Category Archives: Differentiation

Differentiating Professional Development for Teachers

I’ve been an Instructional Technology TOSA for 3 years. I love teaching teachers and sharing my passion for technology in the classroom with others. What I haven’t been fond of, is trying to find the right way to offer PD. We’ve tried the district wide invites to trainings after school and gotten 3 people to show up, we’ve done building level training by teacher request and gotten 3-5 people, we’ve modeled in classrooms, we’ve sent out newsletters, made videos, trained select teachers in the buildings, created building leaders, worked with year long cohorts to develop human capacity, etc. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve made huge strides and seem to narrowing in on the things that work best for us and we continue to try to adapt and make changes to meet our teachers needs but I’m not sure we’ve hit on the answers to a few critical questions. In light of the new ESSA definition of professional development, it’s time to take a new look at answering these questions:

  1. How do we scaffold learning for teachers? – I like the idea of professional development being broken down into three phases: Knowing, Doing and Experiencing. The Knowing is understanding the why of using a tool, a instructional  strategy or process. It gets to purpose and gets teachers excited about how something can help their students or change their teaching. The Doing is the skill building, what skills does a teacher need to do that project with their students or use that strategy? If they are excited enough about the why, the hope is that there will be some motivation to learn the skills needed to successfully implement and that they’ll seek out some of that learning if you make it available to them. The Experiencing is the elusive transferability of those skills to other projects and building the confidence and automaticity with a tool or skill that will make it easier to take a risk with other tech learning.
  2. How to we make it relevant for teachers? – Large group tech trainings are almost destined for frustration on the part of some participants. Either you are moving too fast or too slow for someone and half of them know what you are covering already and are waiting for something new. How do we keep it relevant and personalized  for all learners in a training without having to do everything one-on-one.
  3. How do we make it hands on? – I think part of this is making sure that our teachers are experiencing rich, tech infused PD… as a student. They need that perspective and they need to see trainers model what it can look like to use technology to teach with all the strategies they know are best practice as well as model dealing with the occasional troubleshooting issue. We can’t have more “sit and get” sessions to teach blended learning. It just doesn’t make sense.
  4. How do we make the learning sustainable over time? I run into teachers at grade levels between 3rd and 9th grade who feel that they have to teach Powerpoint because the students “don’t know how to do it”. I’d argue that the older students probably do and just need a reminder or their friends will help them figure it out. The bigger issue is how do we help students revisit skills regularly enough that things like Powerpoint are just tools that a student pulls out of their pocket when the teacher gives them a choice of how they want to present their learning. And how do we do the same thing for teachers with our PD so that they aren’t “relearning” a tool every time they need to use it.

There is a model called H.A.C.K. Model of Innovative Instruction out of the Doceo Center  of Northwest Nazarene University. They’ve created a system for teaching using something similar to the SAMR model that stretches the Professional Development for teachers out over time and pushes them to use the same tools to provide more and more choice and sophistication for students. The short version is that they would teach teachers how to use one tool in their classroom until they were comfortable with it and then move onto another. Once they had two or three under their belt, they’d start learning to teach students to make choices between the right tools for the job and apply them to new projects. Eventually, they’d lead them to teaching the students to use the same tools to mix, remix or create their own projects. The tools don’t necessarily change a whole lot through the year but the way they are used might become more sophisticated. If we could start doing something like that with teachers and teaching them some core technology skills and tools appropriate for their grade level, maybe we could continue to encourage them to use those same tools in new ways. It’s something to think about.

Community Engagement Project – Differentiating Instruction for Teachers

The conclusion I came to after the thinking I’ve done this quarter in my Digital Education Leadership Program is that we have to find a way to start looking at how we can differentiate professional learning opportunities for teachers. I’ll acknowledge that there are differences between K-12 students and Adult Learners, although, as I posted in a previous blog post (Developing Human Capacity in Teacher Leaders) the differences aren’t as wide as you’d think. They still need choice, they would rather do than listen, they don’t want to waste their time learning something they already know or that doesn’t apply to them and they want to talk to each other, collaborate, and engage with the learning in different ways.

I choose to submit my workshop proposal (Differentiating Professional Development for Teachers)  to NCCE 2018 because it’s local and I’ve presented before. Talking to my colleagues at that conference has become part of my professional development for the year and I’d like to get more involved. I chose a 2 hour workshop model because I want to model what I’m suggesting about differentiated Professional Development. I’d like the chance for my participants to experience that kind of PD as a “student”.

