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.
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.