group but working individually. Cooperative learning is structured so that all group members have equal opportunities to engage in appropriately rigorous learning.

With these clarifications in mind, to create a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning in your classroom, follow these steps:

  1. Use formative assessment evidence to determine which students have mastered the material you will cover during direct instruction.
  2. Offer any qualifying students enrichment.
  3. Continue direct instruction as planned with the remainder of your students.
  4. Build in breaks in instruction (every 7–12 minutes depending on the age of your students) to check for understanding and give students an opportunity to practice and process.
  5. Incorporate cooperative learning structures like Think-Pair-Share or gallery walks during the breaks in direct instruction.


All teachers want their students to succeed, and all teachers try to make this happen. That is all differentiation is. We complicate differentiation by not allowing ourselves to be provisional with how we apply the foundational pieces of differentiated instruction.

Instead, if we address these four questions in our instructional planning, differentiation will always be the result: What do my students need? How do I know? What will I do to meet their needs? How do I know if what I’m doing is working?

Questions about differentiation? Connect with Lisa here or on Twitter.  You can also check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning and previous blog posts on differentiation.

Would you hire one of your third-graders? I did.


This post was written by a guest blogger, my husband, Keith:)

When I was a third-grade teacher, the beginning of every school year was pretty much the same. I did my best to relax and recharge in July, and as soon as August arrived, my brain shifted back into school-mode. Like the sound of an alarm clock, early August would mean the arrival of the “Welcome Back” email from our school district HR department outlining my classroom assignment, building information, and initiatives I would be involved in during the year. I received this same email every year, over and over again, knowing very well that this email was my signal to get back into teacher mode.

But, with the monotony of the operational aspects of a new school year came the adrenaline rush about everything that lay ahead of me. I was always most excited to meet my new students.

At the beginning of each school year, I always felt it was important to try and see each child as their best adult self. Maybe I was teaching the next Bill Gates? Or, the next Axl Rose? Or, maybe just the next Keith Westman? How would I want these “soon-to-be-adults” to remember their year with me, their teacher?

I realized this past year, that the 2002–03 school year was completely different than any other school year.

That year, a student named Samuel entered my third-grade class. He was very much like my other students: a bit nervous (because who wouldn’t be a little nervous having a 6’ 6” male teacher), eager to please, and generally happy about being back in school with their friends.

Samuel, like every student, had many strengths and passions one of which was his tenacity for perfection. I speak one language- English (the north side of Chicago dialect). I never was able to pronounce his last name with the perfect Mandarin Chinese tones that made his name special to him. Samuel made sure to give me every tip and suggestion as to how to make that happen.

But, like all other years, at the end of the school year, Samuel moved onto fourth grade and then transferred to another school for middle school.

I, too, did some growing up after that school year. I taught another year of third-grade, then took a district-level position as an Instructional Technology Coordinator, and then became a middle school principal (back with Samuel and his classmates from my third-grade class).

In 2008, Samuel graduated from my middle school and headed off to high school. That same year, I left working IN schools to join my junior high friend who created these edtech products called AppliTrack and K12JobSpot (you’ve probably all used them). So, both Samuel and I started new journeys- he began high school and I began a new career in edtech.

Samuel and I didn’t keep in touch over the years. The last time we saw one another, I was Samuel’s teacher-turned-principal- our last interaction was me handing him his elementary school diploma on an extravagant (and maybe a bit gaudy) auditorium stage.

But, one day last year, Samuel connected with me on LinkedIn.

It turns out that Samuel, once a tenacious third-grade student of mine, grew up to be a tenacious software developer during the same period of time that I grew my career in the edtech industry. Samuel was working for a large Department of Defense contractor and I was the COO of Otus, an edtech company in Chicago. Samuel had connected me with one of his friends who was looking to work in the edtech industry. We ultimately hired his friend. Then, eight months later, we hired Samuel.Sam and I today!

When I think back to my days as a teacher, I always felt I learned much more from my students than I believed they were learning from me. I can tell you that nothing has changed. Each day at Otus, Samuel and his colleagues teach me more than I believe I help them. Moreover, I never would have expected that not only would I be in a completely different line of work than what I was doing in 2002, but I would be doing that work with a student in my class!

What’s the moral of this story? Life is amazing.

It’s true that Samuel and I both grew up over the past 16 years, in different ways and in different places. Yet, I can tell you that the bond we share, having learned and laughed together for many our formative years, and being able to pick up where we left off so long ago, is something most people will never experience and it’s something I really cherish.

As you head into the new school year, remember that you never know where life will take you or your students. Enjoy each moment and allow yourself the pleasure of daydreaming where you and your students will be in five, ten, and 16 years from now. You never know, you might end up hiring one of your third-graders and continuing your lifelong journey of learning, together.

P.S. He’s still helping me work on those Mandarin Chinese tones:)