Monthly Archives: December 2014

Managing Differentiation in the Classroom

The question came upabout how you get students on an IEP started in class.  You have given the assignment, you were clear in the instructions but the first 10 minutes are busy and you realize that the students on the IEP have just been sitting, or sharpening their pencil, or in the bathroom, or causing a disturbance because they don’t know how to get started.  What to do?

Here are some suggestions.  There is no easy answer and different solutions might work in different situations:

  • Planning for differentiation has to be part of the initial planning process not an after- thought. Sometimes we think that we will just wait and see how a student does with the class assignment and then if he or she is stuck, then we will differentiate.  It is better to have decided in advance how you will differentiate and start with that.  From the student’s point of view, it is easier to understand and do more than to be frustrated from the get-go.
  • When thinking about differentiation, think about the concepts not the task. Often it is that task that is too complex, not the concept; the task is too open-ended, not organized enough, the reading level is too high.  By determining, in advance, what concept the student needs to focus on and determining what the barriers to learning that are, you may be able to differentiate easier.  It is not about task completion.  It is about learning.
  • Know your subject matter so that you can see the continuum of learning. No matter what concept you need students to learn, there is something they had to learn first to get there.  Think about what knowledge the student might be missing that is inhibiting their understanding.
  • Have a rule that NO ONE can ask you questions for the first 5-10 minutes after you give a task. Lots of students ask questions that they can actually figure out on their own.  That gives you some peace and quiet to check in with those students you know need you right away.
  • Small group instruction is your first defense in differentiation. If you predict that some students are going to need extra support or a different assignment, call them to the guided learning table first.  Support them right from the beginning of the task so that frustration doesn’t set in.  You may need to use that few minutes to activate background knowledge for them, create a graphic organizer, reduce or chunk the amount of work.
  • Talk less, show more. Most of your students can process verbal instructions but many students on an IEP cannot.  Make sure that you are writing the instructions on the board as well as saying what they are.  And, identify that you are creating the visual support by saying “Everyone point to the instructions”.
  • In the first few minutes of the work period, find your struggling students and create a quick checklist of 3 (no more) things that they need to do to get started. Put it on a sticky note.  They need to come and let you know when those three things are done.
  • Strategic grouping of students can help. If you know that you will be available to work with a group of students, group your students homogeneously and work with the group that needs you most.  If you don’t think you will be able to work with students right away, group them heterogeneously so that everyone can get started.  Later in the period, pull students who may need support from their groups to check in with you.  If you don’t do this last step then you risk that those students are not getting the concepts.
  • Model with graphic organizers and then have them be optional. Students can choose the organizer or not.  Most students will choose what they need.  You may be surprised to see who needs what.  And, you are still the teacher.  If someone doesn’t choose the organizer who needs it, you can insist.
  • Create tasks that have multiple entry points into learning. The curriculum does not indicate how “hard” the work needs to be.  Tasks that are accessible to all are easier for all students.
  • You wrote the IEP. It gives you permission to have the student learn differently, less content or show the work in alternative formats.  It is fair to do that.  When you are planning, think of those IEPs and how you will manage those students. Differentiation becomes more difficult when we have not planned for it.


Filed under classroom environment, classroom management, Differentiation, pedagogy

Maybe Assessment for Learning isn’t the right term?

The term “assessment for learning” (educational acronym AfL) was coined by Wiliam and Black in their 1998 article “Inside the Black Box” (  The research shook the educational community:  how teachers reacted to student learning as they were learning was incredibly important to student achievement.  The used the term AfL to describe those activities that teachers could undertake during the learning phase to help students achieve higher results.  Their research was impressive and educational scholars since have also determined that the stuff that teachers do during learning makes the biggest difference.

In an interview with Dylan Wiliam in 2012 ( he states:

“The big mistake that Paul Black and I made was calling this stuff ‘assessment.  Because when you use the word assessment, people think about tests and exams. For me, AfL is all about better teaching.”

Given that the article Inside the Black Box was published in 1998 and we are still, in 2014, struggling with formative assessment, I wonder if we have misinterpreted because of the term name.  And I worry when I see teachers spending all of their time collecting “assessment data” because there are now three kinds of data to which we need to be accountable.

Let’s take a collective deep breath and think about the role of assessment in teaching.

You should have an idea of where your students are at before you decide exactly what they need to know.  But, your diagnostic assessment does not need to be a copy of your summative assessment.  In fact, you probably already know they don’t know all that; you haven’t taught it yet.  However, based on what you have already observed about them, and based on how they do on a carefully designed introductory activity, you will want to identify some specific gaps.  And, you will want to recognize that those gaps may not be the same for all students.  Your “diagnostic assessment” does not need to be a test, or a quiz, or something that is onerous to mark.  You do not need to hand it back to students.  You do need some way of knowing what your kids can and cannot do.  In most instances your diagnostic assessment comes from the work they have already been doing.

At the end of a learning cycle or unit, you do want to check in and see what your students can do independently based on the learning goals you have been working on.  Sometimes this summative task will really be summative; you are moving on.  You are not going to read the novel again, learn about rocks and minerals any more or study the area of parallelograms.  But sometimes this summative task will also be the diagnostic task for your next learning cycle:  you will read other novels, you will write more, you will learn more about testing the hypothesis, you will use those math concepts again.

But it is the teaching time in between the diagnostic bit and the summative bit that tends to cause all the confusion.  The term “assessment for learning” made us think that we had to have a lot of quizzes; we had to mark everything against a rubric;  we had to level (and communicate those levels) all work students did.  We amassed lots of data.  But Dylan Wiliam, himself, says that it is really just about better teaching.

So, we have our learning goals for the next bit of time, we have an idea of where our students are entering the learning and then we begin to teach.  And as we teach we are using multiple ways to figure out how kids are doing as they move towards reaching those learning goals.  We talk to them; we work with them in small groups; we give the occasional quiz or ticket out the door; we watch them; we ask questions; we encourage students to talk to each other; we make.  As our students are learning we are constantly trying to figure out how they are doing, what are the sticky bits, where are they confused.  And then we help them to get unstuck, to master something new, to make the connections.  That is “assessment for learning”.  That is just good teaching.

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