Thursday, July 23, 2009

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

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.


End of the Year Reflection from the School of One Program Director

From: Rose Joel
Sent: Sat 8/8/2009 12:58 AM
Subject: School of One Pilot Update

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As our School of One summer pilot winds down this week, I’d like to share with you a brief summary of what has been an exciting, challenging, and hugely successful effort.

A few headlines:

1) The program has received some terrific coverage in the media, with articles in the New York TimesForbes. ABC News, NBC News, and PBS all sent producers to take footage for future broadcasts while the local TV and newspapers ran stories. We’ve also seen some insightful blog posts —here, here, here, here, and here – as well as this one that I think best captures the teacher experience. and

2) Over the past month, more than 200 people visited School of One, including Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein (who made several visits throughout the summer). Our visitors included political leaders, state and district administrators, school principals, teachers, academics, business leaders, and philanthropists all committed to educational innovation.

3) We were thrilled by the enthusiastic response from students and their parents. Our average daily student attendance exceeded 90% (a high number for a voluntary summer program) and more than 50% of parents attended our parent event (normally the school has a 10% participation rate).

4) Principal Phyllis Tam and her pioneering team of math teachers, with whom we worked this summer at MS 131, told us they want their school to be part of our school year rollout. .

Of course the most meaningful results relate to student outcomes. In the coming weeks, our team will carefully analyze the huge volume of data produced during the pilot and will work with our independent evaluators to examine how the summer’s outcomes related to our goals and objectives. We will then return to R&D mode where we will prepare to open again this coming January in three NYC schools.

If you didn’t get a chance to visit school of one, please visit our website where you can read a program description, watch a video that describes School of One, and watch a video about our summer pilot. You can also follow us on Facebook by becoming a fan of School of One.

We are grateful to all of our sponsors and partners and look forward to expanding our network of supporters for the next phase of our growth. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions about the project and how you can be involved.



  1. I liked the observation about using space to support students in different ways.

    I think other ways technology allows educator's to differentiate for students is by time and level of supports. Using web-based applications students can access their learning during school hours and beyond, increasing the amount of time and responsibility students can take on for completing assignments and making progress.

    Using technology, educators can also provide different levels of support to students working on the same tasks. This can take many forms: pointing students to different sources for research, providing different step-by-step guides for tasks, etc.

    Was excited to hear about the School of One, I think calling one's schedule a playlist makes it instantly cooler.

  2. How does this approach encourage students to improve in the modes of expression/learning that are not the most comfortable for them? Thinking of myself in middle and high school, if I could have gotten away without ever giving an oral presentation, I would have loved it. Writing was much more comfortable for me. But being able to speak in front of a group is a key life skill that never makes the state standards...

  3. @Dana Lawit, thank you for the comment. Great point about technology being able to differentiate by time and level of supports. The school is hosting visits through August 6th from 9 a.m. – 10 a.m. If you are others are interested, please email me and I will connect you.

  4. @ jsb16, great question. This approach encourages students to improve modes of expression/learning as part of their ongoing assessment. If this is an area they need development/improvement in, they will receive learning opportunities to address that. With your particular example tons of ideas flood to mind such as allowing students who are uncomfortable speaking publicly to develop their skills using tools such as Voki, Xtranormal, digital video, Podcasting or even moderated PowerPoint slides. This allows them to become familiar, experiment, and study the art of presenting in a variety ways in an effort perhaps to increase their public speaking skills. However, I’m not convinced that everyone needs to be effective at public speaking. I think I could argue that what is most important is having the ability to share a message with an authentic audience and that may well be achieved more effectively using an alternative method. I guess in the end it is all about supporting students in the development of their personal learning goals.

  5. I would add that the data is collected daily and new student playlists are created each night, as are teacher programs. This is a major shift for some.. really thinking about the work of using data to inform instruction as an ongoing process.

  6. Facebook Comment from Cynthia A...
    Differentiation really does require us to think differently, but that is how we prove our worth. Real teachers and librarians think outside the box and use old tools in new ways to meet the needs of every student and their own unique needs and preferences.

  7. I'm really fortunate to work at a school where differentiation is a pretty big deal. There is even a section for it for each unit on our Atlas curriculum maps. We also have a specialist who you can run ideas by to get feedback, further ideas. I did not find Renzulli terribly helpful for teaching juniors, but given the collaborative nature of the system, it may be better now.

  8. Lucas, I think you make a good point. Things like differentiation and the integration of 21st century literacies need to be explicit in our curriculum planning. As far as Renzulli, I think it can be powerful for any age...adults too. I just don't think educators were given effective training in how to use it for this purpose. It automatically runs algorithms to group and move students based on their learning profiles which is really powerful. If you, or anyone else is interested, I'd be happy to spend a little time (virtually) thinking through some ways to harness the power of the tool to make teaching easier and learning more targeted to student profiles.

  9. Your observations were very interesting to me. I currently work in an inner city school setting where the students strive when they use technology. You are correct when it a lot of the problem lies directly on the teacher …. They do not want to learn new technologies. With this day and age, students know more technology than the teachers do and that should not be the case. It is our jobs as educators to do whatever we can to ensure academic success for all of our students. There is no excuse for teachers to not have differentiated instruction within their classrooms! Technology is a way for the students to get the knowledge they need while having fun doing it.

    I am very interested in the program and am looking forward to learning more about Renzulli Learning process and program. School ones success should not be over looked and people around the USA in an inner city setting should be aware of the progress.

  10. What prevents teachers from differentiating instruction? Check out the real reasons at

  11. Lisa,

    I know this is a late post, but do you see more School of One's coming into existence? While School of One was just for math, do you see this as a model for all subjects, and for perhaps even 2nd graders?