Differentiated Instruction

Image by Luigi Diamanti

As an educator, part of my job is to meet students’ academic needs.  Every educator, at one time or another, asks the question – how can I meet the needs of all the students that enter my classroom?  That’s a tough questions to answer, with multiple answers, depending on your philosophy of education.  To start, you need to understand the current skill level of your students.  You might want to give some type of pre-assessment to determine what type of skills that the students possess. A lot of vital data can be extracted by analyzing student assessment data.  Student assessment data can often drive school-wide instructional decisions.  Once assessment data has been collected and analyzed, you can begin to start to differentiate and individualize instruction.  Differentiated instruction is an educational buzz word that has been around for quite some time now.  What does it actually mean and isn’t it subjective?  Here are a few definitions:

“Differentiated instruction is a teaching theory based on the premise that instructional approaches should vary and be adapted in relation to individual and diverse students in classrooms” – Carol Anne Tomlinson

Differentiating instruction ….”Maximize(s) each student’s growth by recognizing that students have different ways of learning, different interests, and different ways of responding to instruction”  – Diane Ravitch

“Rather than simply teaching to the middle by providing a single avenue for learning for all students in a class, teachers using differentiated instruction match tasks, activities, and assessments with their students’ interests, abilities, and learning preferences” Jennipher Willoughby

Throughout this post, I’m going to show one way to differentiate instruction in the classroom. Specifically, via a flexible grouping strategy.

After utilizing a pre-assessment, or some type of formative assessment, you can use the results to begin to group the students based on skill level.  Generally, different “flexible” groups are created based on the skill level of each student. Each group will work towards achieving or mastering specific skills related to the curriculum.  For example, one group might work on basic computation strategies related to practical application problems, another might practice critical thinking skills, and another group may complete enrichment projects related to statistics.  What each group works on should focus on improving students’ skills.  Student groups are fluid and can change throughout the school year as additional student data is collected.  Individuals in each group will set their own goals through a goal setting process.  By engaging in goal setting, students are given the opportunity to gain responsibility for their own learning.  Shifting some of the responsibility to the student gives ownership, therefore assisting in intrinsically motivating a student to achieve their goal.

This is only one form of differentiated instruction.  I’ve provided a list of resources on differentiated instruction below.

Disclaimer (unfortunate but necessary) : The thoughts and opinions expressed in these pages are my own, and not necessarily the opinions of my employers.

My Job and Your Job – Community Builder

Image by Sheelamohan

No, I’m not talking about classroom jobs, like the all familiar paper passer, pencil sharpener … etc.  I’m talking about using the idea of jobs as a community builder.

The new school year is here.  I’m once again finding myself digging up lessons from the past.  For the past six years I’ve used an activity that always seems to generate student interest and builds a positive learning climate.  This activity can also be utilized and referenced at back to school night.  I’m referring to the activity My Job, Your Job, Our Job.  Here are my subjective steps to implement:

1.)  Pass out a Post-it note to each student in the classroom.  Ask the students to write down 2 – 3  sentences (or it can be just a few words) that describe their teacher’s job.  In other words, what is the teacher’s job?  Often, you’ll get a few surprised looks and then the students get busy writing down their ideas.  I try not to model too much during this, as I want the students’ original thoughts and ideas.  I then ask the students to place all of the Post-it notes under the “Teacher Job” category on the whiteboard. You can write out the answers or just use the Post-it notes, as it adds to the authenticity of the activity.

2.)  Follow step one, but instead of writing about the teacher’s jobs, the students will describe their job.

3.)  Students will describe their parents’ jobs at home (not their employment).  This may require a bit of modeling, as some of the answers may be way off base (although that may add value and humor to the activity).  I remember one student of mine a few years ago wrote down that her parents’ job was to provide health insurance for her.  The parents thought that was hilarious, especially coming from a second grade student.

4.)  In my opinion, the “Our Job” portion is extremely important and what I generally emphasize in class. I ask the students to think of a common goals that all participants (teacher, student, and parent) share.  I ask the students to write down their answers and the class starts to conclude that all stakeholders seem to be working together (for the success of the student).  This is a unique learning experience and also provides a critical foundation during the beginning of the year.

