Cross posted at The Innovative Educator
Innovative educators often tout the ways they differentiate instruction
explaining how technology enables them to address the needs of diverse
learners and learning styles, yet, when I visit classrooms, I usually
see all students working on the same lessons using the same tools. For
example, educators talk about how they use Smartboards to differentiate
instruction for Tactile learners, podcasts for auditory learners,
digital media for visual learners, etc., but when I visit schools the
whole class is using a particular tool. While a teacher may incorporate
a number of different technologies, they are not differentiating
instruction based on the learner.I was relieved last year
when I began working with Renzulli Learning. After exploring the tool I
was convinced I had landed upon a resource that was a true differentiation machine.
Renzulli allows teachers to determine student’s learning styles,
interests, abilities, and expression styles and then group them based
on this information and find activities aligned to their profile. One
of the true powers of this tool is its ability to instantly group
students and assign lessons to them based on their profile. Sadly when
I visited schools using Renzulli I NEVER saw evidence of teachers using
the tool to differentiate instruction. Instead, Renzulli was used just
as the other tools. All students were assigned a particular project
that they searched for by using the tool as a kid-friendly Google and
instruction was not differentiated.
So, what is the problem?
We know technology can be used to differentiate instruction and
hundreds of schools in my city alone had a tool uniquely designed to
support this work. I think the problem is at least two-fold.
Educators don’t have a proper pedagogical foundation in what it means
to differentiate instruction…this needs to be addressed.
2) Educators have few opportunities to see instructional models where differentiated instruction is implemented…until now.
During my recent learning walk at the School of One,
I found differentiating instruction is not just a term, it is the way
the school does business and there are many lessons that can be learned
from visiting the school.
1. Using Renzulli Learning as a Differentiation Machine
the School of One each child completes a Renzulli Learning profile. The
profile is shared with the student’s teacher and family whose input
they also elicit. Each student’s unique profile indicates how they like
to learn (i.e. games, discussion, independent), their interests (i.e.
athletics, technology, performing arts), and their learning styles
(artistic, audio visual displays, technology). Students are then tagged
by their profile. When providing lessons (known as playlists selections
at the school) to their students, they are uniquely matched to the
students learning profile. Students are grouped for lessons by profile
which means that they may receive individual, small group, peer, or
whole group instruction based on matching students with similar
learning profiles. The Renzulli System has this functionality built in,
and you see it in action at the School of One.
with out the Renzulli Learning System can implement this type of
functionality by using a digital survey tool such as SurveyMonkey or
Google forms to students to determine students learning profiles and
match students to each other and activities that reflect their learning
2. Using Data to Differentiate Instruction
School of One compiles the various data sets on each student (i.e.
standardized tests, interim, and ongoing assessments) to design
instruction directly aligned to the students need based on performance
indicators. This data is used to create a unique learning needs
assessment profile for each student outlining areas of strength and
3. Tagging Lessons to Allow for Differentiation
are compiled that are aligned to each performance indicators and then
tagged to various learning profile selections so they can be matched to
learners in need and learning profile. In another words lessons are
tagged not only by the performance indicator they are aligned to, but
also, by learning profile attributes such as expression style,
interest, learning style. This is done by placing lessons in a shared
space where teachers can access them. Schools can used a shared drive
or a wiki to do this, but what would be even better is if organizations
(i.e. Curriki) with large lesson banks did this and provided this
service free for educators. Renzulli does this in part, but you must
pay for the service.
4. Using Space to Support Differentiated Instruction
the School of One they are thinking differently about the use of space
and have converted the school library into a flexible learning center.
Teachers can do the same within their classrooms, and by collaborating
with other educators in the school. The learning center has areas for
students to work independently, with peers, in small groups, and as a
whole group. At any given time there are many learning scenarios
occurring based on the students unique learning profile and needs.
Classrooms can be designed differently to account for such flexible
grouping and collaboration with others in the school such as the
librarian, art teacher, music teacher, etc. can also be incorporated so
that there are individual, peer, and small group areas that teachers
I found this great tool courtesy of a Tweet from @altteacher. "Design your classroom using this cool classroom setup tool.
Teachers may want to consider bringing students into the conversation
and letting teams of them design the classroom for optimum learning.
This could be turned into a contest and the team with the winning
design gets to setup the class. Teachers might even want to get the
5. Differentiating Instruction by Connecting with a Variety of Learning Providers
instruction means saying goodbye to a one-size-fits (or provides
success for) all curriculum. In a differentiated model lessons are
aligned specifically to data, standards, performance indicators and
student learning profiles. This can take on a variety forms. At the
School of One there are opportunities such as educational games, online
coursework from providers like Apex and Compass Learning,
teacher-created lessons, materials from various textbook providers,
individual and peer tutoring from expert high school students and
online tutors, and more. An innovative idea would also be to add
student-created materials to this list. This can be a terrific way for
students to convey mastery…once they learn something they create a
game, video, lesson, etc. to teach others.
My learning walk at the School of One
provided a refreshing opportunity to see a school put many promising
practices in place to result in a uniquely differentiated experience
for each child.
Lisa Nielsen serves as a Technology Innovation Manager for the New York
City Department of Education (NYC DOE) overseeing the creation and
implementation of innovative technology and instruction. She has spent more than a decade working in
various capacities in educational innovation at the NYC DOE and Teachers
College, Columbia University including as manager of instructional technology
professional development, literacy and instructional technology coach, teacher,
librarian, and staff developer. Ms. Nielsen
is a Google Certified Teacher, International Edublogger, and creator of The
Innovative Educator social network, blog, and wiki all of which can be found at