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.


Using Backward Design to Create Dynamic Lessons

Program Standard 4

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

4.4 Element – Designing Coherent Instruction in the area of Lesson and Unit Structure

4.4 Example of Proficient – The lesson or unit has a clearly defined structure around which activities are organized. Progression of activities is even, with reasonable time allocations.

Effective teaching requires a dedication to thoughtful planning to ensure that lessons are dynamic and relevant. According to Marzano (2007), “The decisions teachers make about the focus of units of instruction, the lessons within those units, and the segments within each lesson provide the infrastructure for effective or ineffective teaching” (Chapter 10, Section 2, para. 4). He also argues that flexibility is a key factor for student success as it is necessary to amend lessons based on student comprehension. It is important for all students to receive the individual scaffolding they need in order to thrive academically. It is also essential for teachers to anticipate difficulties or misconceptions that students may face when learning a subject so that they can create contingencies. The more prepared that an educator is when teaching a lesson the better the outcomes stand to be. Marzano (2007) argues, “Experienced teachers were better able to anticipate situations that were likely to be encountered and were able to generate contingency plans based on those possibilities” (Chapter 10, Section 2, para. 5). Although veteran educators have past experiences to help inform their practice, new teachers can also take the time to consciously prepare for multiple scenarios. Thoughtful planning also helps teachers ensure that lessons progress in a logical manner and that all learning outcomes are meaningfully addressed.


In order to achieve a cohesive lesson, Wiggins and McTighe (2005) suggest starting with the desired results based on standards and work backward to then create materials and activities around that end goal (p. 8). They argue that when teachers do this they are able to see assessments as part of the learning process and use them formatively throughout the unit instead of just as a summative check of knowledge at the end (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 8). This style allows teachers to use informal comprehension checks to adapt lessons and provide students with the proper support to succeed. When teachers plan lessons in this manner it becomes easier to center them around standards and learning targets instead of having to try to integrate them as an afterthought. Many new teachers often first think of fun activities or rely heavily on textbooks to create lessons without thinking about how standards will fit into them. It becomes easy to get attached to an idea about how fun or exciting an activity could be without looking at the importance of how it will fit into the learning goals. This approach pushes teachers to use backward design to ensure that each lesson is impactful and situated within the larger context of a unit. It also enables teachers to focus on the information that needs to be taught and the manner which is most conducive to the subject matter. Once the standards have been identified and the learning target is established, it becomes easier to break down the learning into manageable segments and create formative assessments to check and see if students are progressing through the material. Ultimately effective lessons are well sequenced and thoughtfully planned and successful teachers are able to adapt as circumstances arise.

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
Wiggins, G.P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
The photo in this post has been unedited and was found on the website Educational Technology.

Providing Equitable Education To All Students

Program Standard 5

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

5.1 Element – Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport

5.1 Example of Proficient – Teacher-student interactions are friendly and demonstrate general caring and respect. Such interactions are appropriate to the age and cultures of the students. Students exhibit respect for the teacher.


There is a debate in this country about whether or not to provide certain students on a 504 plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP) with special accommodations. Those who argue against it say that it leaves students ill-prepared for independent living, that it allows students to graduate without doing much work, and that it is unfair to other students who are required to complete their assignments (Evans, 2008, pp. 324-325). However, an appropriate accommodation does not do anything more than create an equitable environment for all students. According to Byrnes, “An accommodation is an adjustment to an activity or setting that removes a barrier presented by a disability so a person can have access equal to that of a person without a disability. An accommodation does not guarantee success or a specific level of performance. Appropriate accommodations provide the opportunity for a person with a disability to participate equitably in a situation or activity” (Evans, 2008, p. 317).

An accommodation does not allow students to go through school without any effort but merely removes obstacles that would leave certain students far behind their peers academically. Providing accommodations to students also does not make them less prepared for the real world because in this country it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on their disability. 504 plans ensure that future employers cannot overlook a candidate based on their disability and also requires them to provide accommodations for that employee. However, it is important that students needing accommodations be given the proper support so that the right measures are taken in each case. Far too often the same accommodations are made for several students with a wide range of abilities. Byrnes states, “Disabilities differ in individuals. Accommodations must be considered for each individual, not by disability category. The point is to understand the disability and the learning situation and then determine if these interact to pose a barrier to equal access” (Evans, 2008, p. 319). It is important that teachers and other professionals treat each student individually so that the best solution can be found.

Evans, D. L. (2008). Taking sides: Clashing views in teaching and educational practice. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.
The photo in this post has been unedited and was found on Flickr following creative commons licensing.

Encouraging Self-Directed Learning In Students Through Technology

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 2

2. Design and develop digital age learning experiences and assessments Teachers design, develop, and evaluate authentic learning experiences and assessments incorporating contemporary tools and resources to maximize content learning in context and to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes identified in the Standards.

b. Develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities and become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress.

Program Standard 6

6. Assessment – The teacher uses multiple data elements (both formative and summative) to plan, inform and adjust instruction and evaluate student learning.

6.2 Element – Designing Student Assessments with an Emphasis on Formative Assessment

6.2 Example of Proficient – Teacher has a well-developed strategy to using formative assessment and has designed particular approaches to be used.