I’m using Canvas because my district is using it and the “how to” videos I’m hoping to host in, which is a new video learning platform our district is beginning to use to provide on demand training for a variety of common software tools as well as custom content we’ll create for our own uses.

The topic I chose to model with is a PD around the topic of Video/Web Conferencing. I chose it because it’s applicable across grade levels and content areas. I’ll start with a discussion around the new ESSA definition of professional development. There will be lots of opportunities built in for interaction by the participants because I’m curious if their understandings of the legislation are different than my interpretation.

When we are ready to model differentiated PD the participants will have the chance to take a quick quiz which will guide them one of three pages in the Canvas course I created. The beginning group will watch some videos about the basics of video/web conferencing and how to set them up. The second group will have had some previous experience or knowledge and will spend their time with me talking more about their experiences, how to prepare students for a successful conference and they will work together to come up with some video conference ideas. The third group will hopefully have done a video/web conference before and will participate an independent group to discuss how to use video/web conferencing to redefine projects and lessons, how to get students more involved in planning and hosting them and will also work on planning some lesson ideas to share.

All the groups will be actively contributing to a shared doc where they can leave their contact information if they want to work together after the workshop to collaborate with teachers in other districts to actually put some of their ideas into practice. The ideas will also be there to look at later.

As an added bonus, we’ve been talking a lot this quarter about accessibility. I’m putting a module at the end of the course that will contain some resources for creating accessible content. It’s under construction but I did create this first video that is closed captioned.

I’m excited about the possibilities although I suspect it will a lot of work at first as I’m figuring out how to make this a reality for PD in my own district. I’m hoping that as the conference rolls around in February I’ll have a much better feel for how this actually will work and can share some of the things I learned with the workshop participants.

Using Universal Design to Differentiate Instruction

"Universal Design for Learning" by Giulia Forsythe CC 2.0

“Universal Design for Learning” by Giulia Forsythe CC 2.0

As part of my recent exploration of peer coaching, I have recently explored what it means to peer coach and what 21st century learning looks like in the classroom. Now, my attention has progressed to think about lesson improvement within the peer coaching process. As previously discussed, effective learning challenges students to shift from simple consumers of information, to producers of knowledge in the real-world (Foltos, 2013). For many, this type of learning is not easily integrated into daily teaching (Foltos, 2013). What steps are necessary to co-plan an effective lesson plan?

Creating a Task

Foltos (2013) wrote that first you need to create a task that is complex and real-world. It shouldn’t be too simple or too easily solved (Foltos, 2013). While this concept sounds good, it can be difficult to translate into a learning activity that is both relatable and digestible for students. Foltos (2013) suggested that real-world problems presented are aligned with student interest and that requirements can be easily defined and understood by students.

Defining Standards

Next, it is important to define the standards being focused on. There can be multiple categories of standards to consider: curriculum standards like those found in the Common Core, 21st century standards such as those with the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and technology standards like the ISTE Student Standards.

Crafting Student Directions & Assessments

From here, the learning context can be defined. This might be more easily understood as a “series of carefully sequenced learning activities” (Foltos, 2013, p. 125). It is, of course, important to determine how the learning activities correlate with the standards (Foltos, 2013). Finally, student directions can be crafted, assessments can be created, and resources can be identified, all through a process of receiving and sharing feedback.


One of my collaborating partner’s current focuses is differentiation. As such, I thought it relevant to align this week’s guiding questions about co-planning lessons to questions of differentiation. Differentiation is easily discussed but not as readily implemented into the classroom. It remains a great theoretical concept that is difficult to implement on a daily basis, given time constraints and curricular demands.

What protocols can be used to collaboratively design differentiated instruction effectively?

The Importance of Peer Coaching

Latz et al. (2008) reaffirmed that one way to become better at planning with differentiation is to engage in peer coaching. Their study, “Peer coaching to improve classroom differentiation: Perspectives from Project CLUE,” sought to determine if engaging in peer coaching relationships had an affect on the ability to differentiate instruction effectively (Latz et al., 2008). The result was that it is an important aspect of implementing differentiation, specifically because it is collaborative, not evaluative (Latz et al, 2008). Foltos (2013) echoed this sentiment by writing that peer coaching’s focus on feedback, allows collaborators to improve student learning. 

What is it?

