Now is the time of year when we begin to really evaluate where our students are in their school performance and what we need to do to help them towards their maximum learning environment.  If you’re like many other teachers out there, differentiation is one of the first strategies that you put into place.  But what about after you regroup and differentiate your instruction?  Often, the step after differentiation is the most critical – and overlooked – piece to moving a child forward in their journey to true success.

Of course, this depends upon your definition of differentiation.  Keep in mind that true differentiation is not regrouping student homogeneously within the same classroom.  Rather, it’s about offering multiple strategies to attack the same problem so that students of all ability-levels and learning preferences have equitable opportunities.  There are many wonderful ways to differentiate within the classroom and plenty of websites offer suggestions for you on how to manage this version of personalized learning.  What’s fascinating is that the whole concept of the personalized web stems from this same idea that people should be able to browse, learn and use based upon their own preferences.  Yet, what we should truly be watching and learning from is where the world of the internet and business is going next: personalized and adapted.  So what if a computer program can figure out what time of day you like to do your book shopping or what your latest search terms were?  The only thing it does is provide you with a set of choices.  What really helps you is if that same program not only provides you with choices, but offers you choices that are tailored to your unique preferences and adapt as your preferences change.

Extrapolate this idea into the classroom and you can quickly begin to see the shifts we need to start making.  Providing students with choices and a variety of strategies to solve a problem is certainly a good start.  But this must become a bedrock of our classroom; one in which we don’t have to think about it – we just do it.  Our next step, then, should be to offer choices that are tailored to meet the preferences of our students and allow these choices to change and adapt over time as our students’ preferences naturally evolve as well.  We need to become careful observers of our students and truly get to know them and respond to their needs.  We need to make the shift from what we think are the right options for them, to students choosing and changing what they feel they need in that moment.  This requires us to let go of control and instead facilitate process-driven instruction.

But the reality of the school day proves this to be challenging.  It’s hard enough to think of multiple ways to approach a problem, let alone to customize instruction to each student’s preference.  Not to mention the fact that we want to try and avoid the ever-present “filter bubble” that ends up limiting our student’s experiences, rather than expanding them.  This could be all-too-easy if we aren’t careful.  So how can we ensure that the step after differentiation is one of forward momentum and customized learning?

First, ensure that you are using differentiation in your classroom as a best practice.  This should go without saying, but you should have differentiation already in place with integrity before trying to move ahead.

Second, collaborate with your professional learning communities.  More heads are better than one and to understand student learning preferences sometimes requires input from others who see your students throughout the day.  Ensure that you have a representative from the fine arts staff, media staff, and administration within your PLC to offer some insight that you may need.

Third, leverage your resources.  Use the web and begin to store your resources in one place.  Consider researching best teaching strategies such as STEM, Project-Based Learning, Arts Integration and more and organizing your resources in one place to give you access to the variety of ways you can adapt to student learning preferences.

Fourth, be sure to look at your data.  Begin having meaningful data discussions with your PLC and administrative teams and start learning from what the data tells you.  Listening doesn’t just have to be done with your ears.  Sometimes, your eyes and mind play a bigger role in listening to what your students are communicating.  Be sure to source a variety of data sources and formats (including summative, formative, performance and other assessments) to help determine how your students are learning over time.  Don’t be afraid to make changes if needed.

Sometimes, it only takes a single step to make a big difference.  And sometimes, it’s the steps you take after that first one that determines whether those changes will be short-lived or last a lifetime.  Let’s take the next steps together to forge a new path that empowers our students and helps all of us to cultivate a culture of true reform at its most elemental level: learning.