Let’s face it, change is hard. Especially when you’ve been doing something for so long that it has become part of your identity. Even when the desire to change exists, knowing what steps to take in order to do things in new ways is not always clear. We recently had the pleasure to work with Lisa Westman, a frequent speaker on standards-based grading, differentiated instruction, and instructional coaching. During her webinar, she provides three keys for how school leaders can bring teachers along on the journey to standards-based grading (SBG).
Empathize with teachers
- Many, if not all educators, are familiar with letter grades and understand how grading works. They have become part of our identity. The shift to SBG is not only a systematic change, but it also can affect the ego because it alters that identity.
- Before standards-based grading, we asked teachers to differentiate instruction but expected them to grade students according to where they were in relation to their peers.
- Look at report cards as bank statements. The minute that statement is put in your mailbox, it already has become obsolete. There are changes that have already been made since it was mailed. That’s why we have online systems to check things as they stand in real time. The same capability exists when looking at grades.
Ensure a solid understanding of the foundational pieces of SBG
- Start with ensuring that your teachers have a clear understanding of the universal tenants of standards-based grading and what exactly is non-negotiable in your district. It’s crucial to have a unified vision for the following questions: What are we doing, why are we doing it, what does that look like?
- Next, invest in differentiated professional development that helps teachers feel confident in moving away from the instructional routines they used to rely on in the past i.e. a student receiving a lower grade from turning in an assignment late). Not including homework as part of the overall grade. Many resistant teachers understand the value of such changes but don’t know how to actually do these things in their daily practice.
- The final piece to a successful and sustainable standards-based rollout is to make certain the instructional strategies have been determined and are understood by your staff before looking at reporting out.
- Grade-level teams and/or department have clearly defined learning intentions and success criteria according to the standards.
- Formative assessment is utilized consistently and correctly.
- Instruction is differentiated for students
Equip teachers with appropriate tools
- One thing that can lead to teacher resistance happens when teachers are in a have a solid understanding of the universal tenants and a shared loyalty to foundational principles of standards-based grading and then there’s a missing system or tool needed to share important information about student learning. This results in teachers spending a lot of time creating spreadsheets or manipulating systems not intended for standards-based grading. Teacher’s experience misplaced frustration because they’re spending a lot of time and cognitive space trying to learn a tool when they haven’t yet figured the instructional piece.
If you would like to hear additional details about Lisa’s approach or how to contact her about working with your district, you can email her here or check out the downloadable audio and a video recording of the webinar.
Continue the Learning
We are on a mission to simplify educational technology by helping educators assemble a holistic display of student interest, engagement, performance, and growth. However, if you talk to any one of the several former educators who work at Otus, you’ll often hear them say that Otus, plus ineffective teaching is still ineffective teaching.
As proud as we may be of our platform, we recognize the importance of sound instructional strategies and want to empower educators to reach their greatest potential. Therefore we’ve created two places where you can engage with a community of like-minded educators.
Join our Facebook group! The purpose of this group is to connect educators who share a focus on the ongoing paradigm shift in instructional, assessment, and grading practices. Join us to collaborate with prominent educators and walk away with strategies to support your teaching and learning initiatives. bit.ly/ModernMeasuresCommunity
Follow us on Twitter! We share resources and spark conversations about healthy instructional, assessment, and grading practices. Ask your questions using the hashtag #ModernMeasures or follow@Modern_Measures.
Podcast version (audio only)
This post was originally published in Education Week Teacher.
Parent-teacher conferences can be some of the most rewarding—or the most stress-inducing—experiences of the school year for teachers.
If students are making progress academically and thriving socially, it’s a joy to discuss these achievements with families. But often, teachers may need to have more difficult conversations—discussing strategies for students who are struggling, or fielding parents’ questions about new school or district initiatives that teachers are implementing in their classrooms.
Sometimes, these programmatic changes can be extremely stressful for parents. One example, which I’ve encountered often, is the phasing out of gifted education pull-out services. Some schools do this in favor of meeting the needs of all students in a whole-class setting through differentiated instruction.
