Differentiating Instruction Through Multiple Approaches

Program Standard 3

3. Differentiation – The teacher acquires and uses specific knowledge about students’ cultural, individual intellectual and social development and uses that knowledge to adjust their practice by employing strategies that advance student learning.

3.3 Element – Demonstrating Flexibility and Responsiveness in Persisting to Support Students

3.3 Example of Proficient – Teacher persists in seeking approaches for students who have difficulty learning, drawing on a broad repertoire of strategies.

Boaler (2016) emphasizes, “The new evidence from brain research tells us that everyone, with the right teaching and messages, can be successful in math, and everyone can achieve at the highest levels in school” (p. 4). During my coursework at Seattle Pacific University, I read the book Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler and it opened my mind and changed my approach to math both as a learner and as an instructor. I used to assume that if I didn’t understand a math concept in the way it was being taught that I was incapable of learning it. Reading this book helped me see that each learner just needs to find the approach that makes sense to them. This book helped me develop confidence in my own math practice and to see how important it is to engender persistence and self-assurance in students. In order to be successful at math, learners need to explore multiple approaches to the same concept and determine which one works best for them. As educators, it is our responsibility to present students with multiple strategies for solving a problem and the growth mindset messages to encourage them to explore, make mistakes, and find their own path to mastering different skills.

During my coursework at SPU, differentiation came up frequently and I always pictured it taking form in the classroom through small group instruction or small group stations. While small group instruction is an integral part of differentiated instruction, it also requires multiple other strategies to be fully realized. What I have come to understand during student teaching is that providing differentiated instruction requires a multi-tiered approach that starts with how whole group instruction is presented. During my student teaching experience, I taught a group of 4th-grade students for math instruction. When the class got to the unit on multi-digit multiplication, many of the students were struggling to understand the concept. The curriculum had students first learning the partial products method, then the standard algorithm method, and finally the area model method. After the first day of instruction in this sequence, I could tell that the majority of students were not understanding the concept. During the second day of instruction on multi-digit multiplication, I not only introduced the two remaining methods but also drew connections between each method of solving the problem. This allowed students to see that each different way of solving a problem was actually doing the same function. At the end of class that day, the students engaged in a discussion about the different methods for solving multi-digit multiplication and were prompted to self-reflect and determine which one made the most sense to them.

After all three strategies were presented and students had the opportunity to reflect on the strategy that worked best for them, student learning gained momentum. I remember one student in particular who was struggling with multi-digit multiplication after the first day of instruction, but she lit up after the area model method was introduced. I sat with her the previous day and went over how to find all the equations for the partial products method but it was just not working for her. No matter how many different ways I explained this method, it did not make sense to her. However, after the area model method was introduced, I sat with her again and she was able to independently solve equations. This experience in the classroom helped me more fully understand how differentiated instruction starts with a foundation of providing students with multiple strategies for approaching concepts. Then once students have the tools that they need, small group instruction can be used to further scaffold and evaluate student learning. Jo Boaler (2016) asserts, “This is the time when it is most critical that teachers and parents introduce mathematics as a flexible conceptual subject that is all about thinking and sense making” (p. 35). Providing students with multiple approaches and encouraging them to reflect on their own learning, helps students understand that mastery of math concepts is an individual journey that each learner needs to take. I can continue to elevate my practice by integrating self-reflection as a daily practice in math class. This routine will help students to take control of their own learning and figure what works for them.


Becoming An Advocate For Exceptional Students

Program Standard 3

3. Differentiation – The teacher acquires and uses specific knowledge about students’ cultural, individual intellectual and social development and uses that knowledge to adjust their practice by employing strategies that advance student learning.

3.3 Element – Demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness in persisting to support students.

3.3 Example of Proficient – Teacher persists in seeking approaches for students who have difficulty learning, drawing on a broad repertoire of strategies.


For EDSP 6644 (Educating Exceptional Students) I researched the increasingly popular Response to Intervention (RtI) model and how it relates to twice-exceptional students (see linked paper below). Twice-exceptional students are distinctive because of their combination of high intelligence and specific learning disabilities. These combined traits can often make it difficult for standardized measures to detect these learners. Oftentimes their intelligence can offset their specific learning disability resulting in average achievement even though they are capable of so much more. According to Crepeau-Hobson and Bianco (2011) “This masking can make the twice-exceptional students appear to have average abilities and achievement. Because of these issues, gifted students with [learning disabilities] are less likely to be identified for either exceptionality” (p. 103). If these students are not detected within systems like the RtI model, they will not get the supports and enrichments needed.

Although it is not a perfect screening process, the RtI model can be adjusted to provide a first step in detecting twice-exceptional students. McCallum, Mee Bell, Coles, Miller, Hopkins, and Hilton-Prillhart (2013) suggest, “Scrutiny of more than one academic area for screening purposes will decrease the potentially negative effects of masking” (p. 219). The researchers believe that if students’ scores are vastly different between subjects, those discrepancies might indicate that they are suffering from learning disabilities despite testing within the normal range. The students who have large inconsistencies in their test scores across subjects would then qualify for further screening. While this is not a perfect solution, it does help to fill a gap in the RtI model that would otherwise leave twice-exceptional students undetected. It is important for administrators to take suggestions like this one under consideration so that students can get the interventions that they need.

