Practical differentiation: Think pot luck, not dinner party

What if you and your friends only saw one another when someone had the time, energy and resources to throw the perfect Martha-Stewart dinner party?

Obviously, you wouldn’t see one another that often. So you’ve come up with a compromise: the potluck dinner. The benefits are many. Not only do you get to enjoy your friends’ company without the stress, but your guests get to try out that new recipe and sample a variety of dishes from other cooks.

To make differentiated learning feasible in the classroom, a similar mental shift may be needed. Differentiation is overwhelming when teachers feel they have to do everything themselves, but it becomes more manageable when students are included in the process.

Mike Anderson, author of Choosing to Learn, Learning to Choose, proposes that educators shift some of the responsibility for differentiation to the student by routinely providing learning choices.

In a recent webinar, Give Students the Power to ‘Self-differentiate’ with Learning Choices, Mike says that when students make their own learning choices, they are essentially self-differentiating. Many teachers already give students the choice to read the kind of book that interests them. Students need more learning choices, both to engage and impassion them and also to differentiate learning so it is appropriately challenging for them, Mike says.

When teachers take all the responsibility for differentiated learning, they can only guess at the “sweet spot” of learning, the zone of proximal development where learning is challenging without being too frustrating. When students make their own learning choices, they naturally seek out that zone.

Sharing control and responsibility with students has an added perk for teachers besides making differentiation more manageable: It makes teaching more fun, Mike says.

As you develop your strategy to differentiate instruction, consider the role that student choice might play in pulling it all together for both you and your learners.


Give Students the Power to ‘Self-differentiate’ with Learning Choices




The secret of quality is love

love handsA physician and founder of the study of quality in health care, Avedis Donabedianwas a towering figure in the field. He developed what is known as Donabedian’s triad, which states that quality can be measured by looking at outcomes, processes and structures (how the work was organized).

In 2000, shortly before he died, Avedis Donabedian was asked for his final thoughts on quality.

“What this hard-nosed scientist answered is shocking at first, then somehow seems obvious,” writes Robert Wachter in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers.

“The secret of quality is love.”

The simplicity and truth of this statement often gets lost in the nitty-gritty details of measuring quality in education. Class size, graduation rates, student test scores, teacher evaluations and class observations,  per-pupil spending, curriculum, percentage of students who further their education after high school, etc are just so many pieces of the puzzle depending on who is defining the goals and purpose of education.

In both health care and education, a deep measurement fatigue has set in.  Yes, we want everyone, whether rich or poor, to get quality health care and a quality education.  Our sense of fairness drives both quality movements. But, in the fury to measure quality there’s a sense that we are detracting from the relationship between teacher and student and between doctor and patient, which is essential to quality.

Now, instead of talking with the patient at hospital discharge, the doctor is on the computer checking off boxes listing the quality indicators du jour. In the classroom, teachers feel they have to spend most of their time preparing students for standardized tests instead of exploring ideas with them or nurturing their creativity.

Measurement is not going away.  It is too important.  But Wachter says maybe it’s time to take a breather and scale back until our understanding of measures matures. When we place too many nonessential demands on physicians and teachers (e.g. paperwork) there’s less time and opportunity for the love to flow.

“Our businesslike efforts to measure and improve quality are now blocking the altruism, indeed the love, that motivates people to enter the helping professions,” Wachter writes. “While we’re figuring out how to get better, we need to tread more lightly in assessing the work of the professionals who practice in our most human and sacred fields.”


Be a humble warrior this year

Be a humble warrior this yearHumble Warrior is unlike other warrior poses in yoga.  In Humble Warrior,  you do not rise proud and tall, confident in your invincible strength.  You do not look boldly ahead inviting any and every challenge to your resolve.

In Humble Warrior, a pose that demands as much focus and strength as other warrior postures,  you bow deeply, your gaze lowered to the ground.  You do not look outside yourself for worthy challenges but focus deeply within because you know that  your biggest adversary is yourself.

Do you find yourself in September and October wanting to do everything better, bigger and more memorably than you did last year?

Come November, December or January, if not managed carefully, that praiseworthy ambition can quickly turn into impatience, discouragement, exhaustion and poor health.

In two recent webinars (The First Weeks of School: Best Practices for PrincipalsFirst Weeks of School: Best Practices for Teachers), Mike Anderson provides educators with many excellent suggestions for getting the school year off to a great start with students and families.

He tops off his recommendations with one that educators are more apt to hear later in the school year, but it’s just as important at the beginning.

