4 EdTech Ways to Differentiate in a Student-Centered Classroom

2018 Blog Post Images (2)Co-Written with my friend and business partner Steven Anderson

In all the work that Steven and I do with teachers across the US and beyond we see educators creating amazing learning environments for students. From the use of 1:1 technology to enabling students to learn authentically, these really are incredible times to teach and learn.

However, among all the flash and pageantry there is a struggle. Educators are looking for ways to personalize the learning environment for every student while trying to find ways to differentiate; it can become paralyzing. On the one hand, they have the traditional methods of accessing content and assessing what students have learned. On the other, they have rooms full of technology but aren’t yet taking full advantage of that that technology can do for each student.

Carol Ann Tomlinson said it best:

“At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.”

Differentiation isn’t just something that some students need or some teachers have to do, differentiation is responsive teaching and a part of every classroom. Each student comes to the classroom with a variety of past learning experiences, prior knowledge and individual learning needs and styles. Whether it is to help a student who struggles to understand basic content, a student who just needs a little push to go deeper or a student who far exceeds our expectations and needs the opportunity to go further, differentiation should be and must be a part of every classroom.

Differentiation comes in many varieties. Teachers can differentiate into four classroom components based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

  • Assessment – Understanding what students know and still need to learn
  • Content – What the student needs to learn or how the student will access the information
  • Process – Activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content
  • Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit

(There is also some evidence that differentiation of the classroom environment, the design of the learning space, furniture used, etc can also help with differentiation. If you want to learn more learning space design check out the work of Bob Dillion.)

When we layer technology into these 4 components, the process of differentiation becomes less daunting and more accessible to each student. Here are 4 Edtech Ways To Differentiate In The Student-Centered Classroom:

1. Assessment-Sometimes is seen as a four-letter word in the world of education, assessment, if done correctly can provide a mountain of valuable information that can help teachers determine where students are in their learning and where the teacher needs to go in their teaching. Particularly, formative assessment is the driver of differentiation of assessment. Formative assessment acts as a GPS, providing valuable information both the teacher and the learner. It provides timely feedback to inform instruction and make an adjustment. When the assessment is used to adjust instruction it crosses over into the “formative assessment” realm. This crossover helps teachers and students to see it, not as a test, but more as a process.

Technology isn’t necessary to do any type of formative assessment. However, if we layer in the effective use of technology into formative assessment we can not only reach students where they are in their understanding but look at trends over time and respond accordingly to our teaching.

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2. Content-When many teachers consider differentiation they look to content as the way to do it for most students, and rightly so. Content is the foundation of learning and skills are applied. Therefore, if we can provide a way for students to access that content at their level, we can better meet their learning needs. Each student is (and should be) held to high standards. But we know not every student is on the same path for their learning. Through the differentiation of content, we can level the playing field for each student.

Technology has made it much easier and frankly more possible to differentiate content in new and exciting ways. In some cases, students can be given the same content, however it is tailored to their individual needs either through raising or lowering the reading level, providing more visualizations or still meeting standards but providing content that is interesting and exciting for students.

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3. Process-Differentiation of the processes by which students learn is another traditional way that teachers provide different learning paths for students. For many students, the instructional practices are outdated and do not meet their needs. If we want to create an environment where each student can find success no matter their learning profile than we have to look beyond traditional pedagogy and meet students where they are at and how they want to consume information.

Technology makes the differentiation process easier. Accessibility tools built into modern devices make it easier for us all to use those devices more effectively and efficiently. And many of those tools can benefit all students. In addition, the idea of gamifying learning is gaining steam to provide an environment that is familiar to students but also is fun, challenging and rich with varied learning opportunities.

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4. Product-Ultimately, students need to demonstrate their holistic understanding of the content. Traditionally that is done through a summative project. However, this method is flawed when we produce a list of items that students must include, the specific font to use, the number of cited sources, etc. That isn’t a project, that is a recipe. And recipes don’t belong in the classroom. Students need freedom of choice in how they demonstrate their understanding. That doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. We can provide creativity, choice, and freedom within boundaries.