During the first year or two of this transition, teachers often have to address the questions, concerns, and criticisms of parents whose children had previously been pulled out by a specialist and are now receiving this enrichment in the general classroom.
When a parent presents concerns to a teacher who is still adapting to this change herself, it can make the teacher anxious, or even put her on the defensive. Once on the defensive, teachers (and humans in general) struggle to redirect conversations to a more positive place. Ultimately, in these cases, the parent-teacher conference ends poorly, with both parties feeling unable to move forward with a good plan for the child’s education.
To avoid these precarious situations, I recommend the following six steps for ensuring conferences with contentious (or concerned) parents are productive:
Step 1: Summarize what the parents say to ensure a common understanding.
“It sounds like you are concerned that your son is bored/not challenged in math now that he is no longer being pulled out for enrichment services.”
Step 2: Acknowledge and validate the parents’ emotion.
Parents are entitled to feel how they do. When you validate the emotion, parents no longer have to be on the defensive.
“I completely understand and agree with your frustration. Your son should absolutely be engaged and appropriately challenged in math. Please know, I want the same thing as you.”
Step 3: Ask questions instead of making statements to get a clearer picture of where the parent is coming from.
Teacher: “What is making you think your son is bored in math?”
Parent: “He says he is.”
Teacher: “Does he say why or when he is bored?”
Parent: “No. He just says he is always bored.”
Step 4: Respond with evidence.
“I understand. Now, what I want to do is determine if your son is bored because he is not being challenged, or if your son is bored because he doesn’t find the content relevant.
Either way, it is my job to make sure we find a remedy. I want to ensure I choose the most appropriate approach. Take a look at this information with me. [Here, share recent formative-assessment data related to the math concept.] What I see here is that your son is being challenged. He’s making appropriate growth toward mastering this content and is on track to master it soon. That leads me to believe your son may be bored because he doesn’t see why it’s important to learn this.”
Step 5: Suggest an action, and ask the parents if this suggestion sounds reasonable to them.
“I think it would be helpful if I chatted with your son to see if we can get more information as to the cause of his boredom. Once I know that, he and I will create a plan of action and share that with you. How does this sound?”
Step 6: Follow up with the student and parents.
After the conference, talk with the student about the issue at hand and create a plan. Then, bring the parents back into the loop. Ideally, the student is also a part of this conversation. Consider using technology like FaceTime, Skype, or a group chat to involve all parties.
Parents want what is best for their children, yet they don’t always know what is best when it comes to their education. Students can excel in classroom environments that may be foreign to parents. But if parents are worried about their child’s needs being overlooked, it can make conferences feel like an attack on teachers as both professionals and human beings.
This is the most unfortunate of circumstances because when it comes down to it, parents, teachers, and students all want the same thing: for students to learn. By following these six steps during parent-teacher conferences, teachers ensure that they form a partnership with parents rather than an adversarial relationship fraught with negative emotions and power struggles.
This post was originally published on edutopia.org
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.
HONORING TEACHER EXPERTISE
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.
OBSTACLE 1: PRE-ASSESSMENT
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.
OBSTACLE 2: GROUP WORK
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:
- Use formative assessment evidence to determine which students have mastered the material you will cover during direct instruction.
- Offer any qualifying students enrichment.
- Continue direct instruction as planned with the remainder of your students.
- 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.
- Incorporate cooperative learning structures like Think-Pair-Share or gallery walks during the breaks in direct instruction.
IN THE END
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.
For more on any of the content below, check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin).
What do you find to be the biggest obstacle to effectively differentiating instruction?
Got your answer? Was it “time?”
If so, your reply mirrors the most common response I receive from the teachers I coach on differentiation.
Differentiating instruction, a process that involves recognizing individual students’ varying learning needs and interests and actively planning lessons around them, is key to helping all students learn and grow. It’s become an important part of personalized learning that many teachers are adapting in a variety of ways.
But it isn’t always easy. When I began my journey to differentiate instruction for my own students, lack of time was my greatest obstacle, too. However, over time (pun intended) I came to realize that, more often than not, the issue is not a lack of time but rather how time is spent.
Time Is More Than Hours and Minutes
“The key is not spending time, but investing it,” author Stephen R. Covey once said. A video on the concept of time by Entrepreneur Magazine echoes that sentiment. The video’s narrator explains that the reason time-management strategies tend to fail is that they are designed to manage clock time, and humans live in real time. For example, one may have a planning period from 11 a.m. to 11:40 a.m. each day, but how many of those 40 minutes are actually spent planning?
Similarly, one may “teach” for 360 minutes each day, but how many of those minutes are spent using evidence from formative assessments (one of the key components of differentiation) to inform our next steps?
Is it possible that we teachers aren’t using our time as efficiently as we could?
This rhetorical question is not a critique of teachers. Teaching is hard. It’s almost impossible to be “on” every minute of every day. In my days as a classroom teacher, there were many times that I sat down behind my desk for a few minutes simply because I needed to sit down. (This almost always happened just as an administrator popped into my classroom, making me immediately feel guilty.)
However, when I talk about efficient use of time, I am referring to the chronic “time killers” that reduce our productivity, such as checking social media on smartphones, online shopping, and water-cooler chats with colleagues. For the average worker, these time killers cumulatively add up to one day of lost work each week.
To get a better handle on how we spend our time, we should track and analyze how every minute of a day is spent and then create a plan to work more productively. But that’s only the beginning of differentiating instruction. To do so successfully requires additional steps, such as understanding what differentiation really entails and collaborating with colleagues.
The Link Between Differentiation and Teacher Collaboration
Much has been written about the need for educators to break out of their silos and collaborate with other teachers. A quick Google search for “teaching in silos” produces close to 500,000 hits, including many explanations for why working in silos is detrimental to educators.
Planning for instruction in isolation isn’t helpful, because it’s: 1) simply not efficient, and 2) less effective in producing positive student outcomes. Moreover, if a person is task-oriented as opposed to goal-oriented, he or she is statistically less likely to be successful, according to two Cornell University researchers. Therefore, when teachers sit down to differentiate, they are often frustrated by the feeling that differentiation is just “one more thing” they have to do.
Conversely, when teachers sit down in teams to identify student needs and create action plans to meet them, they find that their plans organically result in differentiated instruction. The process no longer feels like one more thing, but is the outcome of solid planning and aligns to almost all other education initiatives that work to ensure student success (such as standards-based grading or common assessments).
However, according to a recent study from the RAND Corporation, teachers still overwhelmingly say that they do not have enough time to collaborate with their colleagues. Only 31 percent of teachers surveyed reported that they have sufficient time to collaborate with other teachers, despite many having the opportunity to meet with their colleagues on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis.
In order to ensure that team time is most productive, I recommend that teacher teams—comprised of grade-level or department colleagues—use a structure that guides their meetings and helps them stick to agenda items that are directly connected to student-driven differentiation (see the roadmap for student-driven differentiation I created as one example). A roadmap or other such framework can help teacher teams focus their time to identify desired learning outcomes, analyze student performance, construct plans to meet the needs of students at varying levels, and, most importantly, incorporate the input of teachers’ other collaborators in learning: our students.
By using a structure to guide our team time, we can guarantee that our energy is spent effectively, and that we are doing all that we can to meet the needs of our students.
This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.
In my work with teachers across the country on differentiating instruction, it appears that when it comes to differentiation, teachers fall into one of three categories:
- teachers who want to differentiate instruction for their students but don’t know how
- teachers who have tried to differentiate for their students and “give-up” because they found differentiating instruction was too time-consuming, didn’t produce their desired results, or they faced some other insurmountable obstacle
- teachers who are masterful at differentiating instruction, yet still feel like they aren’t doing it “right”
I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what contributes to these mindsets and have concluded that the following factors shape the perspective of teachers in all of the aforementioned categories and have found that when teachers apply student-driven differentiation, their fears are alleviated.
