Monday, October 01, 2018

Using tech to help differentiate instruction

Differentiated instruction is defined by Carol Tomlinson as “an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for and attention to student differences in classrooms, in the context of high quality curriculums”.  Carol Weselby, in a 2014 blog post, breaks down the components into manageable categories, which, taken as a whole, is simply good teaching!
  • Design lessons based on students’ learning styles
  • Group students by shared interest, topic, or ability for assignments
  • Assess students’ learning using formative assessment
  • Manage the classroom to create a safe and supportive environment
  • Continually assess and adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs
Although differentiated instruction is usually thought of as the teacher delivering lessons and materials to each student at their own level, Weselby points out it “may mean teaching the same material to all students using a variety of instructional strategies”. With the myriad of technology devices, tools, and apps available today, providing students with lessons based on how they learn best, checking their progress via formative assessments, and adjusting the lesson content and groupings when necessary, has become much easier to do. The development of great lessons and units of study still comes first, but teachers now have an unlimited toolbox of choices to help in the delivery of the content! Tom├ís Franceschin provides an overview of both differentiated instruction and how technology can enable it in this 2017 blog post.
Here is an interesting infographic from the ASCD site for Tomlinson’s second edition of her book detailing what differentiated instruction is and is not.


There are commonly several ways to determine a student’s learning style. With younger students, it sometimes involves a period of teacher observation. With middle schools students, an interest inventory with targeted questions can help the teacher understand how a student thinks they learn best. There are also online scenario quizzes that older students can take that allow them to self-assess their learning style. Remember to take into consideration that many of us have a preferred learning style we feel comfortable with, but also use other methods to learn, too. Here are some resources for this process.
This online quiz asks a series of twenty scenario questions. The results of the quiz include both the learning styles breakdown, a description of each one, and some practical information about each learning style. For example, my learning style results from the student quiz were that I learned in multiple ways — 35% auditory, 35% visual, and 30% tactile. I would have assumed I was more visual than anything else, but, after reading the information provided, the results seem correct. It would be interesting for students to understand (and for teachers to know) they can learn using different modalities!
The VARK model (visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic) is based on the premise that:
  • Students’ preferred learning modes have significant influence on their behavior and learning
  • Students’ preferred learning modes should be matched with appropriate learning strategies.
  • Information that is accessed through students’ use of their modality preferences shows an increase in their levels of comprehension, motivation, and metacognition.
The VARK website includes questionnaires for younger studentsathletesteachers and trainers, and adults. The website also includes much more information about the VRK model, how to use and interpret the questionnaires, and much more!


I think this video about Flexible Groupings at West Belden is a well-done overview of how differentiated instruction strategies and student grouping work in many schools.
Once grouped, there are many online tools for helping a teacher allow grouped students to work together with teacher support.
  • Padlet is a customizable “bulletin board” that allows the teacher to set it up in various ways (grid, linear, moveable) and invite the grouped students to a specific Padlet. The teacher can leave written or recorded  directions for the assignment or assessment, as well as monitor the shared Padlet. Students can easily post text, documents, Web links, and video on the Padlet while working with the group.
  • A shared document in Google Docs is another way for teachers to leave directions and resources for the student group and have the students work together if needed.
  • Flipgrid is an online video discussion platform that allows a teacher to create a Grid page for each group and give the students an access code for their group’s page. Students can easily provide verbal feedback to the teacher and/or each other. Flipgrid works on multiple platforms and is a great tool! You can find downloadable guides for teachers and students on their site.


In a differentiated instruction model, the use of large group quick formative assessment tools, like Kahoot, are probably not the tools to use. However, tools like Kahoot can be useful to assess if groupings need to be re-worked by checking for understanding from the whole group and comparing the results to the current groupings.
Judith Dodge suggests there are a few useful ways to support teachers as they check for understanding of learning. Here is her list, followed by links to resource pages on my site to support each one


Michael Gorman penned a series about project based learning and differentiation of instruction. These articles were written in 2016, and some tools have disappeared and others are now available, but Gorman does a great job of explaining why to use each particular tool. I loved the fact he put the student first and foremost by targeting “differentiated learning”!
This post by Sarah Layton  provides “nine tips for using technology to differentiate instruction“.
John McCarthy provides 100+ ways to differentiate instruction through social media in this Edutopia article. Again, many new tools are available to replace some of the older ones covered in this article, but he includes the important aspects of the types of technology use that can help students learn.
How do you use technology tools in your classroom to help with differentiated learning and instruction?  What apps and tools do you recommend to others? Please share on Twitter! #kathyschrock