Technology is truly transformational and students should be able to demonstrate understanding through a variety of transformational ways. This differentiation of product can look different for each student, however, at the heart are the same learning goals. Through the effective use of technology, students can do incredible things while still demonstrating what they know and how they know what they know.

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Want to learn more? You can grab a copy of our resources from our FETC 2018 Presentation or inquire about a workshop on EdTech Ways to DIfferentiate in the Classroom by contacting Steven, http://www.web20classroom.org/contact

10 Instructional Strategies for the Differentiated Classroom

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In a Differentiated Classroom, teachers begin where students are, not from the front of the textbook. They recognize the strengths and areas of growth in each individual and use multiple instructional practices to meet student needs and boost them up a level. No student’s roadmap for learning is identical to anyone else’s and differentiating in Process, Product, & Content recognizes these differences.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leading expert in this field and I often draw upon her work to support literacy learning in the classroom and with teachers. Her methods and instructional practices are practical and applicable to any grade level or discipline. It is the teacher, not a set of curriculum materials, that makes the difference in the learner’s achievement. Teachers who differentiate shape what is learned, how it is learned and the learning environment based on the student.

The “How” in a Differentiated Classroom is often the area most educators find most challenging. Because of this need, I highlighted 10 Instructional Strategies (based off of Tomlinson’s work) that promote differentiation in the classroom. Just as all learners are different, so too are instructional practices and a classroom full of individuals may require the savvy teacher to employ multiple practices simultaneously.

 

Current Brain Research Tells Us…

File_000 (3)The traditional model of “School” was created to support the Industrial Age, pushing out workers into an economy that valued monotony and the algorithmic routines of assembly lines. Students learned the same thing, at the same time, and developed the same skills necessary for the type of work environment most would enter after graduation. Current brain research reveal 4 important truths that have been missed in the past. This understanding of the brain supports the current economy which places value on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, global connections, and heuristic means to create novel ideas.

This

Not This

#1   Intelligence is Variable

We think, learn, and create in different ways. Intelligence is multifaceted and students need a range of opportunities to discover varied intelligences.

Intelligence is Singular

Intelligence is developed and demonstrated in one way. There is only one right answer and one way to demonstrate understanding.

#2   The brain is Malleable

Intelligence can continue to grow and be strengthened. Intelligence is NOT fixed, the capacity to continue to learn is immeasurable. Provide students varied and rich learning experiences to strengthen multiple intelligences.

The brain is Fixed

Intelligence is fixed and determined at birth. Only the earliest years in a child’s life are important for brain strength and growth. Educators can not fill the gaps from home.

#3   The brain hungers for Meaning

Learners seek to make sense of information and recognize patterns, connections to prior knowledge and experiences, and organize their learning around larger concepts.

The brain recalls Information

Learners retain information best when imposed upon them. Teaching students important test-taking vocabulary and information in isolation ensures understanding.

#4   We learn best with moderate Challenge

Learners retreat to self-protection mode if faced with too tough of a challenge or have been allowed to continually fail. If the task is too easy, motivation and interest wane. A task that  is challenging for one learner may not be for another, therefore differentiating tasks is key.

We learn best through Success

Learners who succeed will continue to learn and push themselves. Tasks should be designed so all students experience immediate success. Any difficulty in learning  is met with resistance and the learner gives up.

(Information in part via Tomlinson)

As educators, this information helps to inform practice and remove outdated bias we hold on students, learning, and intelligence. With the understanding that the brain is malleable and intelligence is variable, differentiation in the classroom and rich learning experiences support all students. Tasks and units can be designed to support inquiry, provide choice, and are tied to conceptual thinking. Students grow and strengthen intelligence in multiple areas and leave our care with the ability to think, learn, and create differently.

 

Sources:

  • Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Howard Gardner
  • Carol Dweck