DOING RIGHT BY KIDS
Last January I attended a meeting on differentiated instruction led by the guru of differentiation, Carol Ann Tomlinson. During that meeting, Carol said something that summarized differentiation in a way that stripped away any ambiguity and got right to the heart of what differentiation actually is.
Carol said that rather than asking teachers to identify examples of teachers providing differentiated instruction, we should ask teachers to identify examples teachers “doing right by kids.”
And, that is precisely what differentiation is: doing right by kids. Some of the terms that describe the methods and strategies we can use to differentiate sound a little bit scary (curriculum compacting, formative assessment readiness, etc). But, if we can allow ourselves to dismiss the lingo for a minute and examine our actions; what we find is that if we just ask ourselves, “Am I doing right for my students?” and then act accordingly, differentiating instruction isn’t so intimidating after all.
In fact, it is likely that the teachers described in category 3 above (those who are masterful differentiators and still don’t feel like they are doing it right) may feel inadequate because they don’t have the vocabulary to describe the actions they take to differentiate. Similarly, those who struggle to implement differentiation in their classrooms may get caught up in understanding educational jargon rather than focusing on actualizing the steps toward differentiation one by one (see roadmap above).
DIFFERENTIATION IS NOT A GOAL
Contrary to popular belief, differentiation is not something else teachers “have to do.” Rather, differentiation is what happens when teachers’ focus is student growth: academic growth, social-emotional growth, and growth of students’ metacognitive awareness. When teachers ask themselves these questions:
- What do my students need?
- How do I know?
- How will I attempt to address this need?
- How will I know if my actions worked?
and plan for instruction based on the answer to these questions, differentiation is the natural byproduct. In short, differentiation is not the goal: it is the result of actions taken to ensure student needs and readiness are considered, addressed and assessed accordingly to ensure the methods teachers choose to address those needs are effective.
To address the needs of students, teachers tend to differentiate one or more of the following: the content (what students learn), the process (how students acquire information), the product (how students demonstrate learning), and the learning environment (where and with whom students learn).
THE IDEA THAT TEACHERS SHOULDN’T ASK STUDENTS WHAT THEY NEED
I am often amazed when I am having a candid conversation with a teacher who is struggling to meet a student’s needs and can’t seem to pinpoint what the student needs. I typically ask the teacher, “Have you asked your student what he/she needs?” And, more often than not, the teacher’s response is, “No”.
The fear of asking students directly what they need is the fear we (as a field) need to overcome first. Teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to “figure things out,” yet when they are stuck, they feel guilty and defeated. And, sometimes, the feelings of guilt and defeat prevent them from asking the students themselves.
However, when teachers cut themselves a little slack and go directly to the source (the students) and ask them specific questions about what they need (AKA Student-Driven Differentiation) they find that by incorporating student voice to drive how that differentiate instruction takes the pressure off of them a simultaneously increases student engagement and ownership of learning.
Sometimes just knowing what questions to ask students is the hardest part about incorporating student voice to differentiate instruction. But these questions need not be overthought. They are simply the questions to which teachers need an answer, questions like: what intrigues you about this concept/topic? Why do you find this content boring? If you could show your understanding of this concept/topic in any way, how would you show it?
There really aren’t any “right” or “wrong” questions to ask students as long as the questions garner valuable information for the teacher to create an action plan with the student to ensure they learn.
For more information on items discussed in this post and additional differentiation topics, continue your student-driven differentiation journey by reading Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning in the Classroom now available for purchase on Corwin.com and amazon.com.
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.
This article was originally published in Education Week Teacher.
Editor’s note: For a counterpoint to this piece, see Baptiste Delvallé’s opinion essay, “Why I Give Students Only One Chance on Tests.”
Even though it was 23 years ago, I vividly remember the countdown calendar I created for my 16th birthday. I marked April 5, 1993 with a giant set of keys and a convertible. I was going to get my driver’s license, and it was going to be the best day of my life.
