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.

Some Of Our Favorites

 

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

If We Only Post The Pretty

On average, I walk through the halls of five schools a week. Whether supporting an administration team working on their school improvement plan, or helping a teacher orchestrate first-time bloggers in her English 9 class; as soon as I walk through the doors I intentionally pause and notice my surroundings. Greetings by students and adults, displays on the wall, color choices in the rooms, cleanliness in the commons area, and a plethora of other sensory signals unknowingly flood my subconscious creating a snapshot of the climate, culture, and values shared by the adults and students in the building.

Trophies and State Championship Banners adorning the entrance communicate pride in athletics, tradition, achievement. Inspirational quotes, Character Counts Posters, and a birthday calendar promotes community and relationships. While many schools have a combination of values on display, the one thing I almost never see is student thinking, or more specifically, the process.

End products commonly adorn the walls of the classroom and the halls of the building. Typically, uniformed in size and color. Poems transferred to white paper, typed in black ink and hanging from the ceiling by equal length fishing line. Unique art work, mounted to black paper and systematically lined up on the tack strip with 1 inch between each. As educators we know displaying student work is important, but as humans, we also want it to look good. What we fail to think about is the signals it sends to our students = work must be pretty to earn a spot on the wall. I, too, am guilty of this. I remember having my student tutor rewrite Shakespeare Quotes that students loved on tan paper so that they would look better, all having the same handwriting and on the same paper. What I didn’t consider was the message that it sent to the students the next day when they walked into class and saw “their” quote replaced by a “prettier” one.

Learning is messy, and as I reflect back, I realize I missed the point of the whole assignment. It is not about the acrostic poem lined in green paper and displayed uniformly across the wall that was cause for celebration; it was the process! Gathering ideas and images, organizing thoughts, painstakingly editing and revising both alone and with a partner to choose that perfect word. The counting of syllables on fingers, referencing rhyming dictionaries and each other for rhythmic purposes. The final poem was not the goal; instead, learning to think and write like a poet was; but no where in the classroom did you see those lessons learned and mastered.

Displaying student work is important, but highlighting student thinking is even more so. Include the thinking involved to produce the end product. Show the mistakes, the collaborating, the celebrating, and the creating! Let students witness the value you place in their process, not the student with the best handwriting or most glitter. Show all who enter the doors of your school, wether physically or virtually, that we celebrate learning!