Personalizing and Differentiating Teaching with Playlists

ISTE Educator Standard 5a calls for teachers to “Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.” When considering which tool might best serve this purpose, my mind immediately went to Google Apps for Education. GAfE offers many features that support personalized learning such as differentiation by assignment in Google Classroom,  custom redirection based on responses in Google Forms, and utilizing the Google Classroom roster to easily BCC students who need individual attention. Not to mention the host of helpful Chrome extensions like Read&Write for text-to-speech capabilities,  Grammarly for built-in spell checking, and WolframAlpha for science and math help.

For this week’s inquiry, I initially considered spending time exploring HyperDocs which is a tool I have previously dabbled in. My students really liked the creative and digital presentation. Yet I was challenged by my professors to consider whether or not a HyperDoc is really just a glorified worksheet. I happened to be exploring one of my favorite educational blogs, Cult of Pedagogy, when I came across a post featuring a tool that was engaging like a HyperDoc, but had more potential for personalization, independence, and differentiation. That tool is called a Learning Playlist and the idea is the brainchild of teacher Tracy Enos. Jennifer Gonzalez interviews Enos and shares examples of what Learning Playlist look like in her post, “Using Playlists to Differentiate Instruction.”

Figure 1: Playlist for Argument Writing by Tracy Enos, full Google Doc available here

What is a Learning Playlist?

The most basic description of a Learning Playlist is “an individualized digital assignment chart that students work through at their own pace” (Gonzalez, 2016). Tracy Enos developed the idea for Learning Playlists when she grew frustrated with trying to meet all students’ needs with a single lesson. She’s not alone in rejecting the one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, “[N]early 50% of the students in today’s classrooms have some form of learning diversity that impacts how they learn best” (, 2016).  This diversity includes differences in background, history, culture, linguistics, and socioeconomic status (, 2016). Given these needs, it’s no wonder teachers are turning to technology to help meet students’ individual needs. Playlists are one tool that can foster independence, allow for choice, and differentiate based on need. Playlists also take the responsibility for learning and place it in the hands of students.

How is a Learning Playlist created?

Consider the many elements that go into creating a successful unit plan in any content area. There will be guiding questions, lessons, content to review, formative assessments, discussions, and perhaps articles or film clips. In a traditional classroom model, all of that learning takes place at the same time. Each student reads the same short story at the same pace. One day is dedicated to completing one set of questions. Test day is the same for everyone, regardless of need. This model typically meets the needs of those students in the middle of the spectrum while leaving some students struggling to catch up and others bored because they’ve finished early. Meanwhile all students have a low degree of choice and ownership. It’s passive learning.

What if you took the same essential elements of your unit plan and instead digitized them? Lessons could be bookmarked for review whether through a Slideshow, Screencast, or other tool. Formative assessment could occur through ActivelyLearn, EdPuzzle, or Google Forms. Discussions can still be had via Padlet, Google Groups, or Slack. Students could work at their own pace, independently. With this newfound independence, your time is freed to assist struggling learners or to conference individually with students.

It’s a pretty revolutionary way to consider teaching. Yet you can still have deadlines and require students to check-in daily or weekly. Learning can be reflected on via whole group discussion days. (I’m an enormous fan of Socratic Seminars.) Students can still work in groups to meet the learning goals. You can even opt for a blended model where some of the lessons are given whole-group, and then students work individually on a Playlist based on their needs.

How can Learning Playlists support independent learning?

Within the Playlist format, there is plenty of room to support independence and choice. Though Enos doesn’t mention the addition of student choice, I can easily see how it can be incorporated into Playlists.

  • Choice of content: have students choose their own short story to apply plot skills to or Civil War battle to research and describe.
  • Choice of task: have students choose which tool they want to use to ‘show they know;’ perhaps an Explain Everything Screencast to demonstrate the steps of an algebra problem, or using Storyboard That to create a digital story about rock cycles.
  • Choice of question: have students come up with their own essential question and use a Playlist to guide them through the inquiry model.

How can Learning Playlists support differentiation?

Differentiation within Playlists can be accomplished without drawing attention to those students who need extra help. Given the ability to individually assign work within Google Classroom, no student knows they have a different version. Another option is to provide links to the leveled Playlists and let students self-select.

  • Pacing: Students can replay or accelerate a lesson as needed.
  • Leveling: For each Playlist, you can create a Level 1, 2, and 3 Doc/Slide to better meet student needs.
  • Personal Support: Enos leaves several tasks on her students’ Playlist ‘to be determined.’ She then goes back and adds extra resources or practices as needed based on the work students submit.

Sources (2016). The Growing Diversity in Today’s Classroom. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 May 2018].

Gonzalez, J. (2016). Using Playlists to Differentiate Instruction. [online] Cult of Pedagogy. Available at: [Accessed 1 May 2018].

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