One of the main obstacles that teachers face in the classroom is lack of student enthusiasm to learn the content being presented. Research has shown that there are a few key elements needed to provoke intrinsic motivation in students. Learners need to feel that they have self-efficacy (belief of one’s competency), control beliefs (belief in one’s ability to influence outcomes), and task value (comprehension of the reason for doing a task) in order to sustain interest in their studies (Dean, Hubbell, Pitler, & Stone, 2012, Chapter 2, para. 2). While these learning qualities are well known by many educators it remains difficult to find creative ways to imbue students with them. For EDTC 6433 (Teaching with Technology) I researched how the second ISTE standard would influence my teaching by researching how technology could be used to promote elementary age students to take ownership of their education by setting their own learning goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress. What I discovered is that technology can be a great tool for addressing the three aspects of intrinsic motivation that can influence student engagement and promote self-directed learning. The goal as a teacher is not just to help students comprehend concepts and gain new knowledge but also to encourage them to pursue their own independent inquiry.

Self-directed learning can improve students’ sense of self-efficacy by helping them understand the process of learning and their own part within it. Abrami, Venkatesh, Meyer, and Wade (2013) asserted, “Self-regulated learners are individuals who are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning” (p. 1188). This kind of active involvement in the learning process that invokes students to set their own goals, research those objectives, and then reflect on their progress can greatly enhance their confidence in their own abilities. Researchers conducted a study to determine if the use of electronic portfolios could improve student achievement by helping them engage in self-directed learning. What the researchers found is that the students using electronic portfolio software outperformed their peers in the control group in not only their competence of subject matter knowledge but also in the their ability to set goals and actively engage in learning (Abrami, Venkatesh, Meyer, & Wade, 2013, pp. 1198-99). However, some of the gains seen could have also been achieved if the students used a physical portfolio to engage in self-directed learning but the process would not have been as seamless or interactive. While the researchers mainly established that self-directed learning is a key element for student success, they also demonstrated that electronic portfolios are superior to physical ones because of their interactive nature. The students in this study were able to easily share documents and artifacts with their peers and teachers in order to receive feedback on their projects in a much more efficient manner.

Receiving swift feedback from peers and teachers can also greatly influence students control beliefs by allowing them to actively participate in the outcomes of their learning projects. When students are able to quickly determine if their approach is effective they have more control over adjusting that plan to better achieve their goals. Any kind of technology that allows students to easily share their work and receive prompt feedback will help with their intrinsic motivation. For example, another student in EDTC 6433 shared the website www.edmodo.com which helps students and teachers create online learning communities that allow for this kind of active collaboration from students. While this website is not structured exactly the same as the electronic portfolio software the aforementioned researchers studied, it provides students with many of the same opportunities and may actually be more useful. Although the electronic portfolio software used in the study was easy to navigate and effective at directing students to set goals and assess their learning it also required teachers and students to download it to their computers which made it less accessible. Edmodo has the benefit of being a collaborative website that teachers and students can access from anywhere they have an internet connection. Students can pose questions and share research in an interactive platform that invites peer-to-peer engagement. It also provides teachers with an easy and efficient way to track student progress and offer meaningful advice which can encourage self-reflection in students. Both of these resources can benefit students by giving them more feedback to help in the personal assessment stage of self-directed learning.

While this kind of information sharing and interactive learning provides students with more control over their own learning, it also presents them with a sense of task value. Many students become disengaged from learning because they cannot see the outcome or purpose of it. When students create projects with the objective of sharing them with peers it can provide them with a reason to be more invested in their research and the development of their project. Websites like Edmodo are made just for this kind of student interaction. Teachers could also use any blog hosting website to achieve a similar goal and many have successfully. Recently there has been a hotly debated trend in education where teachers are forgoing the classic term paper and instead having students write several blog posts over the course of the term. Richtel (2012) poses the question “Why not replace a staid writing exercise with a medium that gives the writer the immediacy of an audience, a feeling of relevancy, instant feedback from classmates or readers, and a practical connection to contemporary communications?” (para. 6). While a general consensus for the replacement of traditional research papers with blog posts may never be reached, the benefit of this type of collective learning for younger students is hard to refute. It can be difficult to get young children to want to self-direct their learning but offering students a platform to display knowledge they have gained provides them with the incentive to actually want to learn new subject matter. When students are able to create information that they can share with their classmates and even other students around the world their desire to engage in learning can be greatly increased. One teacher recognized this fact and used Edmodo to have her students post their experience on a field trip to the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA. Her students invited other classes from around the country to join their online group on Edmodo enabling them to engage with history in a more tangible manner (Carroll, 2012). The students who took the field trip were able to enrich the study of other learners while also deepening their own experience by providing them with a greater sense of task value.

Students who believe in their own competency, understand their own capacity to influence outcomes, and recognize the reason for doing a task will inevitably gain more from their education because they will be more engaged with it. Technology has the capacity to offer educators a myriad of different ways to supplement their teaching and assist them in demonstrating to students the benefit of self-directed learning. With the help of websites and software I plan on showing students the importance of setting their own goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress. As a future teacher, I plan on integrating technology in a meaningful way whenever possible and electronic portfolios and online communities are an interesting way to help students achieve. Self-directed learning becomes much more stimulating when students can interact with each other and easily obtain feedback on their progress.

Abrami, P. C., Venkatesh, V., Meyer, E. J., & Wade, C. A. (2013). Using electronic portfolios to foster literacy and self-regulated learning skills in elementary students. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 105(4), 1188-1209. doi:10.1037/a0032448
Carroll, N. (2012). “Shared” Field Trip Using Edmodo. Teaching is Elementary. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://teachingiselementary.blogspot.com/2012/11/shared-field-trip-using-edmodo.html
Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (2nd ed.). Denver, CO: McRel [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Richtel, M. (2012). Blogs vs. Term Papers. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/muscling-in-on-the-term-paper-tradition.html?_r=0

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