During the year leading up to that fateful birthday, I diligently practiced and prepared for the written and performance components of the exam. I applied feedback from my driver’s education teacher and my parents. I practiced driving the course I would later navigate. All the evidence from these formative assessments pointed to my mastery of the open road.
However, when I went to take the actual driver’s test, I successfully completed the course but made a silly, yet critical, error on the written assessment. I pleaded with my evaluator to make an exception and pass me anyway. It was only one little mistake.
I felt completely defeated. All of that practice, and still, I had failed. But then my evaluator told me that we all have bad days. “Go sit in the waiting area and think about the reasons why you made the error you did, and how you can avoid errors like that in the future,” he said. “I’ll come find you in one hour.”
An hour later, he let me retake the test, and the license was mine.
Responding to the Unexpected
There is rarely, if ever, a reason to deny a student an opportunity to retake an assessment. In fact, to do so actually negates the importance of the concepts we aim to teach. Additionally, the purpose of retakes is not to give students a reason to procrastinate in their studies, but to give students the benefit of the doubt and offer them multiple chances to show mastery.
In my work with teachers in school systems across the country on differentiation and standards-based grading, I have found that test retakes are a hot button for many educators. I often hear teachers say things like, “Students don’t study because they know they can just retake the test.”
In response to this perceived lack of effort by students, some teachers refuse to let students retake a test or require them to perform a variety of tasks (worksheets, online lessons, test corrections) or come in during recess to qualify for a retake.
We should never just assume that students are lazy. Retakes aren’t about students being unprepared, but about letting them respond to the unexpected hurdle. I help educators define how to use retakes in helpful ways: for those occasions when there are discrepancies between formative and summative assessment results.
When teachers give smaller assessments for learning—or formative assessments—correctly and with fidelity, a student who unexpectedly bombs a larger evaluation of student learning at the end of a unit—or a summative assessment—should be a rarity. By using evidence from students’ formative assessments, teachers should have a solid grasp on whether or not individual students are ready for the end assessment.
If formative data shows individual students are ready to take the final test, but they still perform poorly, this discrepancy calls for talking with students to determine what happened, offering reteaching if necessary, and letting them retake the test.
What’s more, if a large number of students did not show mastery of the learning, that is indicative of one of three things: 1) The formative assessments a teacher gave did not correctly identify where students were in their learning; 2) All students took the summative on the same day regardless of readiness; or 3) Many students, for a variety of reasons, simply had an off day.
Our ultimate goal as educators is to ensure students learn, which is why we should offer students a second chance to show us their skills.
Being an Educator, Not a Judge
Some educators also argue that if students showed mastery on earlier assessments and not on the final, then they didn’t master the material at all. This statement begs us to think more about what “mastery” truly means. Is the process fixed or is it fluid?
I would argue that mastery is indeed fluid. Case in point is Gabrielle Daleman, an Olympic figure skater who competed this year for the Canadian women’s team. Gabrielle proved she had the skills required to qualify for the Olympics many times. But in February, after winning a gold medal in the team figure-skating event, Daleman fell multiple times on the ice and dropped to 15th place in the overall competition. But can anyone really argue that because Daleman failed her performance she had never shown mastery in the first place? I don’t think so.
There are no retakes in the Olympics. Many will still argue that there aren’t retakes in real life. But lucky for our students, we have the opportunity and, moreover, the obligation to give our students second (and third) chances. There will always be a few students who work the system. But I’d argue that it’s not the student who is flawed—it’s the system itself.
In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.
Why not give students the same courtesy and opportunities to learn and grow now?
I am excited to announce that my first book, Student-Driven Differentiation (forward by Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson and published by Corwin Press), is now available for pre-sale on Amazon.com. You can check out the contents and preliminary reviews here.
What is Student-Driven Differentiation?
Student-driven differentiation shifts the focus from what students are going to do to what students need to learn. The focus also shifts from the teacher as the owner of the knowledge and the students the receivers of such knowledge. Student-driven differentiation requires teachers to find a healthy balance in their relationships with all students, use multiple types of evidence to ensure student growth, and partner with students in the process.
