The Key to Differentiated Learning - Develop Student Experts

The Key to Differentiated Learning - Develop Student Experts

When you enter Dr. Lou Lahana's Tech Cafe at PS/MS 188, you aren't entering a classroom with a teacher preparing students for the future. Instead, you enter a space where social activists are working hard doing the real work of making the world a better place today addressing causes about which they are passionate. Lahana is a self-described passionate educator in search of technology to support talent development and social action in teens.Here is how he does that.

If students aren't sure about which cause they want to address, that's okay. Dr. Lahana has collected research and resources on numerous causes such as those below. The resources are always being updated by Lahana and the students.

Once the issue and tool are selected, students use them to select their own project and tools to make real-world change. But how does Lahana manage to conduct a class where students own and lead the learning? Where every student may be working on a different project, with a different tool?

The Key to Differentiation

Dr. Lahana's key to differentiation is the students. In Lahana's class it is students who rise up as the resident experts. Lahana's job is that of a conductor and environment creator. He points the students to the right resources and experts in coding, jewelry making, clamation, music and movie making and more. Then he ensures students have the environment conducive to learning. This means there is a sound studio to make music, a wood working area, sewing machines to create wearables, a place to bake clay for claymation, 3D printers and more.

[Keep Students On the Cutting Edge of Learning]

In short the students are empowered to own the learning and help one another to make the world a better place.Here are some of the projects students have addressed.

Gun Control

Students organized to march in support of those affected by the Parkland shooting and against the NRA. These 5th-8th grade students created compelling signs, marched, and listened to speeches. This movie which captured the event features a song performance by one of Lahana's students, Kayleen who used Soundtrap to create her song. Her track is available for free download at:

Building A Greenhouse

This student wanted to address animal cruelty in the food industry by creating a greenhouse that produces fruits and vegetables students at the school can eat rather than meat. He used a 3D printer to prototype the greenhouse. He used the woodworking tools to make planters for the greenhouse that currently stand in the school's schoolyard with plants.

Tolerance for Wearers of the Hijab

This student knew that other students didn't understand her and possibly misjudged her because she wore a hijab. She decided to make a movie inviting others to wear a hijab, explain how they felt, and she explained what it meant to her.

Deter Cigarette Use with a Smoke Detecting Shirt

This student wanted to address the dangers of smoking. He coded an Arduino to create a shirt that can detect smoke. When it does, it lights up with sayings to embarrass the smoker such as "stinky breath," "yellow teeth," or "lung cancer."

Your Turn

What do you think? Are there ideas here you could consider using with your students? Are you already doing this type of work? What excites you about it? What challenges do you see?

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.

Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997. She is a prolific writer best known for her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator. Nielsen is the author of several books and her writing has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Tech & Learning.  

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.