Our students face many different daily challenges. Varied reading levels, learning disabilities, and background knowledge are some of the many obstacles students work through (Meo, 2008). Meo (2008) assessed that the expectation and desire to meet the needs of all of these individual students is daunting and, sometimes, not entirely possible. It is often assumed that the teacher’s role in practicing differentiation is to both adapt current curriculum and to also add to it to meet the individual needs of students (Meo, 2008). She asserted that “Educators do not seem to question whether the burden of adaptation should fall on the curriculum itself—that the curriculum, and not the students labeled “special,” is what needs fixing” (Meo, 2008, p. 21). We might want to consider the fact that intrinsic issues with the curriculum design itself may be to inhibiting differentiation. Alternatively, curriculum designed for diverse learning opportunities creates opportunities for it (Meo, 2008). As part of the 2nd edition of her book, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, Tomlinson (2015) created a helpful infographic to depict what differentiation IS and IS NOT below.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 5.17.36 PM

Used with permission from Carol Tomlinson, author of The Differentiated Classroom, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 5.17.43 PM

Used with permission from Carol Tomlinson, author of The Differentiated Classroom, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from

Universal Design

Meo (2008) looked at how the universal design for learning framework can allow all students from all levels and backgrounds to succeed, as opposed to targeting only certain students for additive or adaptive support. She continued that placing students in categories based upon accommodation needs (general education, IEP, 504, ELL, etc.) can inaccurately and unfairly depict the wider diversity of student learners in a classroom (Meo, 2008). As a result, if curriculum is designed to foster access for all learners, all students can benefit (Meo, 2008).

So, what is universal design? The term didn’t get its start in education in fact. King-Sears (2009) explained that the term was coined to define non-discriminatory architectural and product design. As a result of these design principles, buildings and homes would not require adaptations or adjustments for those with special needs. Rather, the building would be originally designed to function for all, often including ramps or wide doorways (King-Sears, 2008). King-Sears (2008) related this to education by stating that when instruction is designed for all students, special accommodations required for certain targeted students can simply occur more organically.

What does this look like? There are seven principles of universal design originally crafted for building and product design (Connell et al., 1997).

King-Sears (2008) identified how these universal design principles align with education.

Flexibility in use…

is achieved through learning activities that allow for a spectrum of interest and ability.

Equitable use…

recognizes pedagogical practice allows all students to access the learning.

Perceptible information…

means that curriculum in presented in a variety of methods and styles.

Tolerance for error…

is the practice of guiding students to make multiple attempts in their learning while providing feedback along the way.

Simple and intuitive…

instruction recognizes content delivery that isn’t confusing or lacking audience consideration.

Low physical effort…

means that materials of all kinds are easy to use.

Size and Space for approach and use…

recognizes that content is accessible and visual to all those in room no matter where they are seated.

While rooted in a different field, these universal principles provide a system in which access and flexibility benefits everyone on a spectrum, not only specific individuals (Meo, 2008). Before implementing these principles, it is important to set goals by identifying what one wants students to learn and keeping this consistent to ensure that high quality instruction is available to all learners (Meo, 2008). Then, it is important to understand the current state of one’s classroom, and recognize that the entire classroom has diverse needs (Meo, 2008). While this might be a shift in thinking, it prevents too much of a focus on only specific student needs. What barriers might exist in the classroom? What background knowledge are students arriving with? Finally, the principles of universal design can be considered and implemented. It is important to remember that there is never one way to teach all students effectively (Meo, 2008). So, what is the solution? According to Meo (2008) it is helpful in any differentiated classroom to “provide multiple representations and multiple formats for learning new ideas and concepts” (Meo, 2008, p. 26). The more student choice that is offered in activities, in assessments, and in the opportunity to learn and demonstrate understanding, the better (Meo, 2008). Finally, part of increased student choice is increased student involvement. Latz et al. (2008) argued that student involvement is one of the most important aspects of differentiated instruction. Active, rather than passive, learners are better able to learn at higher levels, no matter the starting point (Latz et al, 2008).



Connell. B. R., Jones. M., Mace, R., Mueller,J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., Sanford, J., Steinfeld, E., Story, M., & Vanderheiden, G. (1997). Principles of universal design. Raleigh: North Carolina Stale University, Center for Universal Design. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

King-Sears, M. (2009). Universal Design for Learning: Technology and Pedagogy. Learning Disability Quarterly, 32(4), 199-201.

Latz, A. O., Speirs Neumeister, K. L., Adams, C. M., & Pierce, R. L. (2008). Peer coaching to improve classroom differentiation: Perspectives from Project CLUE. Roeper Review, 31(1), 27-39.

Meo, G. (2008). Curriculum Planning for All Learners: Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to a High School Reading Comprehension Program. Preventing School Failure, 52(2), 21-30. Retrieved from