How can we ensure our planning engages and challenges all students?

First, do we have a shared view of success?

Before we begin to discuss planning high-quality learning for students, we need to ensure a shared understanding of success in the endeavor. If you also believe that the ultimate goal of school is to support the development of engaged students who see and understand problems in the world and care enough to take action to help, and you have absolute faith that every single student can achieve this, then read on!

As a teacher, I need to know my curriculum and to know my learners. At its core, my role is to effectively bring these two together. Building trusting relationships and recognizing and meeting the social and emotional needs of students including those with learning challenges and/or giftedness is an essential foundation of designing high-quality learning experiences. Spending the time to truly get to know my students’ strengths and interests is necessary to support a wide range of needs. For example, knowing early in the year of the artistic strengths of one particular student can help me to structure writing lessons through the use of cartoon strips when I see him struggling with other prompts.

It is essential to factor in students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness before designing a lesson plan. The whole purpose of differentiation is to look at the relevant skill level​​s of students and ask: What are we going to do to increase depth, broaden, extend and improve upon the knowledge and the skill base of every student in the class, regardless of the starting point. 

It doesn’t matter whether a student is at the top end of the academic spectrum, or whether a student requires additional support, what is relevant is their starting point.

How can school structures support differentiation?

To be fair, providing differentiated learning experiences for students can be significantly impacted by the overall structures established in a school. Most obvious perhaps is the provision of a support team including learning, language, and behavior specialists. Structures to consider which also impact the progress and achievement of diverse learners include:

  • Agreed school-wide learning principles and approaches
  • Systematic use of data to set specific student learning goals
  • Careful monitoring of attainment of learning outcomes and student (and staff) wellbeing
  • Clearly established admission policies to ensure that students’ needs can be met in the program
  • Implementation of a Response to Intervention (RIT) program
  • Flexibility within the timetable and student grouping practices
  • ‘Looping’ students with their teachers for a second year
  • Collaborative use of digital tools for planning and assessment
  • Opportunities for student agency and the transfer of learning skills
  • Professional development opportunities for staff
  • Appraisal and feedback structures that recognize and encourage differentiation
  • Provision of a wide range of resources (including work/play areas)
  • Relevant information shared regularly to and from parents and guardians

What are considerations specific to our curricular programs?

Certainly, the curriculum and type of Instructional approaches in use as well as the forms of assessment and data use will greatly influence the support individual students will receive. Effective diagnostic information and regular formative assessment support teachers to establish individual starting points when planning. Especially for students identified as gifted and talented, it is important to find quick and efficient ways to find out what they know and have mastered to ensure daily new learning opportunities. When implementing inquiry-based and/or problem-based curricula, we may feel we are providing appropriate learning experiences for faster learners, for example, simply through the nature of our open-ended approach, and, in many instances, this may very well be true. Accessing resources designed specifically for gifted students can support all students in such programs, while at the same time, ensuring we are consistent in providing for such special academic needs. 

When looking at summative assessments and report writing, it’s important to have a wide variety of teachers and leaders looking at similar data. In this way, we can work together to identify who needs more support and also provide it. This creates a safety net to avoid situations that can occur when teachers are working in isolation when, for example, a student learning English misses out on receiving needed learning support because structures were not in place to account for students with both needs. As well, the information that we provide parents about learning can look and feel very different when reporting about students with a wide range of abilities. When reporting on achievement of certain skill areas such as grammar and punctuation, for example, lack of achievement for certain students may be indicated without an opportunity on the report to provide information about the advanced and creative style of writing this student has. We must ensure our reports reflect what we value in our students’ success.

