George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

3 Steps to Developing an Asset-Based Approach to Teaching

Through this approach, which focuses on students’ strengths, teachers can plan instruction that promotes a growth mindset.

October 22, 2020
Students sitting at their desks in a middle school classroom
Alan Ingram / Alamy Stock Photo

As educators welcomed students to the 2020–21 school year, they did so with great care and attention to their social and emotional needs. Now, as school routines become habits and students dive deeper into their learning, this message of hope and support must continue to be conveyed during instruction.

If students only hear of the gaps in their learning or that they have fallen behind, they will begin to act according to the low benchmark that has been set for their achievement. An asset-based approach to teaching is one that is grounded in what students can do rather than what they cannot do or areas of weakness. It is an embodiment of growth mindset in instruction.

3 Steps to Using an Asset-Based Approach to Teaching

1. Begin with a diagnostic learning activity that provides information about what students know and can do. A simple way to design a diagnostic learning activity that focuses on what students can do is to align the task to the skills or concepts from the previous grade level. Most standards are scaffolded from one grade level or course to the next. For example, in mathematics, this is known as coherence. In science, it can be seen through progressions of the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI). By looking at standards or intentionally identifying foundational skills or concepts in a curriculum document, teachers can quickly access this information.

For example, the following learning targets are based on English language arts standards:

Fifth grade: I can use the supporting details to determine the central idea.

Sixth grade: I can explain how supporting details are used to develop the central idea.

As a simple diagnostic, students read and annotate an article using text tags to identify key details and then use the tagged details to write the central idea. A sixth-grade teacher would review student work focused on the details that the students selected and how they were used to write the central idea, or the fifth-grade expectation.

With this information, the teacher can plan instruction to provide strategies for moving students from identifying the central idea to explaining how it is developed. Additional pathways are created for students who have this skill and need more practice or are ready to apply it in different ways.

2. Provide different learning pathways so that all students have the opportunity to meet high expectations. Time has always been precious in the classroom, and it feels even more so as learning this year takes place in remote or blended environments. A learning plan that can be used in these various settings may be strategically constructed so that all students are able to work toward high expectations from their starting point.

The learning plan begins with the diagnostic activity. The student can then choose or the teacher may select different pathways through the plan, with students completing a core set of learning activities aligned to the plan’s learning target to ensure that they are all working toward high expectations.

Pathway A embeds instruction and review so that students build background knowledge and skills. For example, students create criteria for identifying important details. They use the criteria to identify details to tag that reveal the central idea.

Pathway B includes additional activities for student practice and application. For example, students use SEE (statement, evidence, explanation) as a cognitive routine for explaining the connection between the central idea statement and the evidence from text.

Pathway C provides activities for deepening understanding or applying learning in new ways. For example, students use SEE to evaluate a text that presents a different point of view.

Creating pathways will help eliminate endless review, repetitive tasks, and/or disengagement that can come from the one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. It communicates to the students that the teacher believes each of them is a unique but ready and able learner.

(Click here for a full example of a learning plan for a sixth grader with an asset-based approach to instruction.)

3. Provide feedback to students identifying what they can do and strategies for using their strengths to address areas of need. Embedded in each learning activity is a formative-assessment moment. These are tangible or observable evidence of student learning. In an asset-based approach to learning, they are used to provide students with feedback that includes three important pieces of information.

Strength: The evidence you selected clearly identifies the important information about the impact of the transcontinental railroad on different groups of people.

Need: The central idea is a summary statement of what is most important about the text. How can you say what is most important without rewriting all of the details?

Next step: Write the central idea for two or three paragraphs in your own words before writing the central idea for the entire text.

It is important to note that not all students need to receive the same feedback at the same time. The formative-assessment moment exists as an opportunity for students to receive the feedback they need when they need it. However, all students deserve specific and tailored feedback at some time during their learning.

When teachers begin to look at what students understand, know, and can do, it changes the way the teacher and their students approach learning. The teacher begins to leverage what students know as a means for moving learning forward. For students, small successes lead to larger ones and help develop belief in their own capability as well as the willingness to engage when learning becomes difficult. When students are made aware of how they can learn, they take another step toward being independent, self-regulated learners.

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