Differentiated Instruction: Getting Personal with Technology

How a South Carolina elementary school has used computers to engage students in a learning process calibrated to their individual needs and abilities.

How a South Carolina elementary school has used computers to engage students in a learning process calibrated to their individual needs and abilities.
Girl sitting on the floor with an electronic reader and second image of brick front of school

First grader Victoria, left, uses an AirLiner remote slate to do math problems on an interactive whiteboard from a distance. At right, Forest Lake Elementary prominently displays all the awards it has earned on the school facade.


Credit: Grace Rubenstein

When you walk into any given classroom at Forest Lake Elementary School, in Columbia, South Carolina, you see there is no one thing happening. Children might be reading books, practicing math skills on a computer, creating videos with a Flip cam, contributing to the class blog, producing PowerPoint slide shows, or reviewing suffixes and prefixes on an interactive whiteboard -- often all in the same room.

Then again, one thing is happening everywhere in the classroom: Students are thoroughly engaged in learning.

Forest Lake, a public school with a diverse population of 592 students in grades preK-5, is a technology magnet school. Each classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard and a Tech Zone of eight Internet-enabled computers, plus access to digital cameras, remote-response systems, and other tools. And while the gadgets are impressive, they aren't the whole story.

Teacher Susan Crabtree

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One Teacher's Journey: Hear Susan Crabtree, a 30-plus-year veteran teacher, describe how she overcame her fear and learned to love high-tech teaching.

What sets Forest Lake apart is the staff's dedication to challenge each student at his or her own level, every day -- and computers are essential to the success of that differentiated approach.

The school hardly seems like it would be ground zero for high-tech educational innovation. It occupies a clean but unremarkable building on a quiet wooded street near a seemingly endless series of strip malls. Many of the teachers, and almost the entire corps of key technology leaders, are older women -- not your stereotypical technology mavens. Yet these veteran educators are living proof that success lies not in the flashiness of the gizmos you have but in how well you use them.

"The teachers in this building could teach with a stick, a rock, and a paper bag," says Kappy Cannon, Forest Lake's principal of the last ten years. "Good teaching all comes down to the relationship between teacher and child."

Many Sizes Fit All

Second-grade teacher Tamika Lowe nurtures that relationship by constantly assessing students' progress and then carefully choosing the learning activities they undertake. The assessments come in countless forms, from writing assignments to computer-graded quizzes to one-on-one conversations. Her goal is to find the right activity -- and tech tool -- to fill in the gaps in the students' knowledge.

In one corner of the classroom on a winter morning, five students are handwriting their opinions of books they've read; four are at the Tech Zone, typing in their entries to the class blog on fantasy writing; four are reading books; one is listening to a book on tape; one is taking a Scholastic Reading Counts quiz on a laptop; and five are studying number prefixes (such as quad) on the interactive whiteboard with a teaching intern from the University of South Carolina.

As I watch, Lowe circulates through the class, providing assistance and checking up on how each child is progressing. It's downright startling to see second graders -- whom I'd expect would need a lot of supervision -- working independently with such purpose and focus.

In the next wing of the one-story building, Kevin Durden's fourth graders are doing projects for their unit on life cycles and adaptation. Durden, who served ten years as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and worked another decade as a stay-at-home dad, teaches in a room that's part of a district pilot program to test one-to-one computing; it's the only one-to-one class at Forest Lake. With 24 kids in the class (and a schoolhouse built in 1957 and rewired nine years ago), Durden uses every electrical outlet available.

These fourth graders are free to create a product of their own choosing, such as PowerPoint slide shows, quizzes to test classmates, comic strips, or skits. Kiley is placing a link to a National Geographic video into her PowerPoint on tigers. "I chose a slide show because it's really fun to do. They're really easy, and you can put a lot of details in them." She tries to show off the video, but it won't play. "Hmm," she says thoughtfully, "I'll have to work on that."

VIDEO: Tech-Fueled Differentiated Instruction Engages Elementary School Students

Running Time: 5 min.

Anne Graybill, whose son Ian is in Durden's class, says Ian's engagement with the technology amazes her. She reads aloud from his journal in an American history simulation called "Colonials at Sea": "We are at peace with the French and the Swedish, and the Dutch want to be allies with us, but we haven't decided if we want to be allies with them.

Graybill marvels, "You can see how the facts are woven into his writing. He's not usually a big writer, so I am amazed at how much he's written."

Above the soft murmur of students asking one another questions, the clicking of keyboards, and the recorded sound of tropical birds chirping through someone's headphones, Durden coaches one kid at a time. "When I was student teaching in a more traditional environment, I felt that out of a class of 20 students, I was actually teaching maybe 12 of them," he explains. "Now, with these new tools, I feel I'm teaching every single one of them."

