Sunday, March 27, 2011

Think Big, Start Small

I read an article on that got me thinking about a couple of things related to planning for differentiated instruction. I’ve decided to write several blog articles related to this topic. I have included excerpts from the eHow article that sparked my thoughts.

When thinking about differentiating our instruction sometimes we get caught up with the all the "cool things" we can do with the students. I've done this more than once. What started as a very focused planning session about meeting various learner needs turned into an elaborate project that included a class store with “money”, bookkeepers, team leaders and a competition. The students loved it and were engaged, however, when it came time to assess the students’ learning I was hard pressed to identify the demonstrated standards and skills. I ended up using hours of precious class time on a project that was not focused on the skills and standards that my students needed to master.

This is why I feel so strongly about planning backwards and starting with the big picture (state standards). When designing lessons, whether they are differentiated or not, start with the question, “What do students need to demonstrate so I know that they have mastered the standard/skill?” Stray as little as possible from the answer to this question as you plan learning activities. How much time and energy should be spent on spelling, punctuation or pretty pictures, unless that is the objective of the lesson? There will be some details you add to the activity to make it more engaging. For instance, creating a real world experience will take a little extra time and there will be extraneous learning that takes place, but students will be very engaged.

Robert Marzano has said our education system would have to be K-22 in order to teach all of the state standards adequately. More and more education leaders agree that teachers must start teaching the “power standards”.  Daniel Venables, author of The Practice of Authentic PLCs (2011), recommends that teacher teams consider two criteria when determining which concepts or skills are worth teaching in depth.  Prominence- how often does is this concept or skill show up on the state standardized tests?
Vitality- “How vital is knowledge of this topic to later skills or coursework?” (Venables, 2011)
It is necessary to trim curriculum. Teachers should be making executive decisions about what they can realistically teach in depth. I would much rather know that my students have mastered 80 – 85% of the curriculum vs. being exposed to 100% of it.

Knowing what to differentiate and what not to differentiate can also be a difficult task. I like to keep my analysis simple. Using my instructional experience from previous years or the experience of others to make these decisions. If you have taught a particular lesson or unit and it was difficult for many students, this is a good place to differentiate. Likewise, if a lesson you have taught in the past was easy for many students then you want to differentiate your instruction for those students to give them a challenge. Include opportunities for all students to process content in multiple modalities in every lesson.  Most importantly, start small.

Excerpt from: "How to Implement Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom"
By Lynn Wolf, eHow Contributor

Balance learning goals, curriculum, and student needs.
1- Know the instructional goals and objectives for your content area, and allow these standards to guide the lesson planning process. Decide which units of learning align with which standards and group those units together. 

2- Use departmental or district curriculum to support, not lead, the learning process. Detailed curriculum provided by departments or school districts is sometimes more of an obstacle than a helpful tool, as teachers can get caught up in the desire to "fit it all in." Planning based solely on the required curriculum leaves out the personal learning needs of the student. Using state learning standards for the grade and subject area provides a broader base from which teachers can start their lesson planning process. 

3- Decide what standards lend themselves to effective differentiation. Trying to create differentiated lessons for all content standards can be counter-productive. Some standards -- like basic math operations, for example -- must simply be taught and mastered. Helping students develop math problem solving strategies, however, is a lesson that can be taught in a variety of ways. Teachers and students can work together to find the strategies that work best for each student, based on the student's learning style. Students can demonstrate their mastery of this skill in different ways, such as successfully completing a written assessment or creating an oral presentation on how to solve problems using his or her preferred method.


  1. Just last Thursday, I had a chance to Skype with Mike Schmoker (Results Now! and Focus) and he says we should cut 50% of the curriculum (state standards). Drastic, to be sure, but even if teacher teams cut a mere 15% instead, greater student mastery would result.

    I agree with you, Cari: start small - both in differentiating lessons and in cutting standards.

  2. Daniel, I am happy to hear Schmoker recommends cutting 50% of the curriculum. This is a good goal for schools to be looking toward. Keeping the idea of starting small in mind, educators can start at 15% and then trim each year until they get to a place they feel most comfortable.