Even with adjustments to screening systems, it is essential that teachers always advocate for their students. After doing research, I have learned that perceptive teachers are crucial to the success of their students. This is especially true for students with special needs. In inclusive classrooms, these students often fail to receive proper supports. McKenzie (2010) asserts, “Insightful teachers have always been, and must remain, the conduits of advocacy on behalf of students with exceptionalities” (p. 166). This knowledge will drive my teaching and make me a more thoughtful and dedicated educator. It will push me to learn more about the needs of exceptional learners so I can create a truly inclusive classroom. It is important for teachers to not exclusively rely on standardized testing to detect the needs of all students. All teachers must be informed about special education issues so that they can differentiate their teaching and provide students with the support needed. Vigilant teachers must ensure that these students are receiving proper interventions, are building strong social relationships, and are developing a sense of self-efficacy. It is crucial for all students, but especially those with disabilities, to develop a sense of agency so that they can advocate for themselves and understand their own learning needs. Teachers are such an important part of their students’ lives so it is imperative for them to champion for the needs of each and every learner in their classroom.

Click To Read My Paper On Twice-Exceptional Students And The RtI Model

Crepeau-Hobson, F., & Bianco, M. (2011). Identification of Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities in a Response-to-Intervention era. Psychology In The Schools48(2), 102-109. doi:10.1002/pits.20528
McCallum, S.R., Mee Bell, S., Coles, J.T., Miller, K.C., Hopkins, M.B., & Hilton-Prillhart, A. (2013). A Model for Screening Twice-Exceptional Students (Gifted With Learning Disabilities) Within a Response to Intervention Paradigm. Gifted Child Quarterly, 57(4), 209-222. doi:10.1177/0016986213500070
McKenzie, R. G. (2010). The Insufficiency of Response to Intervention in Identifying Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice (Wiley-Blackwell)25(3), 161-168. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5826.2010.00312.x

Using Technology to Differentiate Instruction and Inspire Student Learning

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 1

1. Facilitate and inspire student learning and creativityTeachers use their knowledge of subject matter, teaching and learning, and technology to facilitate experiences that advance student learning, creativity, and innovation in both face-to-face and virtual environments.

Program Standard 3

3. Differentiation – The teacher acquires and uses specific knowledge about students’ cultural, individual intellectual and social development and uses that knowledge to adjust their practice by employing strategies that advance student learning. 

3.3 Element – Demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness in persisting to support students.

3.3 Example of Proficient – Teacher persists in seeking approaches for students who have difficulty learning, drawing on a broad repertoire of strategies.

Tailored instruction has long been thought to yield the highest level of comprehension when learning a new skill. It is logical then that legislatures and administrators would push to implement that principle in schools. Differentiation is now considered an essential tool for educators to learn and more teachers are encouraged to adopt this technique every year. Instructors well versed in differentiation provide students a variety of approaches in which to explore a single concept. This practice allows students to take into consideration their personal learning style when mastering subject matter or even practice the same skill several ways for a deeper understanding. It also allows students choices in their education which can imbue students with a sense of agency and incite engagement in their studies. Effective educators use many methods to achieve differentiation in their classrooms and often technology can be a valuable tool in achieving that goal.

For the class EDTC 6433 (Teaching with Technology) we were asked to explore how the first ISTE standard can be applied to our own teaching goals and experiences. This standard asks how technology can “facilitate and inspire student learning and creativity” so I researched how it could be used to provide students with a more tailored education. My theory on the subject is that if students are allowed to use technology to progress at their own rate and receive individualized ways to practice certain concepts they will reach a higher level of mastery in those skills. Investigating this project uncovered a wide range of resources available to teachers including software programs, websites, and apps to name a few. In order to narrow down my examination I focused solely on the use of educational apps. During my research I discovered an article that provided a framework for strengthening children’s literacy skills through the use of apps. Northrop and Killeen (2013) asserted that the use of apps to scaffold instruction can be very effective when coupled with explicit instruction, however, they warn teachers that this technology should not be seen as a substitute for meaningful lessons (p. 533). One issue they noted was the game-like structure of the literacy apps they tested and how that might cause issues with long-term retention of the skills presented. Northrop and Killeen (2013) stated, “we noticed that the child would race through the app, clicking to get the correct answer, not paying attention to decoding and reading the words” (p. 535). Despite this setback they recommended the use of literacy apps in classrooms and suggested that with proper instruction and monitoring that this kind of technology can be a useful instructional aid.

Another student in EDTC 6433 found a similar article that dealt with the use of apps to build on students’ math skills. The article chronicled a study conducted on a group of fourth grade students and demonstrated how the use of math apps improved their comprehension of the subject matter. The researchers in this study also found that the apps worked best when used to scaffold learning already achieved through explicit teacher instruction. The researchers in this article indicated that the best apps to improve student achievement allow students to progress at their own pace and provide expedient feedback (Zhang, M., Trussell, R.P., Gallegos, B., & Asam, R.R., 2015, p. 33). These two features enable students to focus on the particular skills they struggle with and provide teachers with valuable information that they can use to differentiate instruction. These authors also touch on the idea that it is important for educators to use apps to supplement instruction and not rely on them to actually teach students new skills.

