Yes, Differentiation is Hard. So, Let’s Get It Right. 

For other posts on differentiation, read these posts:

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week. 

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Today’s guest post is written by 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.

I must admit, I love a good challenge. I love the learning that comes from trial and error. I love hitting roadblocks and finding detours. This probably explains why I also I love differentiating instruction. I equate differentiation to a giant jigsaw puzzle with student needs being the pieces. Once I fit the first pieces together, the next few pieces fall into place. There are moments of frustration as mistakes I inevitably make mistakes and completing the puzzle may take a while, but the result is always worth the effort.

Like puzzles, differentiating instruction can be a complicated endeavor. In fact, a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute found that 83% of teachers nationwide believe that differentiation is “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement. Subsequent differentiation statistics support the 2008 finding; educators continue to consider differentiating instruction as strenuous. These results are not surprising. As one of differentiation’s foremost experts, Carol Ann Tomlinson explains,”I absolutely understand that differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I’ve never felt that teaching should be easy.”

Teaching is not easy. Teaching is a career that requires a physical, emotional, and mental commitment. Teachers are used to things being “hard”. So, why should differentiating instruction be the exception? This leads me to wonder: “Is watching students struggle because their needs are not being met easier than differentiating?”

In January of 2015, educational expert Rick Wormeli tweeted, “far from being a detriment to student learning [differentiated instruction] is the only way we can teach all students, not just the easy ones.”

Wormeli’s tweet is a call to action. Differentiation is our puzzle and as dedicated educators, we certainly can solve it…one piece at a time. We just need the right pieces. Ironically, I have found this is precisely the issue with many educators’ perception of differentiation. They have the wrong pieces of information. Teachers operating under a set a fallacies will often disregard differentiation entirely or ineffectively implement with no clear benefit to students.

To avoid exerting coveted time, energy, and resources for naught, I would like to clarify some common misinterpretations of differentiation.

#1: “Differentiation means I have to plan something different for every student.”

Clarification: Differentiation means that your students are engaged in learning that is appropriate for their readiness level, and they can learn at their pace. Differentiation also considers student interest and preferred learning style. These criteria can be addressed without planning for each student individually.

Now, what?  Pre-assess students. Look for patterns of performance to initially group students. Then, formatively assess students and regroup them as their needs change. To incorporate student interest, look at The Common Core Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 framework as a gift. The majority of these standards are concept or skills-based rather than rooted in specific content. Use standards as a springboard for planning relevant, skills-based learning experiences. Allow students to have an influence on the content by asking them targeted questions to determine their interests relative to standards being assessed.

#2: “I differentiate by grouping students by reading ability and giving them leveled readings.”

Clarification: This may seem like differentiation, but in actuality this is tracking within the classroom setting. Leveled texts don’t necessarily address the specific needs of students which are often unrelated to reading ability. All students deserve access to challenging and interesting material. Differentiation comes into play with how students interact with the text.

Now, what? Differentiate the process (task) and product (how learning is demonstrated) for students. Consider the level at which students will engage with the text and how they can best show their understanding. The same text can be used by most students by compacting the curriculum for high-achievers and scaffolding for students who need more support. Refer to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and Bloom’s Taxonomy in conjunction with student conferencing to co-evaluate student progress and co-design their learning process. Not only is conferencing a type of formative assessment, but it is an opportunity to model effective questioning, gain insight into students’ thought processes, and offer students ownership of their learning.

#3: “I can differentiate effectively using one data point.”

Clarification: Impossible. First of all, there is quantitative data (think numbers) and qualitative data (think observations). To differentiate most effectively a combination of data types should be used. Additionally, multiple formative assessment results need to be examined to allow for flexible pacing and grouping which are the hallmarks of differentiation.

Now, what? Think about the data you are currently using. Is this data giving you information about the whole child on a day-day basis? What does this information tell you? What other information do you need? Work to eliminate meaningless data points, offer a multitude of formative assessment types, and use academic data as well as affective data to get a clear picture of each student.

#4: “Differentiation is easy, just give the high students more and the low students less.”

Clarification: Differentiation is not more or less. Differentiation is challenging a student just enough so that it neither impedes learning if too hard or causes apathy if too easy or redundant. (Cash, Richard).

Now, what?  Think quality over quantity. It is quite possible that one high-level question is more challenging than twenty low-level questions. Plus, being asked to show mastery of a concept or skill twenty times builds frustration for high-achieving students because they don’t need the practice and similarly produces frustration for struggling students because they are practicing the skill incorrectly 20 times.

#5: “I don’t need to change anything about my instructional practices to effectively differentiate.”

Clarification: Frankly, the factory model of teaching is not appropriate for today’s learners. If at any point while reading this blog post you thought, “Well, I can’t do that because what would the rest of the students be doing…?” this misinterpretation may be subconsciously preventing you from truly differentiating for your students.

Now, what? Don’t beat yourself up; you are not alone. The first step in change is recognizing the issue. Take small steps and allow yourself time to learn and practice. If your district employs instructional coaches, partner a coach in an authentic coaching cycle.  If your school district does not have instructional coaches, partner with a colleague. Engage in a book study and try something together. Lastly, I encourage everyone to build a global PLN (professional learning network) by connecting with other educators on social media.

