Want To Differentiate Instruction? Use Your Time Wisely.

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This article was originally published in Education Week Teacher.

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.)

diff journey quote

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.

‘Bad Moms’ and Why Parents Need Professional Development, Too

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

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.

“Organizations only improve ‘where the truth is told and brutal facts confronted.”Jim Collins: Good To Great

(This is part two of a two-part series of posts on parents. Please note, this post refers to the community where I reside, not the community where I am employed).

Last week, I wrote Teachers Make The Worst Parents which explains how I struggle being both an educator and a parent. I find it almost impossible to separate my roles when engaging with my childrens’ teachers. Well, my conflict of interest is not limited to other educators; it also extends to other (non-educator) parents, particularly PTA members.

I used to think my feelings toward PTA members stemmed from a subconscious jealousy (sure, I would love to volunteer for one of your events or be a room mom, but they all seem to be between 8AM and 3PM and I have a job which happens to be educating children).

Or, I thought because I am an educator, I was more aware of how the PTA doesn’t seem to gather or use feedback from parents, teachers, and students to operate. Rather, they employ a top-down (and usually inefficient) approach to attempt to engage the community (as always, we will be selling pizzas to raise money to buy graduation tshirts for students who cannot afford them).

But, then, I saw last summer’s sleeper hit comedy “Bad Moms” which parodies a suburban PTA chapter and it’s members. Scott Mendelson from Forbes Magazine said: “movies like “Bad Moms” don’t get to $100m+ from a $23.8m opening unless the people who saw it liked it and talked about it with their friends.” And, all of a sudden, I realized other parents, whether they are educators or not, also felt disenchanted with the PTA.

In particular, this scene resonated as a crowd-favorite:

Gwendolyn: Now, I called this emergency PTA meeting to address an issue that radically affects the safety of our children. The bake sale.

Amy: Is this a joke?

Gwendolyn: Now, this is a list of the toxic ingredients that are absolutely banned from the bake sale. No BPA, no MSG, no BHA, no BHT. Plus no soy, no sesame, and, of course, no nuts or eggs or milk or butter or salt or sugar or wheat. Okay?

I have friends who are active in the PTA. I understand the importance of food safety. I also understand that the truth is said in jest and if “Bad Moms” is the current or perceived reality of parent teacher organizations, this partnership is in trouble.

“A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way.”Allen Klein

Being able to see other perspectives is a powerful communication and leadership skill and undoubtedly also one of the hardest concepts for people to master. Unless humans make a conscious effort to see things from another person’s point of view, the path of least resistance is to point fingers and make the other party “wrong.”

In fact, that is exactly what I did when I initially drafted this post. I did not have trouble rattling off all of the outdated and irrelevant activities my local PTA continues to promote. I did not struggle to list examples of how the PTA has marginalized working and minority families, and I certainly did not have a difficult time citing ways some PTA members use their roles for personal gain rather than to support the PTA’s mission: to advocate for all children. (pta.org)

But, I couldn’t seem to publish that draft. Something didn’t feel right, and that something was the hypocritical nature of the post. While I am deeply disappointed to live in a community where many PTA members are so lacking in perspective that it gives Hollywood fodder for movies, I also recognized I hadn’t considered the PTA’s point-of-view.

So, I attempted to remove emotion and intellectually consider the other side’s perspective. In doing so, my parent/educator conflict once again got in the way. This happened because I am privy to information and experiences that non-educator parents are not. I know that there is a vast difference between the “school” I experienced as a student and the “school” I experience as a professional educator. And, this I believe, is precisely the problem: because all parents are former students, they mistakenly feel as if their experiences with school give them a level of educational expertise.

Look Back To Move Forward
The PTA was created in 1897 to be a “voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for public education.” Throughout history, the national chapter of the PTA has been responsible for instrumental changes to the landscape of public education like the creation of kindergarten classes and healthy lunch programs.

But, what, if any, learning specific to the field of education have members had since 1897? What level of understanding do chapters have about district initiatives? If the PTA is truly a partnership between parents and teachers to benefit all students, don’t parents need relevant professional development as well?

As an instructional coach, I am very proud to see more and more school districts implementing the most effective form of professional development for teachers: job-embedded instructional coaching (read more about coaching here). In contrast, parents are usually informed of changes rather than involved with the change.  This severely limits parents potential for true understanding. Parents are educators’ partners, and we need to ensure that we include parents on our journey and not just tell them about our trip.

What is the solution? A new type of PLC.
Educational PLCs (professional learning communities) use a systems approach to allow for teacher autonomy while working collaboratively on teams to achieve common goals with shared accountability. In the book, On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities, contributing author Richard DuFour highlights the three big ideas of effective PLCs:

  1. Ensuring that students learn- shift from focus on teaching to focus on learning

  2. A culture of collaboration- create and use structures to promote working together

  3. A focus on results: establish a goal, work together to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

I believe three similar big ideas could also be the operating system for parent-teacher organizations also called PLCs (parent learning communities):

  1. Ensure students are the beneficiaries- shift from focus on what parents want (or what has been done historically) to focus on student interests and needs

  2. Promote an inclusive culture: create and use structures to guarantee the diverse perspectives and needs of all community members are heard and considered

  3. Focus on results: establish a goal, cooperate to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

The infographic accompanying this post provides suggested guidelines for parent learning communities. This new take on PLCs coupled with professional development would provide parents greater learning opportunities and a way to implement their learning. If resources allow, instructional coaches should be considered a primary form of PD using a team coaching approach.

As with any change, altering the way parent-teacher organizations function will take time. I am a strong believer in evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change so long as we take steps to get there. What do you suggest is the best first step?

Questions or comments about this post?  Connect with Lisa on Twitter.