5.)  Optional – Take a digital picture of the poster that was created and show it to the parents during back to school night.

A few examples are below.



Or students can fill out their own individual sheet …

Additional Resources:  MCPS Baldrige and Word template for activity.

Feedback … from students?

When are students asked for feedback? This often happens at the college level, but not so much during the K-12 experience.  I believe students, at all grade levels, need an opportunity to express their opinions and ideas in the classroom.

I would assume that most professionals in the education field would agree that when students feel safe in school they are more likely to learn and achieve at high levels.  Many teachers perceive the beginning of the school year as the starting point in building a collaborative environment for learning. Teachers will use a variety of methods to get to know their class.  Some teachers will utilize a puzzle strategy while others use collaborative games. Sometimes it’s a challenge to continually remind students that the classroom is a community (especially around breaks and near the end of the year!).  In my experience, I’ve found that plus/delta charts are a great tool to remind students that their input is valued. These types of charts are also utilized outside of the education realm, as seen here. I’ve found that at the very minimum, plus/delta charts are a valuable community building tool.  My practical steps to incorporate plus/delta charts in the classroom are outlined below.

1.)  Start out by drawing a chart with a + and a triangle near the top of  the writing surface

2.)  Ask the students for positive happenings in the classroom

The + represents the positive aspects of the class that the students enjoy.  The + could pertain to certain activities or projects that were assigned.  It could also represent class goals that have been achieved.  All of my examples below include “we” meaning the class.

Examples (more geared towards elementary):

+ The class was respectful during the field trip

+ We worked well in groups today

+ We enjoyed the music being played during independent work

+ We brought all of our supplies to class for the past month

3.)  Move on to the delta or negative aspects

The triangle represents items that the class needs help with.  For example, students might feel that talking when the teacher is talking is disruptive. Or students might comment that the class needs to become better at turning in assignments on time. The delta starts to become more of a problem solving piece if this process is used on a regular basis.

Examples (again, geared towards elementary):

– We were a little loud during line-up today

– We forgot to complete the homework

– We need to put more effort into our work

– We didn’t listen to the teacher’s directions before starting the assignment

4.)  Students can set goals based on the plus/delta chart.  

This can be accomplished by utilizing goal setting strategies.

If you read this far into this blog post then you probably want to see practical examples of plus/delta charts.  Here you go:

If you’re looking for a possible template to use, click here.

5.) (Optional)  Students reflect on what was discussed in class through a self-reflection journal activity.  The journal activity could actually be integrated into a language arts connection.

6.)  Hang up the plus/delta chart in the classroom as a reminder tool and refer to it as needed

After a debriefing session, I generally cover the old chart with a new chart.  Students are able to view what progress was made over time by comparing the two charts.  A chart is completed every month in some cases, but the time elapsed between charts really depends on the teacher’s preference.

One Way to Personalize Learning in the Classroom

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Image by Sujin Jetkasettakorn


I recently participated in a chat about personal learning.  After the chat I spoke with colleagues about what is the best method (or one effective method) to integrate personal learning in the classroom.  I also read an insightful blog post by Darcy Mullin regarding that same topic. After clarifying the term personal learning, which took some time, my colleagues suggested that any integration needs to start at the beginning of the school year. So that’s where I would like to start …

While looking at my resources, I found that @tombarret has some great ideas in getting to know your students early in the school year.  Once the concept of community is cemented, how does an educator personalize students’ learning experiences in their own classroom?  The five actions below enable teachers to take risks and become more student-centered.  Students start to become more interested and responsible for their own learning when learning is personalized.

Five Actions (not steps) * Keep in mind that each action requires modeling

1.)  Survey stakeholders near the beginning of the school year

By surveying students and receiving honest feedback, educators will be better able to understand students’ needs (not just academic).  The background knowledge gained will enable educators to differentiate the curriculum based on specific needs.  If you’re looking for a good survey tool, check out the Google Docs survey creation tutorial.  Also, surveys give educators a heads-up to possible concerns early in the school year.