- Shifts the focus from what students are going to do to what students need to learn
- Requires teachers to find common ground with all students
- Creates learning environments where students have control over their learning
- Gives students the autonomy to create, learn, and grow at their own pace
- Requires honest and mutually respectful teacher-student relationships
- Students’ voices (collective and individual) are sought to craft the plan
A teacher in a differentiated classroom does not classify herself as someone who ‘already differentiates instruction.’ Rather that teacher is fully aware that every hour of teaching, every day in the classroom can reveal one more way to make the classroom a better match for its learners. – Carol Ann Tomlinson
Raise your hand if differentiation is on your school district’s list of initiatives? If your district is like many across the country, differentiation is something that is talked about frequently, and perhaps a struggle to implement.
I recently completed my second year as an instructional coach who specializes in differentiation, and in this time I’ve started to recognize trends as to why differentiation (which clearly helps students learn) is not fully embraced by educators (who strive to ensure students learn).
Differentiation Is Not the Goal
In short, there is a lot of confusion about what differentiation is, how you do it, and what it looks like.
Because I have the word differentiation in my title, teachers would often seek me out with a predetermined goal for our coaching cycle: “I want to differentiate instruction.”
Initially, I thought the fact that teachers came to me with a goal would make my job easier. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, when teachers came to me with this specific goal, our cycles were not as successful as cycles with other identified goals.
It took several stalled coaching cycles for me to recognize why this was happening. Once, I realized the reason, however, my coaching practice improved. The reason is: differentiation in it of itself is not the goal; rather differentiation is the result of the achievement of a number of smaller goals.
What do you mean?
Here’s an analogy. Many people set a goal to “lose weight.” As they make their action plan, they set a series of smaller, more manageable, and trackable goals: eat smaller meals more frequently, limit sugar intake, increase exercise, etc. Weight loss is a natural by-product of any of these smaller goals steps, assuming they are done with fidelity.
The Big Four
In Instructional Coaching, author Jim Knight identifies “The Big Four” areas in which teachers and coaches can partner to set goals. The big four are: classroom management, content, instruction, and formative assessment.
To differentiate effectively, and to effectively coach around differentiation, the natural starting point is to examine at each of these categories need to be considered for individual teachers.
Classroom Management: The learning environment is instrumental for effective differentiation. Teachers and students must have a mutual understanding of expectations and the climate must be evident of respect and rapport. If these elements are not evident, it is in the best interest of the coach, teacher, and students to start here if the teacher is willing.
Sometimes teachers are hesitant to form a classroom management goal as they feel pressured to implement initiatives, like differentiation, and feel they are wasting time and administrators won’t “see” differentiation in their classroom.
I strongly encourage coaches and teachers to not give into that perceived pressure and to engage in a classroom management cycle if needed. It is the coach’s responsibility to also work with administrators so they understand the multiple small steps/coaching cycles that may take place before differentiation is readily evident and effective.
|Example Classroom Managment Coaching Cycle Goal: I want to decrease the number of disruptions.||➢ Data Collected: Number of disruptions in a 40 minute period||➢ Strategy used: Break up whole group instruction with structured partner work (specifically a Kagan Strategy called Rally Coach)||➢ How did differentiation ensue?: Rally Coach allowed for students at different placed in their learning to partner and challenge each partner appropriately|
As more and more school districts switch to standards-based grading which requires educators to study the language of the standards (CCSS, NGSS, C3) they are assessing, a common conclusion made is often times, there is quite a bit of leeway as far as specific content.
