George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teacher with blow horn and students with raised hands

Teaching and learning are rigorous work. Differentiation is necessary if we want to give our learners the best chances for success. Yet national and state mandates, along with time and resource constraints, create challenging environments. The result is a common inclination for teachers to attempt controlling the flow of instruction. How else can all of our students get all the content standards if we're not stuffing it all into short time frames with limited timelines?

Teacher Control Is Illusionary

If teacher control were real, there would be no achievement gap. Students would succeed because teachers will them to succeed. Control of learning is based on the implied assumption that students will go along with the plan. Consider this example:

A teacher reads aloud from a textbook, while students follow along with their own books. After ten minutes, the teacher asks an engaging question about an ethical choice. Various students respond -- to the adult, not each other. In this scenario, the guarantee that most or all students are engaged is just as likely as the possibility that most of the students look attentive but are daydreaming while a few individuals are involved in a discussion with the teacher. What is often seen as control of learning is the power to manage discipline.

What is real? Teacher authority and power. One student described teachers as having "the power of the mouse" to place grades and points into computerized gradebooks. Wielding power may cause students to go along with teacher-directed instruction to avoid consequences, or go underground with passive disobedience such as pretending to pay attention.

A better guarantee of learning is enabling students to share decision power. How much richer might the conversation be if the students were reading passages in groups? Some read aloud as needed and discuss among themselves the difficult ethical dilemma questions. Another possibility is groups based on reading skills, so that students who needed the challenge of silently reading the text could do so. Meanwhile other students could listen to a recording or a read aloud, while following along in their books. The teacher, no longer the center of action, becomes the project manager who evaluates everyone's skills and meets their needs through coaching and facilitative probing questions.

Craft Meaningful Choices for Students

Teachers develop choices and provide them to students. While choices are a good instructional strategy, they can fail to bring about engagement. Which would you choose if given the following options?

  1. Spend an hour working on something you hate.
  2. Spend an hour working on something you don't care about.
  3. Pretend to do the work.

For many students, the teacher choices feel like this example. Why? All of the choices are perceived as uninviting.

The alternative is to craft choices based on student interest, actually generated by students, or a combination of both. Including students in deciding on the options increases the chances that they will like one of the choices. The combination approach almost guarantees student buy-in. Provide students with two options that are structured by the teacher, based on student-interest surveys or dialog. Then challenge students to create their proposed choice. If a student's idea fulfills the learning criteria, he or she is empowered to do it. Some students will prefer the teacher options, while others will value the chance to pave their own path.

Listen To and Follow Through on Student Input

Good things happen when teachers facilitate activities and protocols that generate student suggestions and requests. They frame the focus of such sessions so that the feedback addresses curriculum, which leads to data that the teacher uses to differentiate in targeted ways.

Whenever possible during coaching visits, I ask students about their learning experiences. Once they know that I'm there to help their teachers support them, students become very candid. A common thread from all ages is that when students feel like they have a voice, the experiences are positive. This is often reflected when they see their ideas incorporated into the learning experiences. Nothing is more frustrating than making suggestions or requests that never happen. Few experiences are more amazing than when students' eyes shine with pride on seeing their idea implemented.

Influence Is More Powerful Than Control

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink" is sage wisdom. Pushing the horse's head underwater results in it coughing up the water, and never again wanting to go near the shore. Too many students develop a less than appetizing taste of school as they journey through grade levels. Some exert their energy to resist instruction rather than take part in it. Power and authority will ensure that lessons occur and classrooms are managed -- but some students will follow their internal compass and decide to participate out of enthusiasm or compliance, while others passively resist. Some will fight the losing battle of challenging a teacher's authority. In that case, everyone loses.

The greatest gift of teaching is influencing students to want to explore deeply and grow confident with their success. If we want students to actively participate and contribute to the learning experiences, then we must share decision making for how students will develop and demonstrate their understanding. When they become adults, we want future generations who value learning by their choice.

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Differentiated Instruction
When it comes to how students learn, one size does NOT fit all.

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

haney_gerald's picture

I would say, a very well composed article. Crafting meaningful choice is the biggest problem, faced mostly by new or inexperience teachers, but you justified it well. During my 3 years of teaching, the most difficult part for me was to engage students and reinforce their participation, after reading the last paragraph, I think I'll be able to overcome this. Thanks for sharing and keep writing.

Mario Gomez's picture

This year I took the Penny Kittle approach and allowed students to read novel choices based on interest. To me this is the best type of differentiation for a reading or language arts class, but as we finish the year, we are reading the dreaded class novel. The paragraph about allowing students to read in small groups, silently or through a recording is definitely an interesting option in differentiation. I used the literary circles approach last year, and as prepared as I was, only about 80% of the class participated. Thank you for the ideas.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Haney,
Thanks for your comment and sharing your practice. A big part of student engagement is being a good listener to them. Draw from them their interests, and then incorporate those into the work. Then take a moment to bask in their eyes lighting up with excitement :)

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Mario,
I'm so glad you use Lit Circles with your students around novels of their choosing. That's powerful. I sometimes wonder what makes certain novels required reading. CCSS and state standards do not list specific books as "required." The focus of standards is literary analysis, literary elements, and author's craft and intent. Sacred cows take up too much space in the barn, when there is much literature (current too) that can meet the same needs. Keep up what you're doing :)

Tamsin Henry's picture
Tamsin Henry
Lecturer from South America

Thanks for sharing such an inspirational and resourceful article! I have learned how to differentiate content, process, and product in order to cater to students diverse learning styles, profiles, and levels of readiness. May I suggest that you read some books ad articles by Carol Ann Tomlinson as she has some powerful information on Differentiation and the contemporary classroom. I personally employ Culturally responsive teaching in my lessons so as to help each student understand concepts whilst relating it to some aspect of his or her cultural background. I have also used partner reading, word banks, and visual support to help my students make greater connections to the text, but most importantly, to help understand the writer's craft, message, and his employment of various techniques. When I plan lessons, I differentiate based on information that I have from student's previous schools or classes, their index cards, and form conversations that I have when conducting Parent Teachers Conferences. Then I can readily prove the effectiveness of differentiation in terms of its importance to student learning and curriculum.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Tamsin,
Thanks for sharing insights into your practice. Using what we know about our students is critical--as you've shared in your instruction with some good specific examples that others can draw from. The only thing I'd add to your wealth of ideas is get feedback and data from the students' mouths. Their perceptions influence how they perceive the course work as well as how they may approach learning. Parent-Teacher conferences and data from previous classes and schools are important areas that every teacher should inform their decisions. "And" the feedback by students themselves is what makes the difference for a class where students become highly engaged and invested.

I have every book Carol has written, and have read many of her articles, along with some very good ones by others, such as Susan Allan, Marcia Imbeau, Lynn Erickson, Carolyn Chapman, and Rick Wormeli. Ken O'Connor focuses on grading practices, but his ideas dovetails nicely with Differentiation. Which book has influenced your practice the most? What recommendations would you make to others about which book to read first? :)

Thanks for the dialog.


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