How to Overcome Common Anxieties About Differentiation

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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.

How To Coach For Differentiation

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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.

Classroom Management

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

Content

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.

Instruction

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

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

For more on instructional coaching, read these posts:

How Differentiation Fosters a Growth Mindset

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This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.
For more on differentiation, click here. 

The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”– Carol Dweck, Mindset

The theory of growth vs. fixed mindset popularized by the research of Carol Dweck is ubiquitous in today’s educational landscape. A cursory Pinterest search for “growth mindset” produces a plethora of options for bell ringers, bulletin boards, and other resources encouraging students to adopt a “growth mindset.” Similarly, a Google search will show an abundance of professional development opportunities on growth mindset for educators.

Perhaps, for these reasons, Carol Dweck is now cautioning us not to fall prey to a “false” growth mindset. Dweck explains in a recent interview with The Atlantic:

“False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time.

Many people understood growth mindset deeply and implemented it in a very sophisticated and effective way. However, there were many others who understood it in a way that wasn’t quite accurate, or distilled it down to something that wasn’t quite effective, or assimilated it into something they already knew. Often when we see kids who aren’t learning well, we might feel frustrated or defensive, thinking it reflects on us as educators. It’s often tempting to not feel it is our fault. So we might say the child has a fixed mindset, without understanding instead that, as educators, it is our responsibility to create a context in which a growth mindset can flourish…

-another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “Wow, you tried really hard!” But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.”

As educators we can put up beautiful bulletin boards and use growth mindset language with our students, but unless our actions support and match our growth mindset, we are most likely sending contradictory and/or ineffective messages.

What teacher actions are indicative of a growth mindset?

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck addresses the question, “What makes a great teacher?” Simply, a growth mindset is present in almost all “great” teachers. Dweck shares multiple examples of teachers who instruct with a growth mindset, which include teachers who:

  • Believe talent and intelligence can be developed and are not innate
  • Embrace the challenge of ensuring all students can succeed
  • Set high standards for all students
  • Determine appropriate strategies to ensure all students meet those high standards
  • Are more interested in learning alongside students rather than imparting knowledge (Dweck 193-202).

DIFFERENTIATION EMBODIES GROWTH MINDSET

Differentiation is an approach to teaching in which educators actively plan for students’ differences so all students can best learn. In a differentiated classroom, teachers divide their time, resources, and efforts to effectively teach students who have various backgrounds, readiness and skill levels, and interests (ASCD).

Teachers can differentiate in a variety of ways depending on need. Teachers can differentiate one or more of the following:

  • The content (what students learn)
  • The process (how students learn)
  • The product (how students demonstrate their learning)
  • The learning environment (where and with whom students learn)

By differentiating instruction, teachers can better ensure they are promoting an actual growth mindset. Additionally, differentiation allows teachers to focus on the process of learning and provide feedback around learning strategies which is an approach proven to develop a growth mindset.

In contrast, a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction will increase the chances that a false growth mindset is created. When instruction is not differentiated, students are inevitably praised for performing well with minimal effort (too easy) or praised for an effort that ultimately didn’t result in growth (too hard). False growth mindsets over time will inevitably present the same way as fixed mindsets.

TEACHER MINDSET IS OFTEN THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE TO DIFFERENTIATING INSTRUCTION.

Initially, effectively differentiating instruction can be challenging for teachers (you can read more about this here). However, as strenuous as differentiating instruction may be, as I stated earlier, teachers with a growth mindset welcome challenge and enjoy the trial and error that goes into determining the best way to meet students’ needs. Therefore, they tend to differentiate without issue and cut themselves some slack along the way. They look at failure as information to help them determine how to proceed in the future rather than as a reason to not try or give up. The trial and error part of differentiating instruction is an important piece of learning for teachers which in time will streamline the process for teachers.

With these connections between mindset and differentiation in mind, what personal connections can you make? How do you view challenge and failure? What do you see as the potential positive outcomes (for both yourself and your students) of differentiating instruction and fostering a growth mindset? What do you see as potential obstacles?

I would love to hear your thoughts and dig a bit deeper. You can connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.