Playing to Their Strengths

A few stations to the right of Kiley, another fourth grader, a brown-haired boy, is using Comic Life software to make a cartoon about a reptile he calls a bearded dragon, explaining that he has one at home named J.J. Durden describes this student as disinterested in reading and writing, and he is clearly pleased that the boy has elected to work on creating comics, where good writing is essential and every word counts.

"If I'd given him a traditional project like a composition to write, he'd have gotten a C or D," Durden says. "If I lock into requiring only the full paragraph and punctuation, I'm dooming him to be a C student."

Working away, the boy tells me that his favorite thing is to draw, but that it's not hard to write words for a comic strip, "because I've been doing it since I was like five." For Durden, this is one of the best by-products of Forest Lake's use of technology.

"What's neat is that you don't see the disabilities. You see the abilities," he says.

For instance, using math software with customizable lessons, one student can work on basic multiplication tables while another tries three-digit multiplication and another tackles complex word problems. All three are performing at significantly different levels, yet all three are able to proceed at their own pace without affecting the progress of their classmates. Even the boy who has cerebral palsy, tapping away at his laptop in a special supportive chair, blends easily into the environment.

The benefits of personalization, so apparent when walking from classroom to classroom, don't show as clearly in Forest Lake's test scores. The scores hover below the district average on South Carolina's Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS), with pass rates mostly between 63 and 76 percent. On the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, used by the district to track students' annual growth, more than 50 percent of Forest Lake students are meeting their individual targets, which is slightly higher than the national norm.

So how does Cannon know her school's high-tech methods are working? Besides what she sees in classrooms day to day, she relies on the near-constant individual assessment that goes on at Forest Lake, from rubrics to computer-based tests to practice questions graded in real time with remote clickers. She reports that those metrics show "constant growth and progress." The attendance rate also has ticked up from 94 percent to more than 96 percent in the past six years.

In addition, these methods clearly account for an important part of Forest Lake's peaceful, productive environment. Part of the student engagement probably owes to the sheer pizzazz of the technology. As Lowe says, "They push a button and it makes a sound and they go, 'Wow!'" Yet some of it surely comes from the fact that the lessons match the children's skills -- much more often than with traditional lessons geared to only one average ability level.

"You're not dumbing things down for one child in order to challenge another. You're challenging every child at her level," says former Forest Lake student and current curriculum coordinator Marian Scullion. By enabling success, you create in the student the appetite to succeed again.

How They Differentiate

Technology-enabled or not, differentiating instruction takes time -- a lot of it. Forest Lake teachers tackle this challenge by using the technology to simplify other parts of their jobs, sharing their best ideas, and divvying up some of the work.

For starters, they use software to do much of the basic-skills practice and assessment that would otherwise take up the teacher's time. The computer programs (Study Island and EducationCity are Forest Lake favorites) can identify specific weaknesses in a child's skills, such as understanding analogies or adding fractions. Teachers can review these outcomes daily, then assign lessons to each student according to her needs so that the next time she logs on, the program will give her practice assignments on precisely what she's missing -- complete with the allure of colorful computer animations.

"Before, it was kind of acceptable that your textbook was geared for the average kid," says Durden. "So you'd teach to that average kid and maybe occasionally do something more challenging while the other kids did seat work. With this, I am no longer checking their worksheets on fractions every night. The computer does that, and if I see that they're missing questions on unlike denominators, then tomorrow I'm programming in lessons on unlike denominators."

That gives teachers time to plan and grade more complex projects and provide students with more individualized coaching. Plus, the students get immediate feedback from the computer on which questions they got right and wrong.

Regular assessment plays an important role, too. It's Forest Lake policy that teachers begin each unit of study with a pretest to determine students' needs. To ease the burden of planning lessons for students at diverse levels, teachers often split up this task; different members of each grade-level team design the activities for higher-skilled kids, lower-skilled kids, etc.

Of course, it takes more than new-fangled computers, assessment, and personalization to make these classrooms run as smoothly as they do. Good old-fashioned classroom management helps, too.

"If you just set them to work on computers, you can expect chaos," says Lowe. One secret to her students' productive work habits, she says, is "practice, practice, practice." At the beginning of the year, she and her students repeatedly drill their procedures -- how to use the technology, what to do if you have a question, how to behave if Ms. Lowe isn't standing right there.

Another essential element: the willingness to take risks and make mistakes. Lowe describes how she dealt with the disaster that ensued the first time she had her students try a wiki: "You have to be flexible with the students, and say, 'You know what? If it doesn't work it's OK.' Every experience is a learning experience."

Ingredients of Transformation

Fifteen years ago, Forest Lake was a different place. There was just one computer and one printer in each classroom, and the homogenous, mostly middle class student population was beginning to change. Today, 65 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 5 percent are English-language learners. Some 65 percent are African American, 27 percent are white, and the rest are of other races. Gradually, as a new school identity evolved, the staff, supported by the district, turned to technology to help meet the widening array of student needs.

