Monthly Archives: April 2015

Differentiation isn’t a thing; it’s a pedagogical mindset

The word differentiation makes us think of individualized programming.  That always just seems like a lot of work.  But differentiation can also just be part of how you organize your lessons.  The best way to know if you are differentiating your lessons is to think about what a non-differentiated lesson would look like.

When we teach one lesson to the whole class and then the whole class does exactly the same activity, and the activity is closed, then it is most likely a non-differentiated lesson.  Is that always a bad thing?  No.  Sometimes, that lesson is perfectly geared to the students I have.  Sometimes at the beginning of a learning cycle I may start that way to see where everyone is at.  But, if the majority of my lessons look like that then I am not differentiating.

Differentiation just means that I design my lessons, learning and activities to meet the needs of a variety of students.  I differentiate because I believe that all of my students can learn but they might learn in different ways and at different times and with different kinds of instruction.  It does not mean that each student needs a separate activity.  If you use the following teaching practices, you are differentiating:

  • Small group instruction where the teacher is proactive in selecting students in advance who need to learn or practice a particular skill. These are not always your struggling students.  Use small groups to push all students to the very next level of understanding.
  • Small group instruction where the students self-identify that they need extra support. Instead of trying to answer questions by going to students, have the students come to you and work in a small group.  It is a more effective use of your time.  Once you create a culture of working with small groups (and it can and does happen from kindergarten through grade 12) then students will often automatically figure out when they need extra support.
  • Grouping students strategically. I don’t suggest letting students choose their own groups very often.  They don’t choose well and someone always feels left out.  When you group students for a particular task based on the their abilities, sometimes choosing mixed abilities, sometimes choosing interest and sometimes using homogeneous groups, you create differentiated learning from their peers.
  • Open-ended tasks allow students to enter the work at their comfort level. If you create a worksheet, make sure that the questions are open-ended.  A closed worksheet means there is only one correct answer.  If there is only one possible answer then those that know it aren’t thinking much and those that don’t can’t do it.  Practice sheets are sometimes useful but again, what happens for those students for whom it is new material, not practice?
  • Create tasks of varying difficulty and let students choose the one they want to work on. If you look at the curriculum, rarely does it say that students have to demonstrate the skill with a complex problem.  Offer students a choice of problems all which target the concept you are teaching.  Rarely do students pick a problem that is too hard or easy for them; if they do, don’t forget that you are the teacher and can guide them in their choice.
  • If the task is open-ended, do think ahead of time about how you can create closed parameters for those that need more structure. Can you organize the page?  Provide the vocabulary? Offer graphic organizers? Chunk the work?
  • Guided instruction means that you have frequent check-ins. You have determined the tricky bits ahead of time and stop all students, or groups of students, to ensure they are on the right track.  Just as you chunk student work you can chunk your instruction into smaller bits.

If you organize your teaching with a belief that all students need to do the same learning through the same task at the same time, you are not differentiating.  But, if you organize your teaching so that students are able to attack the learning from different entry points, all reaching the same goal by the end, then you are differentiating.  Differentiation is really about your pedagogical beliefs about how students learn.

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Traditional teaching methods may not be supported by research

Teaching, it may surprise you, is very traditional.  We hold onto ideas for a long time.  Many teachers tend to teach the way they remember, or think they remember, being taught.  We tend to like our units of study.  We like to organize the material into blocks of study so that it is easy to organize it.  It certainly makes it easy for us to teach, and we think, intuitively, that by blocking concepts into chunks of study, with lots of repeated practice time built in, we will be helping our students to learn and retain information.  Unfortunately the research does not support these practices.  Below I have summarized some of the psychological research behind learning.  I’ve added a few links to some of the scientific work for those skeptics (I am one so I know).  If you want more of the research send me a message.

Massed Versus Distributed Practice

Intuitively we would think that if students needed to learn something new then they should practice it over and over again in a short period of time so that they “really know it”.  For centuries we have organized schooling this way:  we teach all about multiplication for 4 weeks; we have students write poetry for 4 weeks; we have students identify the main idea for 4 weeks; we have students memorize vocabulary words for 3 weeks; we have students play volleyball for 4 weeks and so on.  However, psychologists have known through controlled experiments that this just isn’t true.  In fact, for over the last 100 years, psychologists have replicated the following:  people retain new information better if they allow time between the practice of new concepts or skills.  The retention of information is greater if there is elapsed time between practice sessions.

Let’s take a simple example:  you need to learn 20 new vocabulary words.  You would think that practicing the definitions of these new words every day for 10 days would make sense.  Then if you were tested on day 11 you’d do quite well.  That tends to be true.  But, if you are tested on day 30, you will remember very few of them.  However, if you practice your 20 new words for 5 days and then rest for a few days and practice for 5 days and then rest for a few days, then when you are tested on day 30 your score will be significantly better.

