George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

Quality Instruction + Differentiation: Beyond the Checklist

Differentiate instruction through PBL or UBD by personalizing the driving question, having students design their own outcomes, and using the need to know process.

Quality unit instruction combined with differentiated instruction transforms "the game called school" into a meaningful journey where learners understand and connect with the curriculum on a daily basis, whether the approach is project-based learning (PBL), Understanding by Design (UBD), or any other unit design that connects a deep understanding of content and a mastery of skills and concepts to real-world contexts.

The Game Called School

When kids come home from school, parents and guardians ask a common question: "What did you learn today?" or "What did you do today?"

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The common responses are: "Nothing" and "Stuff."

Having surveyed many groups of educators -- they're parents, too -- I've found that almost all of their kids have those same responses. The truth is that students do work. Teachers do plan and provide experiences that will help students learn and grow. Yet the sobering reality is that if children are communicating differently to their parents -- who are teachers -- what does that mean for those same teachers' students who go home and spread the same message?

The Checklist Challenge

One reason for this miscommunication is that many students have a "checklist" mentality about class assignments. They complete work so as to check it off their to-do list. If we reduce or eliminate homework, they can focus on what they want to do upon leaving school grounds. When each day's work is reduced to a checklist, students lose any connections to the big picture of the curriculum's purpose. This checklist mentality becomes a major roadblock to their developing in-depth understanding, as each day's work is a set of isolated tasks to accomplish and forget.

Establish a Driving Question for the Unit

In PBL, a driving question (DQ) is introduced at the start of the unit, based on the major concepts and ideas that students must know by the end. It’s the "big idea" of the unit in question form, or the student-friendly version of an essential question, as proposed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Students answer the DQ by the final product assessments concluding the unit. Here are resources for more details:

  1. Buck Institute for Education Webinar (Video)
  2. DQ Basics
  3. Concept-Based DQs (Advanced)
  4. Tubric (Video)
  5. Minding your Ps & Qs for Better DQs
  6. Writing Effective DQs

Support student learning by relating the DQ to the learning outcome(s) at least once per day. Relating the connection helps students see the big picture and how that day's work fits. This 15-second daily sound byte helps learners tie the different lessons together into a cohesive message. After a couple of weeks, teachers can, as formative assessment, ask students to reflect on the connection between the DQ and their current work.

Open Source (Authentic) Product

There are many high-quality options for products that students can use to demonstrate learning. Work artifacts can vary based on students' interests. Product choices should include a mix of learning styles or processes so that learners find several ways to make sense of the work and viewpoints that may challenge their thinking.

Open-source products (to coin a phrase) is when students determine what their PBL product will be. They design the artifact that, in their opinion, will best demonstrate the learning outcomes. The key is ensuring that students have a clear understanding of the academic criteria. This way all product and performance options address what is intended for students to demonstrate. For example, analyzing author intention in nonfiction can be done through journals and essays in print, video, audio, and other multimedia formats. Authentic products that give students voice to influence an outside audience brings purpose and taps into their own interests, while building context for academic concepts. Here are resources regarding authentic products:

An easy step to create open-source products is to offer learners three options. The teacher designs the first two. Option three is student generated.

Need to Know Process: A KWL Alternative

On the first day of a unit, after sharing the DQ and the end-of-unit product expectation, have students generate questions about the unit. The Need to Know Process (N2K) is a brainstorm-like list that's posted on a board, easel pad, and/or digitally (think of it as a kind of KWL table). The practice addresses content based on students' readiness and interests. Differentiation comes from ongoing formative assessments. N2K is one of many effective strategies.

The N2K are reviewed several times a week, when the teacher thinks some of the posted questions have been answered. Using a response system, like "thumbs up or down," students communicate if they feel confident that a question is answered. If even one student shows a thumb down, the question can't be checked off the list. The teacher determines what supports to put in place depending on the number of students. As questions get checked off, teachers have students ask more questions, which tend to be more complex because their understanding base had deepened.

N2K fosters #studentvoice because students determine when a question is answered. This eliminates the comment, "I taught it, but I don't know why they don't know it." Just because something was taught doesn't mean that all students have learned it.

The Perfect Equation for Learner Success

Quality unit designs such as UBD, PBL, and others are effective structures to plan prepared differentiation so that all learners succeed. One difference of a great unit design, such as PBL and UBD, from the traditional unit is empowering student voice in decision making. Components like driving questions, open source (authentic) products, and the N2K process are essential because they support students tackling content that's appropriately challenging (readiness) and engages them in work that's meaningful to them (interest and learning profile). They also focus learning that leads to useful formative assessments. If you've included or would consider including these three components in your unit to eliminate the checklist mentality, share your thoughts below.