Three scenes of kids in the classroom

From left: Fourth-grade teacher Kevin Durden helps students, such as Katerina, individually while they do independent work. Tamika Lowe tries to get to know the unique strengths and needs of each of her second graders, like Kellis. Each classroom is equipped with a 'Tech Zone' of eight Internet-enabled computers.


Credit: Grace Rubenstein

Ten years ago, Kappy Cannon was named principal. The former teacher and guidance counselor facilitated efforts to infuse more technology into the classrooms. Cannon built a cohesive staff with very low turnover. Instructional Technology Specialist Paulette Williams recalls, "There were a few people that were harder to sell than others, but then the peer pressure began to get to them. As a couple of teachers in a grade level would get really techie, the parents started asking the less enthusiastic ones, 'Well, why don't you try this?'"

Ask the educators here why they chose technology as their springboard to success, and you'll get puzzled looks. It's almost as if they couldn't imagine doing anything else.

"Any professional wants to keep learning to stay fresh," says Scullion. "And we are always encouraged to try something new. We don't get micromanaged."

Support and Training

To say that Cannon has encouraged the change isn't quite right. She insisted upon it. "In this day and age," she says, "a teacher must use technology. It can't be optional." However she is quick to add, "You cannot set those expectations unless you're backing them up with tech support and professional development."

So how did these traditional teachers -- "old dogs" as Scullion jokingly calls herself and her colleagues -- learn all these new tricks?

One trick at a time, with a lot of help from the school and each other.

Ten years ago, the school purchased two interactive whiteboards on carts for teachers to experiment with. Year by year, the school added more whiteboards and computers, combining money from the district, grants, and a parent-run education foundation that held annual fundraisers. By 2007, there was an interactive whiteboard in every classroom.

Some of the high-tech infusion came from outside sources. In 2006, Forest Lake became one of 50-plus NASA Explorer Schools nationwide, committing to infuse its classes with science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum. Through that program, the school received a video conference system that it still uses to connect students with NASA scientists. And more recently, a local media-production company donated its old equipment -- cameras, microphones, monitors, and mixing boards -- for the school's daily in-house news broadcast, produced entirely by fifth graders.

Now, the staff sustain their progress through several strategies. Collaborative Conference is a biweekly meeting of each grade-level team with Forest Lake's tech-integration triumvirate: Scullion, Williams, and library-media specialist Lizzie Padget. Teams use these meetings to address problems and plan their study units, brainstorming ideas for the pre-unit assessment, technology components, and hands-on experiences. Williams also serves as a real-time tech supporter, available to fight fires, coach teachers individually, or stand by in their classrooms while they try something new.

Monthly staff meetings are another essential venue for ongoing training. Scullion, Williams, and Padget often ask teachers to showcase the innovations that are working in their classrooms. Lowe, for instance, is the first to experiment with blogs in second grade. Scullion intends to ask her to teach her technique at an upcoming meeting. "Innovations seem more attainable if you see people next door doing them," she explains.

It Can Be Done

Cannon knows educators in other schools may look at Forest Lake, shake their heads and say, "We just can't do this." Lack of funds, not enough time, technophobic teachers, whatever the reason, Cannon has a comeback: It boils down to attitude. "Facility-wise it can be done," she says. "We have a 53-year-old building. It's a challenge you overcome. People say, 'We can't do it because our kids are poor.' Well, we have a lot of poor kids, too."

For the individual teacher who feels technology integration is beyond her reach, Forest Lake has its own homegrown model. She's first-grade teacher Susan Crabtree, who taught for 32 years before coming to Forest Lake in 2006. Upon arrival, she had to reinvent her methods; she even needed instructions on how to turn on the interactive whiteboard. Within two months, Crabtree had broken down and cried twice, convinced that she couldn't do it. But her daughter and her teaching colleagues buoyed her confidence with some tech coaching. That year, she taught next door to Scullion, who came over to help as needed. Students, too, would show her solutions. Now Crabtree fluently uses the whiteboard and coaches her first graders through their computer lessons.

"My colleagues have taught me everything I know," Crabtree says. "It takes me longer to learn, but that doesn't bother me. If I can do it, it can be done."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia. Mary Best, a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed reporting for this story.
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This article originally published on 4/26/2010

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Keep this out of High School and 7th and 8th grade too.

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Differentiated instruction is a great tool for elementary school, but does more harm than good in high school. Please stop trying to force elementary school teaching techniques that work for 6 year olds onto 16 year olds.

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I am the proud parent of a Forest Lake 2nd grader. But my pride is not just in my son, it is in the wonderful school he attends. Our expectations and hopes have been exceeded, as our son flourishes as a result of the differentiated instruction he receives. We are thrilled to be part of such a successful school, and very grateful for all of the work that the faculty and staff put into making it that way!

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