Research:  Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Cepeda, Nicholas J.; Pashler, Harold; Vul, Edward; Wixted, John T.; Rohrer, DougPsychological Bulletin, Vol 132(3), May 2006, 354-380.;

How We Learn. Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Allocating Student Study Time. “Massed versus “Distributed” Practice.
Willingham, Daniel T. American Educator, v26 n2 p37-39,47 Sum 2002

Interleaving versus Blocked Learning

Intuitively we would think that if students need to learn 3 new concepts (A, B and C) it would make sense to teach them A, then B and then C.  And this is typically how we have taught.  Take a look at any textbook and it is organized into discrete chapters.  Particularly in mathematics you will note that the chapter on addition is distinct from the chapter on subtraction which is distinct form the chapter on multiplication.  In recent years in reading instruction we looked at all the strategies readers used (visualization, making connections, inferencing etc) and thought that we should teach one per month.  However, psychologists have found, over and over again, that the reverse is true.  If you really want to understand a concept deeply you should learn it “interleaved” with other, preferably similar concepts.  So we should teach ABCABCABC not AAABBBCCC.

Not only does retention improve immensely, but an analysis of errors shows that students make “better errors” when taught in an interleaved fashion.  Students are less likely to simply memorize procedures as they must, as they are learning, choose between multiple options.  Students, as they are learning, develop the skills to see the similarities and differences between concepts.

Let’s look at a mathematics example.  Students need to learn to find the area of a parallelogram, a triangle and a trapezoid.  Instead of teaching them separately, if they are taught together then students are less likely to memorize a formula and more likely to see how the formulas are related to each other.  They are more likely to make sense of the mathematics.



Intuitively we think that “practice makes perfect”.  If students want to master something they should repeat it many, many times in a row to make it stick.  If you want to play middle C, do it 20 times.   If you want to know how to do long division, do 100 problems.  If you want to be able to spell a difficult word, write it out 25 times.  However, psychologists, from their research, will tell you that just isn’t true.  While overlearning does increase retention in the short term (like for the spelling test tomorrow) it does not appear to have long lasting benefits.  Practice is only helpful to mastery.  Once you have mastery, any extra practice is irrelevant.  So, we need our students to practice new skills, but once individual students have demonstrated mastery, any further practice is a waste of time.  It does not increase retention; it may lead to disengagement.


What does all this mean for teaching?  If you consider the three concepts together I think that it can change how we approach planning and teaching.  It would appear that there is something to be gained from teaching lightly and often.  We can come back to concepts many times over the course of the year so that students have time in between learning sessions to “percolate”.  We can teach related concepts together to help students identify similarities and differences.  We can honour that different students may need different amounts of practice time.

As you begin to plan for next year, you may wish to think about how these concepts relate to your subject.  Could you create long range plans that allow for a more recursive approach?  Where you spiralled key ideas though out the year?  In fact, spring being a good time to try new things, so is there something left to teach that you could play with in this way?  See what happens; no one will die.

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Kids do the best they can-our mindset influences our perception about special education students

When we are thinking about differentiation and programming for special needs students, it is important to think about our own mindset.  Because these students are confusing, and difficult and often unpredictable, it is tempting to believe that they could do better if they only tried harder.  Often students with processing difficulties or learning disablitlites can do the work one day only to have no idea what to do the next.  Certainly the child is just being lazy.  Since the student with ADHD could concentrate yesterday, she should be able to concentrate today. Two weeks ago you had such a pleasant interaction with a student with behaviour difficulties, so why is he being so surly and disrespectful today?  He could be pleasant if he wanted to.

There is another possible mindset we can have:  Kids do the best they can.  When they aren’t doing well it is due to a lagging skill set.  This is the work of Ross Greene (  As educators when we adopt this mindset we see difficulties differently.

Do you ever get up in the morning and say to yourself, “I’m just not going to do a good job at work today.  I could but I’m not going to.”  Do you ever say, “I could ski down this hill really well but I think I will just fall all the way down”?  Do you ever say, “I could be really nice to this person but I think I will say something nasty just because I can”?  Probably not.  Rarely do people choose to do poorly if they could do better.  Kids aren’t any different.  I don’t think that kids choose to do poorly.  I do think that they may be missing the skill set to make the correct choices.

Let’s also think about situations we have been in where we felt totally out of our comfort zone.  Perhaps it was at a conference where you didn’t know anyone, or at your spouse’s family gathering, or at a physical activity where you felt like a clutz.  In those situations where you really felt that you didn’t belong, did you tend to hang back, talk less, maybe find the bathroom as an escape?  Did you maybe talk too much because you were nervous?  We have all been in those situations.  If you are a special needs student in a situation that is overwhelming and difficult for you, you might not try very hard or escape.  You might cause a disturbance about something else to lessen others’ expectations of you.  I do not think that in these situations students could do better if they just tried harder.  They are reacting to a difficult situation in a very human way.  And they are just kids.

When I am frustrated and feeling like some of my students are just not getting it, it is helpful to remind myself that they are probably doing the best they can in the situation in which they find themselves.  I can then help to identify the difficulties and try to move forward.  As the educator I can change the parameters to ease the situation and allow the student to develop the skills needed.

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