Take care of yourself, says the author of The Well-Balanced Teacher.  Respect your own limits. Be sure to get enough rest, eat well, find ways to manage stress and get enough exercise. The beginning of the year is when habits are set for the rest of the year. Get up and take a 15-minute walk rather than reaching for the bag of M & M’s. You may rationalize reaching for the bag of M & M’s because a 15-minute walk seems too insignificant, but week after week, those 15-minute walks add up to improved fitness and health.

At the end of every day, write down one success you’ve experienced. Appreciate what you accomplish. Have breakfast with a colleague once a week to feel more connected.  Learn to accept compliments with a sincere thank you rather than deflect them. Learn to say no so you can better manage your time and energy.

Be the humble warrior this year.  You are not invincible, but you are still formidable.

Time to make student data privacy a priority

Time to make student data privacy a prioritySchool data breaches do not get the publicity of Sony’s hacked emails about Angelina Jolie ‘s acting talent or how Jennifer Lawrence’s pay compares to that of her less well-known male costars.

But they are equally embarrassing and compromising in the local community.

Last month, Tewksbury, Massachusetts Public Schools accidentally released private information about 83 special education students and ratings of their parents’ “cooperativeness.” The district rated parents on a scale of 1-3 for internal use. Somehow, this confidential data was released, creating a community-wide uproar.

A few years ago, a high school in one of Long Island’s largest districts, had to inform parents of the release of the names of 15,000 students with school ID numbers and lunch designations. A high school student was later arrested for the hacking incident.

According to a new survey by Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), nearly 57% of school district technology leaders say they are more worried than they were last year about the privacy and security of student data.

Parents and legislators are more worried than ever, too. More than 160 student data privacy bills were introduced in 42 U.S. states in the first 3 months of 2015—nearly 50% more than were introduced in 2014.

One reason the risk has increased is that educators simply have become more sophisticated and heavier users of technology. This means that schools now have increased exposure to hacking risks and unfortunate accidents. A school becomes a potential target for unauthorized data sharing of confidential information every time a teacher downloads a new education app. Another reason for the increased risk is that data has become highly valuable for marketing and other purposes

Here’s what you need to do now as an education leader to protect student data.

First, become more informed about the problem and the risks, about current and proposed legal requirements. Educate your staff about the problem and risks and get them involved in protecting your student data. Establish data security protections and protocols. Make security a priority.

Once your biggest technology problems were getting your teachers and staff to embrace computers, email and the computerization of all your key operations. They have.

With your success comes the new challenge of protecting student data privacy so your use of educational technology can continue, uninterrupted, on its exciting course.

Webinar: “Game On: Steps to Take Now to Protect Student Data Privacy” more info…


Fighting poverty with empathy

Poverty touches many people at some time in their lives.  In the classroom, educators come into daily contact with its shadow, whether the worry and struggle at home reveals itself in missing assignments, hygiene, acting o­­­­­­ut or impaired learning.

According to the Southern  Education Foundation, the United States reached a troubling new milestone recently:  A majority of public school children (51%) are now considered low-income.  While changes in the school lunch subsidy program may account for some of the increase, the bottom line is that poverty is an important issue in education.

What can you, as an educator, do about this systemic ill beyond go to work every day and do the best job you can?

Although you may be helpless to change your students’ family circumstances, you do have the power to deepen your empathy. 

Empathy strengthens your relationships with students and families and makes you a more effective ally.  Hidden biases, misconceptions and unexamined attitudes about poverty can compromise your sense of empathy. “People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude,” says author and speaker John C. Maxwell.

Many universities have created poverty simulation exercises and workshops to help their students in social services, education, psychology and health care better understand the experience of poverty. Live58, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending extreme poverty has created a game, Survive125,  that presents the gamer with typical choices that people living in poverty make every day

Paul Gorski, author of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, says that educators cannot understand the relationship between poverty and education without understanding the biases and inequities experienced by people in poverty. Class disparities in education are the results of inequities, he believes, not the result of a “poverty culture.”

Many of us have simply acquired our beliefs and attitudes about poverty without really examining or challenging them. One important thing educators can do is to become more aware of these beliefs and attitudes and examine poverty from different perspectives.  For example, educators can view poverty from a larger economic perspective and social justice perspective and also try to focus on the resilience of children in challenging circumstances rather than focusing on deficits. 

Webinar with Paul Gorski: Reach and Teach Students in Poverty: Strategies for Closing the Opportunity Gap

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7 reasons you’re avoiding a hard conversation

You are not alone.  Just about everyone wants to avoid hard conversations.  The reasons are remarkably similar­­­­­­, says Jennifer Abrams, author of Hard Conversations (Corwin Press).

If you are procrastinating here are some common reasons that keep you from addressing an important conflict.

  • You want to be liked.  This is important to you, so important it makes you hesitate to do your job.
  • You don’t want to experience emotional discomfort.  You hate it when someone starts crying.  You don’t know what to say or do and you’re worried you’ll lose credibility.
  • You are too young, too old, too new in your role, a man, a woman, or in some way not the right person to speak for the organization.
  • Perfectionism—You need to get an A in having a hard conversation.  Or your school culture insists that you have the “perfect” hard conversation.
  • The person you must have a talk with has a lot of drama going on in his or her life now—divorce, financial difficulties, family problems. You don’t want to add to the drama. This is not a good time.
  • You like the person.  She is pleasant, cooperative and nice.  She always brings brownies to faculty meetings. You don’t want to hurt her feelings.
  • You don’t think the conversation will change anything significantly. This person has an abrasive personality or doesn’t have the ability to improve very much.  They are probably doing the best they can.

Jennifer says it’s important to separate showing care for someone from holding them accountable for doing their job.  You can show empathy, be very thoughtful in what you say and how you say it, but still hold people accountable for their roles. While it is good to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, your first responsibility is to your students’ educational welfare.

When she has trouble finding her voice as an advocate for students, Jennifer says she remembers something she heard Georgia Congressman John Lewis say to a group of students. When the students asked him what advice he had for them as they moved into their adult lives, the former civil rights activist said, “Get into trouble….necessary trouble.”  Jennifer says she often recalls the Congressman’s words when she must have a difficult conversation.

She believes every hard conversation is an opportunity to find your voice around what matters and speak for students.  It is an opportunity to get into necessary trouble.


The power of visual information

You see it all the time at staff meetings.  There’s a pile of evidence on the table calling for a change in habits and strategies,  a change in beliefs, but your teachers or colleagues are not taking it in. They hold fast to their personal opinions, regardless of the facts, much as you see people do in heated political discussions.

What should you do to open their minds to the facts? Should you:

  • Explain yourself in simple-to-understand words?
  • Show them a chart?
  • Praise them for their open-mindedness and then explain the facts to them?

The correct answer is: Show them a chart.  Researchers Brendan Nyhan from Dartmouth University and Jason Reifler from Georgia State recently conducted a fascinating study on how best to correct political misconceptions.  Their conclusion:  Use visual information, the brain’s native language,  to help people see the truth.

The researchers ran experiments in which they presented people with information that contradicted their political attitudes, deliberately choosing topics that were highly emotional and highly polarizing.

People who’d opposed President Bush’s 2007 “surge strategy” in the Iraq war were presented with evidence that the strategy had in fact reduced violence in Iraq.  People who disapproved of Barack Obama’s handling of the economy were shown evidence that jobs had increased during the first year of his presidency.

Our brains favor visual information over any other kind and devote more processing power to it. Studies have shown that we understand images more quickly than words and remember them longer. According to neurological experiments, the brain has to work much harder to process words than pictures, increasing the likelihood that information will be corrupted, manipulated, modified or misunderstood.

How can you use this insight as an educator?  Bring visuals to your interpretation of data.  Our brains quickly grasp visual information even though they might struggle with words and numbers. Instead of illustrating your point with visuals, make your point with visuals.

Bring this strategy to the classroom, too, especially the math classroom.

Two recent webinars explore how you can leverage the power of visual information.  Stephanie D.H. Evergreen  discusses using visuals to emphasize the significance of your student data. Marian Small explores teaching math concepts with visuals. Here is more information if you are interested:

Be More Persuasive With Data: Improve How You Communicate Visually

Visual Teaching of Math Concepts


Look for leading, not lagging, indicators in your student data

If you’re an economist, you use 3 kinds of indicators to monitor the health of the economy: leading, lagging and coincident. Leading indicators are best because they go up or down fairly reliably before the general economy does.

Educators need to focus more on leading indicators in student data rather than coincident and lagging indicators, say researchers from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Their study, In Search of Leading Indicators in Education, will help you make the slight, yet critical, shift in perspective when working with data.

Coincident indicators normally move in line with economic activity while lagging indicators trail behind.  Leading indicators predict an upcoming recession or how well a company is likely to perform in the last quarter.

In education, test scores are lagging indicators because they are the culmination or the net result of the education process and they can’t be changed unless you wait for the next round of testing.  During a walkthrough in a classroom, finding students on task in the classroom is a coincident indicator of teacher effectiveness and/or student engagement.  A leading indicator, on the other hand, is predictive and actionable.

One area where educators have started to use leading indicators is in reducing the dropout rate.  Researchers have found that academic performance as early as the 4th grade predicts the risk of dropping out.  When one urban school district looked for leading indicators of which students were at risk of dropping out it identified being over-age at one’s grade level with a low number of course credits as one indicator.

Another district went looking for leading indicators of college readiness.  School officials were troubled by the number of students  taking an accepted curricular path in high school who were still not prepared for college.  They looked at which students were performing well in courses that were important for college such as 8th-grade algebra.  This process took them earlier and earlier in students’ schooling.  They found that students who did well in 8th-grade algebra did well in 5th-grade math and the students who did well in 5th-grade math were the ones who were good readers in kindergarten.

“This led the district to focus more attention on early reading proficiency as the foundation for student success in both mathematics and English, and as the building blocks of college readiness,” the researchers write.

Part of the value of leading indicators is the process of searching for them.  It’s a shift in thinking about data and working with it.  The search tends to spur investigations into important and valuable outcomes.  It is a backward-tracking process that assumes a proactive and preventive approach .  It places the emphasis on actively exploring the factors that contribute to important outcomes rather than less productively focusing on the outcomes themselves.



Include students in assessment

Imagine you are golfing on a rolling green course which doesn’t have any flags to mark the holes. Your country club thinks it’s an unfair advantage to use flags. Good golfers, management believes, don’t need flags.

You tee off guessing in which direction to drive the ball.  On your second shot on a par 3, you aim for the left toward the two maple trees. You’re wrong. The hole is in line with the farmhouse. Frustrated, you need to take several strokes over par to sink the ball, even though you could have gotten a better score if you knew where the hole was.

Sandra Herbst and Anne Davies believe many assessments ask students to play golf on a course that doesn’t have any flags. Traditionally, the “stance” of educators has been to “stand across” from students and let them figure out what is expected of them in assessments.

In a recent webinar, Engage Students in Assessment to Boost Motivation, Learning and Achievement, Anne and Sandra say that to increase learning, educators need to adopt more of a “sit-beside” stance. They need to include students in the assessment process, not exclude them. Give them the information they need to perform to the best of their ability. To boost motivation and engagement, they need to inform their students about outcomes, learning intentions and destinations, criteria and providing evidence of learning, not keep it all under wraps.

One strategy to help students understand what they need to learn and do is for teachers to use work samples. In math, for instance, if students are able to examine sample problems, they can deconstruct what quality work is.   Students need to understand that we are asking them to make their thinking public.

When the assessment process is opened up, students no longer need “to line up at the teacher’s desk,” Anne and Sandra say, because now knowledge is shared among students and teachers.  Students can consult their peers or become their own coach by self-monitoring their own progress. Teachers’ professional judgment becomes stronger as a result of working through the assessment process with their students.

The stance of “sit beside” needs to replace the stance of “stand across” if  educators want to clearly see what students know and think.


Involuntary curiosity

What is it that educators most want from their students? They want engagement, or more precisely, they want curiosity. They would like for their students to want to learn out of their own curiosity.

Flipped classroom teacher Ramsey Musallam says one of his main goals in flipping his science classroom is to stimulate his students’ curiosity or sense of inquiry. His use of video helps him plant doubts and questions in students’ minds and spark their involuntary curiosity.

Curiosity has been difficult for psychologists to explain. Is it an appetite, drive, passion, a predisposition in personality? Sometimes it serves practical purposes, but just as often it doesn’t. It can be unpredictable and transient. It may be easily satisfied or may motivate an individual to seek an elusive solution for decades.

The information-gap theory of curiosity holds that while the cause of curiosity may be unknowable, the state of curiosity can be explained by an individual’s need to reduce his or her sense of deprivation in not possessing some missing information. Hence, people are motivated to remedy a deficit.

Certainly, some people are more curious than others but everyone, in the right situation, can become curious. Ramsey believes teachers need to become masters at sparking involuntary curiosity. In the flipped classroom, when you introduce video in instruction it can either quell curiosity or stimulate it and decrease or increase motivation.

Students need a little knowledge to be curious, otherwise they don’t know what to be curious about. Too much knowledge and they become less curious. Teachers need to find that sweet spot. When he first started flipping his classroom, Ramsey says students were less motivated because they got too much information at the wrong time. Teachers must become skilled in withholding and releasing information to be successful in flipping the classroom.

Based on research by George Loewenstein, (The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation), Ramsey recommends educators use these 5 situational stimuli to boost students’ curiosity:

  • The posing of a question that presents the individual with missing information.
  • Exposure to a sequence of events with an anticipated, but unknown resolution.
  • The violation of expectations. Individuals can expend a tremendous effort even with no practical gain involved to resolve this incongruence.
  • Possession of information by somebody else. Individuals may be motivated to also possess this information.
  • Having once possessed knowledge but then lost it. Regaining this knowledge can be a powerful stimulus for curiosity.