2.)  Analyze Formative Assessment or Pre Assessment Data

Students are generally given some type assessment related to the topic of study near the beginning of the school year. Give students an opportunity to analyze their own data and write a reflection on how they feel about their score.  It’s important to communicate that the reflections will not be graded in order to gain reliable information.  Instead of having students say I did well, you could direct the student to describe what in particular was exceptional.  Students should also reflect on the teacher’s feedback.

3.)  Students set goals

After reviewing the reflections and teacher feedback, students set attainable goals for themselves. The key is to have the students create goals that are attainable. Don’t underestimate the power of student goal setting.  I’ve found that student goal setting often leads to more responsibility.  Modeling is vital for this action.

4.)  Offer Choices

After analyzing the assessment data and reviewing personal reflections, students are given the opportunity to choose how they will be assessed.  I understand that some assessments are not optional, but the teacher can utilize a variety of formative assessments designed to meet the students needs. The students will choose one assignment (could even be a collaborative group assignment) to complete from a variety of potential assignments.  The assignments should vary and could even target specific learning styles. After the assignments have been completed, students will reflect on their learning and the teacher will use a rubric to score each assignment.  Students feel (and are) in more control of their learning when they can choose their assignments. This action helps put students in the center of the learning process.

5.)  Offer Student Conferences

Students may view their assessment results and reflect on how much they have learned.  Students participate in individual conferences with the teacher to monitor the learning that has (and is) occurring.  This is also a good time to check-in to see how the student’s goal is progressing.  Students can also suggest alternative curriculum topics to explore.



Goal Setting for Students

We all set informal / formal goals, whether it’s to get through today’s workout on the elliptical or to have a smooth school year.  Our goals are usually something we strive for, an end to some type of means.  I’ve found that goals change as people change.  Goals can be placed into different categories, such as academic, fitness, health, financial …. the list goes on and on.  Have you ever made an academic goal?  For some, the answer is a hesitant … yes, I think so … to get through graduate school or something like that.  Effective educators need to be able to communicate the need for goal setting.  Why is goal setting for students important?

1.)  Gives students responsibility for their own learning

When students analyze their own data (assessments, homework, class participation, etc.) they often become more interested in the analysis because it’s relevant to them.  While reflecting on the data, students have an opportunity to set goals for themselves.  Teacher modeling is a vital component of this procedure, although when left to look  at their own data, students often make essential connections and can relatively pinpoint where they personally struggle.  While introducing the concept of student goal setting, teachers can model from their own lives when they’ve had to overcome a goal.  Britt Pumphrey and Jonathan Ferrell’s blog has a few practical visuals that can assist in communicating student goal setting.  Students seem to express interest when they see that their own teacher has had to overcome some type of obstacle and it relates to the topic being discussed.  After students set their goals, they develop a plan to achieve their goal. The teacher and parents are all aware of the goal and help support the student through this process.  By creating goals, students  start to take on more responsibility for their own learning.  In the example below, new goals are created every 2-3 months.

Math Example 

After a general math pre-assessment or assessment, students are given the opportunity to analyze their own data to see which concepts they understand and which concepts need strengthening.  A student might observe that most of the problems missed are related to multiplication and division concepts.  The student decides that the goal is to improve the efficiency and accuracy of solving multiplication / division problems.  The student sets a goal to improve in that specific area.  To achieve the goal, the student decides to practice multiplication / division problems twice a week for 20 minutes on the computer and to create and solve two practical word problems a week relating to the goal.

 2.)  Shows students that effective effort leads to achievement

When students analyze their own data, they can observe over time that appropriate effort (i.e. practicing computation math problems / creating world problems / other factors) leads to achievement.  The students will will also observe that practicing good habits (following through with their action plan)  positively affects the outcome of their goal.

3.)  Gives the student a skill that they will need as adults

Educators and administrators set goals and this should be modeled for students.  The students that we educate today need to understand the importance of setting goals, and more importantly, how to achieve them.  Not only is this academic related, but this is also as skill that will help prepare our students for life outside of the classroom.

%d bloggers like this: