Thinking on Education: Differentiating Instruction Does NOT Have To Be Hard

Studies WeeklyWe all want our students to succeed.

On the surface level, student success looks like solid test scores, mastery of grade-level standards, etc. But in life, tests and standards are not the only ways to define success. And just as each student’s path to career success will look very different, there are various paths students can take to learning success.

That’s where differentiated instruction comes in.

“Differentiated instruction honors students’ diverse backgrounds and learning styles. With differentiation, teachers recognize their students as individuals with varying needs and provide them with more options for learning. In other words, teachers use multiple strategies to make sure that all students can absorb the information being taught, share what they’ve learned, and meet long- and short-term goals,” the staff at We Are Teachers said in a January 2018 article.

For many classroom teachers, though, it seems like a lot of work to implement differentiated instruction. Teachers feel overwhelmed with different lesson plans for the same topic, varied content delivery processes and projects.

But it doesn’t have to be, according to veteran teacher Larry Ferlazzo. He explained in a February 2019 Education Week video that it is more a “way of thinking, not a list of pre-planned strategies.”

When teachers develop a growth mindset and zero in on the main learning objectives for a unit or subject, they realize there can be multiple ways to get to that goal.

Ferlazzo shared an example of teaching students the argumentative essay. He’d chosen a topic for the students to research and write about. But he realized one student was completely disengaged. Once he gave the student an alternate topic option, the student immersed himself in the topic and wrote a strong essay.

All students in his class completed the learning objective: formulating a solid argumentative essay. But Ferlazzo differentiated by allowing student choice.

Studies Weekly recognizes there are many ways to learn. That’s why our products already have research-backed differentiated learning strategies built right in. Even better, these strategies don’t require hours of extra teacher preparation.

Our differentiated learning strategies are based on the Hattie’s Effect — a research study by New Zealand professor John Hattie that showed the effectiveness of certain teaching methods. The best ones hit the .40 to 1.2 mark on scale of -.2 to 1.2.

Studies Weekly teachingStudies Weekly includes seven of these high-impact strategies, in addition to many others.

Reciprocal Teaching Method (Hattie’s Effect .74)

This is a guided-discussion method that works with large or small groups and guided reading groups. It engages students through predicting, questioning, clarifying and summarizing.

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Inquiry Model (Hattie’s Effect .40)

This method asks students to investigate a historic source or scientific topic by focusing on an open-ended question. Students are empowered to develop their own approach to solutions and answers.

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Question Formulation Technique (HE .66)

This method amps up inquiry-based learning. Students produce, then improve, then prioritize their questions on a subject, event, problem or phenomena. They decide individually, in small groups or as a class where to go with these questions, such as: a research project, building a test model, etc.

Studies Weekly teachingPrimary Source Analysis Tool (HE .75)

Based on methods from the Library of Congress, this tool helps students better understand history through observing and questioning a primary source.

Graphic Organizers (HE .40 – .79)

According to research, graphic organizers elevate student comprehension. Students who use them can more effectively classify and communicate concepts. Studies Weekly incorporates a variety of these.

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See Think Wonder (HE .60)

This method works well individually or with groups, and develops critical thinking skills. Students learn how carefully analyze and ponder a historical image or scientific phenomenon.

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Possible Sentences (HE .93)

This is a pre-reading method that works well with vocabulary words and difficult concepts, by activating students’ prior knowledge. Students get excited to tackle a text to prove their understanding.

Studies Weekly teachingThese are just a few methods educators can easily use to differentiate their content delivery and processes. As ASCD points out in the infographic below, teachers can also differentiate their assessments and their classroom environment.

ASCD
Courtesy ASCD

Ideally, differentiated instruction creates a classroom “where the students understand that they are unique, where their individuality is not simply accepted but celebrated; where their differences are not hidden, but rather used to expand learning in the class,” according to a November 2018 Edutopia article.

Or as Ferlazzo puts it, we need to create relationships with our students, and keep our eyes on the prize, always asking ourselves, “What are the learning objectives, and what are the best roads to get there for different students?”


To learn see training videos on how to use the above-mentioned Studies Weekly learning strategies, visit studiesweekly.com/online/pdod.

Thinking on Education: Test Prep Without Teaching to the Test

Studies Weekly test prepWe’re in the throes of testing season, with all of its accompanying drama and anxiety. Educators worry if their students will do well. Students either stress out, or totally check out on testing day. And of course, everyone secretly just wants it all to be over.

With all the pressure districts and teachers have to perform, how do we prepare students for these high-stakes assessments without resorting to “teaching to the test”? Education experts say that not only is teaching to the test ethically wrong and yields an inaccurate result, but it’s really not an effective way to prepare students.

“It’s entirely possible to prepare students for standardized tests in a way that maximizes what we know about learning sciences [and] metacognition,” said Jennifer Borgioli, a senior consultant at Learner-Centered Initiatives, in a 2018 Education Week post. “[B]ut this requires quality professional development and district-based guidance around what that looks like inside a standards-based, high quality, learner-centered curriculum.”

Teaching Curriculum vs. Teaching the Test

Experts point to “curriculum teaching” versus “item teaching” for test prep. Educators who gear their instruction to the state standards — and its applicable knowledge and skills — teach curriculum. Those who focus their instruction only on what is on the test are item teaching. As a result, they narrow and limit students knowledge and skills, robbing students of deeper learning, as researchers pointed out in a 2017 Journal of Experiential Education article.

If teachers clearly understand their state’s education standards and what will be tested on state assessments, they can use curricular content to prepare their students.

“Curriculum-teaching, if it is effective, will elevate students’ scores on high-stakes tests and, more important, will elevate students’ mastery of the knowledge or skills on which the test items are based,” said W. James Popham, an emeritus professor of UCLA, in a 2001 ASCD post.

Studies WeeklyThe best test preparation is that which hones critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This is best done using inquiry-based and student-focused instruction that makes students active learners.

Research shows authentic project-based learning, problem-based learning and experiential learning models can greatly help students master these abilities. As students tackle tough problems and questions throughout the school year and find their own pathways to solutions and answers, they gain the confidence and skills needed. They learn for themselves that they can figure out answers, even when they may not have complete information.

Award-winning middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron explained in a 2017 Edutopia post that educators should teach students how to retrieve and use what they already know.

“Teach them how to activate prior knowledge or make connections to the material. For many kids, this doesn’t just happen magically — we have to preach it over and over and show them that they already have far more knowledge of our content areas in their heads than they realize,” she said.

Two test-related methods teachers can use is teaching students how to review for tests and how to navigate the process of test-taking.

Teaching Test-Review Skills

Studies WeeklyPete Barnes, an Ohio fifth-grade science teacher, shared a fun way to teach students test-review skills in his February 2019 Edutopia article. He set up a Science Ninja game-based unit. Students had specific tasks and skills they needed to complete, but Barnes organized it in a way that allowed students more choice in their training.

“Students choose tasks from a Training Menu to prove their mastery of life science, outer space, force and motion, and more,” he said, explaining that the tasks included scavenger hunts for information, videos, simulations, matching activities, lab work and model-building activities.

“Each of these tasks also include a short assessment that students check on their own and then verify with the teacher before moving on to the next task,” he said.

Teaching Test-Taking Skills

Wolpert-Gawron also shared strategies for teaching test-taking skills. Because many state assessments are now computer-based, she encouraged educators to incorporate technology aptitude teaching in their curriculum throughout the year.

For example, she suggested teachers create lessons that require students to use audio tools that will read text aloud, learn the meanings of typical computer icons, practice general word-processing and keyboard skills, and how to use hyperlinks, videos and images.

Studies Weekly“Don’t take for granted that our digital natives know how to use the digital tools they need in order to be successful on their online tests,” she said.

She also encourages instructing students in the language of the test. This type of preparation helps all students, whatever their level, better understand the process of testing, including English-language learners.

Betsy Gilliland and Shannon Pella explained in their 2017 book, “Beyond Teaching to the Test,” that according to their research, few high-stakes tests were normed or validated for use with English-language learners during the “No Child Left Behind” era.

“What this means is that in many cases, the complex language used on tests prevents students from understanding what they are supposed to do or from showing their knowledge of the content,” they said.

All students should understand the typical vocabulary used in test directions, so they actually know what it asks them to do.

“Make a list of the most common words used in test instructions. Remember that telling students to read the directions isn’t enough if they can’t understand the directions,” Wolpert-Gawron said.

Teach Confidence

Some of the best test prep is the simplest. Teachers should help students practice recognizing their own successes, and going into a test with a positive mind, Dan Henderson explained this in a 2018 TeachThought prep article — that also hilariously illustrated some of the more absurd test-day requirements.

Many teachers are frustrated with how testing season and test prep cut into instruction time. But with some planning, it can simply be part of effective, authentic instruction.


Teachers who use Studies Weekly for Social Studies and Science have the benefit of knowing where their students are at multiple points in the school year through ready-made, but customizable formative assessments. To learn more, visit studiesweekly.com//online/pdod.