While this can, at times, still be a hard pill for some content experts to swallow (why isn’t studying the Civil War mandatory?) this change allows for teachers to differentiate for student’s interests within a unit of study which ultimately benefits their mastery of the skill being assessed.
|Example Content Coaching Cycle Goal I want students to see the relevancy of the content in a unit.||➢ Data Collected: Student engagement data||➢ Strategy used: Essential question(s)||➢ How did differentiation ensue?: Students self-identified areas of relevance to the content and then wrote pieces on different topics all related to the subject area, rather than in previous years where all students wrote on the same topic.|
Oftentimes, instruction is an area that will require multiple goals and the use of more than one strategy for each goal (read more on why here). This is also an area that lends itself nicely to coaches and teachers partnering as co-teachers for part of the learning phase of the coaching cycle.
|Example Instruction Coaching Cycle Goal I want to e ngage more students in class discussions.||➢ Data Collected: Types, kind, level of questions asked and number of students volunteering to answer||➢ Strategy used: Questioning (using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge) and options for multiple students to answer simultaneously (using various tech tools)||➢ How did differentiation ensue? Asking questions at various levels (more open than closed questions, more analysis questions than knowledge questions) increased the number of students contributing answers which allowed the teacher to assess students’ understanding of concepts more thoroughly and adjust pacing for those students (differentiate the process) accordingly.|
Formative assessment is the heart of differentiation as it provides the evidence as to what students know, don’t know and when done correctly, formative assessment provides both the teacher and student with information as to what to do next.
The biggest hurdle with formative assessment is many times the word assessment is misinterpreted (you can read more about that here) and teachers and students miss opportunities to use valuable pieces of evidence.
|Example Formative Assessment Coaching Cycle Goal I want to involve students in the formative assessment process.||➢ Data Collected: Type of peer feedback offered||➢ Strategy used: Peer feedback and video analysis of feedback||➢ How did differentiation ensue? Student products were differentiated as peer feedback promoted student autonomy and allowed choice in showing mastery of a concept or skill.|
In the end
Both instructional coaching and differentiation are complex topics and this blog post just scratches the surface. The more educators engage in dialogue about coaching and differentiation the more opportunity we all have to learn and perfect our craft. Please share your experiences with differentiation and working with/as an instructional coach by commenting below or connecting with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.
For more on differentiation, read these posts or check out my book Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning In The Classroom
- Student-Driven Differentiation: Putting Student Voice Behind The Wheel
- Why Differentiation Misses the Mark for Gifted Students
- Differentiation: Attainable Or Somewhere Over The Rainbow?
- Differentiation is The Key to Assessment For Learning
- How Differentiation Fosters a Growth Mindset
- Yes, Differentiation is Hard. So, Let’s Get It Right.
For more on instructional coaching, read these posts:
Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.
Over the weekend, while at a BBQ, I had a conversation with some middle schoolers and their parents about our summer plans. I mentioned the work I will be doing with student-driven differentiation which prompted one of the parents to ask me a question I get asked frequently, “what is student-driven differentiation?”
I replied as I normally do. I stated the traditional definition of differentiation (an approach to teaching in which educators use ongoing assessment to actively plan for students’ differences and adjust instruction so all students can learn). Then, I explained that student driven differentiation calls for the use of one additional, non-negotiable, piece to effectively plan instruction: student voice.
After giving this long-winded answer, one of the middle schoolers sitting at the table said, “Oh, my teacher asks me a lot of questions, but she never listens to any of my answers.”
I respect my students, just ask them!
A few months ago, I read The School Voice Report published by The Quaglia Institute. The report disclosed some very thought-provoking numbers. Most notably, after surveying over 60,000 students and 4,000 teachers, researchers found 99% of teachers surveyed reported they respect their students, while 58% of students surveyed reported feeling respected by their teachers.
Additionally, of those surveyed, 82% of teachers said they actively seek out student opinions and ideas, yet only 47% of students feel teachers are willing to learn from them.
These discrepancies did not surprise me. I often see a disconnect between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of respect and listening. Many teachers will ask students for input and innocently, yet mistakenly, believe that just asking students questions is a clear indicator of the respect they have for them. However, students feel respected when their thoughts and questions are heard and addressed accordingly. So, without action (whether that be a change or a valid explanation of why a change cannot occur) students do not necessarily feel respected.
When differentiating instruction (student-driven or not), teachers are mindful that some students will master content and skills more quickly while some students will struggle to learn the same content and skills. With student-driven differentiation, rather than plan in advance how to address student needs, students’ voices (collective and individual) are sought to craft the plan. Student-driven differentiation lends itself to teacher action which produces the ultimate result: students who feel respected, heard, and who learn.
But… there is always a “but”.
In my work with teachers on student-driven differentiation, I regularly encounter concerns about differentiation in general (read more about that here), and with student-driven differentiation, teachers often share two additional concerns: not having enough time (we have so much content to get through, it doesn’t leave time for talking with students) and the number of students they have (I have too many students to talk to all of them on a regular basis).
In Student Voice: The Instrument of Change Russell Quaglia and Michael Corso address these and other perceived barriers to seeking student voice to which they respond with the following statements:
- Time sacrificed in the short run to listen to students pays off in the long run in the form of higher engagement (26).
- It is impossible to teach well without knowing your students (53).
Back in my day, teachers didn’t talk to students.
In the blogpost, Why Differentiation Misses The Mark for Gifted Students, I ascertain that one of the reasons differentiation can seem unattainable is due to remnants of the factory model of teaching that still exists in today’s classroom. The lack of attention to student voice would be a prime example of one of these remnants. Historically, taking student voice into consideration has not been a component of teaching and learning.
Therefore, using student voice to guide instruction can seem foreign to teachers and they often have fears about adding this element into their practice. When I partner with teachers on student-driven differentiation once we get past worries about time, I frequently hear and address the following matters:
Concern #1: I don’t know what questions to ask students which will help drive my instruction.
Remedy: As educators, we often overthink things. Debating the right questions to ask students would be an example of such overthinking. In short, the answer to any question you ask a student can likely inform instruction. However, I know teachers want more direction than that. So, teachers and I usually work together to create questions related to the four categories of differentiation. For example:
- Content: What intrigues you about this concept/topic? Or, (for an apathetic student), why do you find this topic boring?
- Process: Is taking notes helping you to understand the material? If so, how do you know? If not, what learning strategy might be more helpful?
- Product: In an ideal world where you could show your understanding of this concept/topic in any way, how would you show your understanding?
- Learning environment: Are you and your groupmates able to work collaboratively on this task? If so, how do you know? If not, what are your groups’ obstacles?
Concern #2: Students will become entitled if I do whatever they want.
Remedy: Listening to students relay information about their wants and needs does not necessarily mean you do whatever students say. Rather, listening means students’ thoughts are considered. To show such consideration for these thoughts you can follow these steps: ask questions of students, summarize their responses to check for understanding, and then genuinely think about their questions/thoughts in relationship to your expectations. In doing so, you will gain information as to how to differentiate for their needs within the realm of your expectations. For example:
Teacher check-in with student: “It appears that you haven’t made any progress on your PowerPoint.”
Student response: “Can I make an infographic instead of a PowerPoint to present this information?”
Teacher response: “It sounds to be like you would like to present information about (state concept) in an infographic rather than a PowerPoint. Can you tell me how you will (state learning intentions) in an infographic?”
Teacher’s next steps: Continue to converse with the student to determine the best way the student can incorporate the learning intentions into his alternate product suggestion. If along the way it becomes clear that the suggested alternative won’t allow the student to show understanding, converse with the student as to the reasons why; the student will likely have already come to the same conclusion.
Concern #3: I don’t want to blur the lines with my students. I am their teacher, not their friend.
Remedy: We have lots of conversations with people who we aren’t trying to become friends with, why are students any different? Instead of worrying your students will see you as a friend, follow the three tenets of building genuine relationships with students through conversation:
- Be Real: ask questions and share appropriate personal anecdotes to find common ground and connect.
- Be Consistent: deliver on promises and react to similar situations in the same way regardless of which student is involved.
- Be A Listener: seek first to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.
What other questions or comments do you have about student-driven differentiation? How has listening to students helped you meet their needs? Feel free to comment below or contact me directly.
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.