5 Innovative Ways to Differentiate Instruction as Witnessed During My Visit to the School of One by Lisa Nielsen

5 Innovative Ways to Differentiate Instruction as Witnessed During My Visit to the School of One by Lisa Nielsen

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.
1) 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

At 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.

Schools 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 profile.

2. Using Data to Differentiate Instruction

The 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 weakness.

3. Tagging Lessons to Allow for Differentiation

Lessons 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

At 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 could reserve.

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 community involved.

5. Differentiating Instruction by Connecting with a Variety of Learning Providers

Differentiating 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 http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com.