Overall, the use of technology as an instructional aide can greatly benefit both teachers and students. When used effectively it can provide students with differentiated instruction by allowing them to work at their own pace and to work on the skills they struggle with the most. However, it is crucial that teachers take great care to implement technology in a thoughtful and intentional way by providing explicit instruction and guidance on how it should be used. Mary Ann Wolf of the State Educational Technology Directors Association emphasized, “Strong leadership is needed to encourage the correct use of technology, provide support throughout, and systematically integrate the use of technology for instruction. Integrating technology is much, much more than putting a piece of software into a classroom” (Robin, 2015, p. 221). Once teachers become proficient at managing technology use in their classroom, it will advance student learning and incite engagement in the content presented.

As a future educator, I am dedicated to advancing student learning by using a wide variety of techniques. Technology will definitely have a prominent place in my classroom and I will use it to engage student learning and provide them with the differentiated instruction that they need. All of the articles cited provide useful information about the benefits and the difficulties of using technology in the classroom. In order to implement technology in a meaningful way I will have to carefully plan out how to integrate it into lesson plans in a seamless and impactful manner. This will mean that any piece of technology that enters my curriculum will have to be well vetted to determine if its use will actually benefit the learning process. The two articles dealing with the use of apps in the classroom discuss the fact that the wide range of apps on the market means that some are much better developed than others. Some apps focus on a very narrow skill set and some cover a wide range of material. Furthermore, some apps provide useful feedback on student progress that educators can use to scaffold learning and some provide no feedback at all. These issues will mean that adding technology to my classroom will be an extensive process but the resulting benefits to my students will be well worth the effort.

Northrop, L. E., & Killeen, E. (2013). A Framework for Using iPads to Build Early Literacy Skills. Reading Teacher, 66(7), 531-537. doi: 10.1002/TRTR.1155
Robin, B.R. (2008). Digital Storytelling: A Powerful Technology Tool for the 21st Century Classroom. Theory Into Practice. 47(3), 220-228. doi: 10.1080/00405840802153916
Zhang, M., Trussell, R., Gallegos, B., & Asam, R. (2015). Using Math Apps for Improving Student Learning: An Exploratory Study in an Inclusive Fourth Grade Classroom. Techtrends:Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning, 59(2), 32-39. doi: 10.1007/s11528-015-0837-y


Characteristics of an Effective Educator

Program Standards 1–5

1. ExpectationsThe teacher communicates high expectations for student learning.

2. InstructionThe teacher uses research-based instructional practices to meet the needs of all students.

3. Differentiation The teacher acquires and uses specific knowledge about students’ cultural, individual intellectual and social development and uses that knowledge to adjust their practice by employing strategies that advance student learning.

4. Content KnowledgeThe teacher uses content area knowledge, learning standards, appropriate pedagogy and resources to design and deliver curricula and instruction to impact student learning.

5. Learning Environment The teacher fosters and manages a safe and inclusive learning environment that takes into account: physical, emotional and intellectual well-being.

An effective teacher must be competent, dedicated, adaptable, and most importantly skilled at maintaining order in the classroom. Learning cannot take place in a classroom that is not productively managed and controlled. There are a great many techniques available for teachers to employ when maintaining and retaining structure in the class. A competent teacher must be a keen observer and amend his or her strategy for each new set of students and always be evaluating if adjustments need to be made. Once a teacher has created a stable environment conducive to learning they can use their competence, dedication, and adaptability to become a successful educator.

When a teacher is competent in and dedicated to their subject matter they can not only seamlessly answer student questions and create valuable lessons but they can also inspire student to want to know more about the material being taught. Educators who are passionate about what they are teaching create students who are more likely to be enthusiastic about learning. Another aspect of being competent and dedicated as an instructor is staying current with up-to-date teaching methods and available technology. Teachers today have more resources available than ever before and it is important for them to understand how to find and effectively use them to the benefit of their students. Teachers are now empowered to use software and hardware to individualize the training each students needs.

deskTo become particularly competent educators must be adaptable in the planning and execution of their instruction. Recent and ongoing research has caused administrators and instructors to understand the necessity of differentiating lessons for a variety of students (Marzano, 2007). Teachers must be able to create exercises on a single subject for several different learning styles in order to expertly educate each one of their students. Beyond differentiating direction, teachers must also be able to adapt on the spot when they see that an activity is ineffective. If a teacher can see that their plan is not having the desired effect and then modify it immediately they provide their students with the best chance of learning the subject matter. Educators who are competent and dedicated tend to be naturally adaptable and able to observe each of their students’ needs giving them the best chance at success.

Marzano, R. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching a Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. [Kindle DX version] Retrieved from Amazon.com
 The photo in this post has been unedited and was found on Flickr following creative commons licensing.