Differentiation with Remote Learning

By Lisa Westman.

Lisa Westman is a writer, speaker, and consultant who works with school systems internationally to implement student-driven differentiation, standards-based grading, and instructional-coaching programs. She has over 16 years of experience as an instructional coach specializing in differentiation, and as a teacher of gifted education, English Language Arts, and social studies. She is the author of Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin) and is a frequent opinion contributor for publications including Education Week, Education Week Teacher, and edutopia. Connect with Lisa via her website or on Twitter: @lisa_westman.

Quality differentiation focuses on learning rather than doing. COVID-19 forced educators to quickly assemble different kinds of learning opportunities for students. Because of the pressure to produce in such a short time frame, the default has been to give students something to do.


How do I meet the needs of all students and group them appropriately?

During this time of pervasive school closures, the most important thing to focus on is how students are feeling. Are they lonely? Sad? Scared? Happy to be at home? After gaining insight into how our students are feeling, we can determine which academic objectives (derived from grade-level standards) activities and groupings are most appropriate for students. For instance, if two students share they are “lonely” or “bored” you may choose to pair those students together and select a text or engage that group of students in an interactive learning opportunity that will allow those students to have additional interaction while you are planning the next day’s instruction or meeting with another group.

Use a combination of digital and digital tools to have as much interpersonal communication with students as possible. Aim to personally connect with each of your students in some capacity at least twice a week using remote conferring and meet with students as a whole group, in small groups, and 1-1 with individual students. Video is also an incredible teaching tool that can be used to both instruct and assess students. Use a combination of video conferring, live-stream lessons and video recordings of lessons to deliver instruction, and consider having students use video recording to demonstrate their understanding of concepts and skills. The graphic below outlines several ways video can be used in virtual and/or typical classroom settings:

How do I track student progress?

Differentiation focuses on what students learn rather than what students do. The objective is to keep students engaged and give them appropriate choices (for their learning environment) and interests, not to keep them busy. As Carol Ann Tomlinson says, “formative assessment is the lifeblood of differentiation”, and this remains the same in a virtual learning environment, we may just need to shift our understanding of what formative assessment is and how we share this data with students. Instead of focusing on grades, focus on giving meaningful feedback in written and verbal form. All good assessment assesses where students are in relationship to their learning goals and offer them meaningful feedback.

A focus on feedback is critical and one way to differentiate is to give students the level of feedback that is appropriate for where they are in their learning progression as indicated in the graphic below:

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