As you begin the school year, try to reconcile these misconceptions by attempting to implement one of the clarifications. Be patient and if a piece isn’t fitting, reflect and try another piece. Differentiation may never be easy, but it will always be worth the effort.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman.

The Pendulum Is Not Swinging Back

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When I first started teaching a veteran teacher told me, “If you stick around long enough, you’ll see everything come and go and come back again. The pendulum is always swinging.” Over the course of my educational career, I have heard this sentiment repeatedly.  Be that as it may, I am confident that the pendulum is not swinging back.

The proverbial pendulum gained popularity in the early twentieth century when one of the greatest educational thinkers, John Dewey, proposed that teaching and learning be based on experience, continuity, and interaction. Unfortunately, Dewey was misunderstood by many. His views were seen as radically progressive. Other educational scholars believed that Dewey was calling for “total freedom” in the classroom and used the pendulum as a way to visualize a monumental swing in the opposite direction of their educational philosophy. However, Dewey did not promote “total freedom”.  In fact, the message Dewey strived to spread was that learning should be pertinent and innovative within a structured system. These criterion would promote the deepest levels of learning.

Dewey’s ideology continues to hold true today.  As educators, it is our obligation to ensure that our students experience learning that is relevant, collaborative, accessible, and suitable for them. Although it may be hard to hear, there are certain instructional strategies, methods of content delivery, and assessment types that have been rendered obsolete and will not be returning.  This “radical shift” in teaching can be a big pill for some teachers to swallow, especially in today’s fast-paced world. For me personally there have been many times that I felt overwhelmed as I have grown as an educator.  How can one possibly keep-up with all of the research, technological advances, and mandates?  This is where an instructional coaching can make a marked difference.  

Instructional coaches are non-evaluative thinking partners for teachers. Instructional coaches do not have all of the answers and learn alongside teachers to stay abreast of research-based best practices. Moreover, instructional coaches can help visualize practices in the classroom via modeling, co-teaching, or video recordings. Instructional coaches can help teachers reflect on and discover unrecognized intricacies of their practices.  Instructional coaches can help make theory a tangible entity.

In all other facets of our lives we don’t exist in isolation. We reach out to others for a variety of reasons: childcare, advice, recommendations, etc.  As a professional educator, reaching out to your instructional coach can be equally beneficial. You have an impartial partner in your journey to best meet the needs of your students.  Together you can determine your goals, put them into practice, and say goodbye to the pendulum.

Student Portfolios: A new take on an old tradition

create-student-portfolios-003In the age of blended classrooms and digital learning, the popularity of student portfolios has exponentially increased. Digital student portfolios can continue to be used for their original purpose of highlighting work that the teacher or student is particularly proud. Parents will no longer have to take up closet space or secretly dispose of paper portfolios when their children go to sleep (no judgment, parents- I get it).

Using student portfolios as a tool to help increase student learning in addition to showcasing final projects is a relatively new take on an old tradition. Try one of my 5 favorite ways to maximize student learning with portfolios.

1. Student Goal Setting (.5)1

Back to the basics. Have your students use data to determine 3 skills-based/standard-aligned goals for each of the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Goals should be skills-based in order to make them applicable to as many content areas as possible. Students can then document their rise towards meeting their goals in all of their classes by adding examples of work that show growth.

2. Teacher Student Feedback (.75)

As you assess your students’ work, add items to their portfolios with actionable feedback. For example, you have a student who struggled with a portion of an assignment. You can star this assignment and add the item to the student’s portfolio with your feedback, “You seem to be struggling with comprehending this text. What other strategy could you try?” When the student tries another strategy and succeeds you add the new item with new feedback, “Performing a focused read really seemed to help you comprehend this text. What do you think was the difference?”

3. Student self-reporting of grades/mastery level (1.44)

Have students assess their own work using a rubric that you have co-created with them. They can do this digitally, on paper and upload, create and upload a video, or use a variety of other mediums to add their self-assessment to their portfolios.

4. Examples of mastery learning (.58)

When students are able to see examples of work at different levels (approaching, meets, exceeds standards, or A,B,C, D) they are able to better understand what is expected of them. Use this year’s student portfolios to help inform next year’s students of expectations.

5. School-home communication (.52)

Student portfolios can promote the school-home relationship as they provide more than just a grade. Student portfolios become the vehicle for driving parent/teacher conferences and furthermore encourage constant and consistent conversation between parents, teachers, and students.

This list is by no means a comprehensive compilation of ways you can use student portfolios. These are provisional examples that can be tweaked to best work in your classroom. Try them out and see what you think. Please consider sharing your experiences using portfolios with your students; we would love to hear your success stories!


1. Numbers indicate effect size of on student learning as researched by John Hattie of the Visible Learning Institute in his synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement. Criteria that score above a 0.4 are considered to have a greatest impact of student learning.

This blog originally appeared on the Otus Student Performance System features blog. http://otus.com/creating-student-portfolios/