Whether schools are using an Understanding by Design planning approach or not, considering that our goal for students is understanding (and transfer) and that our goal for teachers is to design appropriate opportunities for this can be helpful. I believe strongly that one of the first steps in providing effective unit planning for all students is ensuring the amount of content in our programs is manageable. This ensures opportunities for student agency and the inclusion of ‘soft skills’ (also known as emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning or skills, personal qualities, character, virtue, non-cognitive skills, 21st-century skills, and, in an IB context, Approaches to Learning) as we foster student academic achievement and long-term success. Even if ‘core’ content is established to this end, it’s important to note that students with higher abilities are not asked to complete ‘core’ work they are already able to do before they can access work that is genuinely at their level. A central principle of differentiation is that all students are working at their level from the beginning of a lesson or unit.  

Rather than providing extension activities, teachers can consider the depth of knowledge required during the learning process. The SOLO Taxonomy is a helpful resource to support appropriate learning challenge for each student. In addition, all students enjoy learning and are likely to be engaged when they can see the big picture, and whole-to-part teaching works well to achieve this.  Strategies such as introducing an ‘essential question’ or ‘big idea’ at the beginning of a unit of work, can increase student motivation to learn the necessary underlying skills and knowledge, and serve as a reminder to teachers to keep a focus for some students on the high order aspects of the learning. Interest can be increased by making initial questions provocative, ambiguous, and/or thought-provoking and eliciting students’ own questions as well.

What are our possible next steps?

As we work to provide appropriate starting points and learning opportunities for our students, we can recognize areas where shifts might be needed in our planning and recognize the difference between, for example, scaffolding and differentiation. 

Here are a variety of suggested scaffolding strategies that can (and should) be embedded into any unit or lesson design. Others may occur during synchronous teaching and learning as opportunities arise. 

  • “Chunk” complex skills or assignments into smaller “digestible bites”
  • Divide instruction into mini-lessons with periodic checkpoints
  • Incorporate technology support
  • Share lesson goals or objectives
  • Share examples and exemplars
  • Provide steps, processes, or procedures
  • Regularly give feedback and guidance
  • Provide answer keys or self-checking opportunities
  • Guide students to take ownership of their learning
  • Adjust instruction based on assessment results
  • Discussion boards
  • Open question forums

A summary of the ways we can embed differentiation into specific parts of our planning can be found here:

  • Practice: We can design a pre-test to determine students’ understanding of critical subject-related skills and then group students based on their learning progress and understanding. Some students work online to practice the skills, some work in groups with the teacher, and some work individually with occasional teacher support rather than the teacher explaining new content to the entire class.
  • Process: Students demonstrate agency (voice, choice, and ownership) regarding when and where (ex. at home or school) they will work as well as whether they will work alone or collaboratively rather than being asked to complete tasks in a specific order at school or at home.
  • Products: Students can choose to write essays, persuasive speeches, or create a documentary to share their knowledge rather than being assigned a certain type of written report.
  • Content: Students choose among pre-selected thematic novels rather than read an assigned book.
  • Assessment: Students take a test and receive feedback on which content they have mastered, where they are making progress, and which areas need more attention. The feedback suggests remedies for students with learning gaps and new projects for students who have mastered all the required skills and knowledge rather than receiving grades based on how many answers were correct.
  • Grouping: We use grouping strategies to address distinct learning needs. Students may be working independently, in small groups, in pairs, or using technology. Some groupings are by choice and some are assigned based on common learning needs. Some groupings or individual students work closely with the teacher and others have more independence rather than regularly working either as a whole class or individually. Here, it’s important to avoid asking the strongest students to mentor, coach, or teach other students. Both lower and higher ability students enjoy and should be able to work with intellectual peers on a daily basis, in order to feel accepted, express their ideas without fear of criticism, and to be appropriately challenged.
  • Interest: Students learn about an important topic or theme and select by exploring areas that are relevant to them rather than the teacher assigning a single topic area for all students to research.
  • Readiness: We evaluate our students to determine what they already know, and then design lessons and projects that allow students to learn at different levels of difficulty, complexity, or independence. For example, we can determine reading levels and then assign a variety of texts, reflecting different degrees of difficulty, to ensure an appropriate level of reading challenge for each student rather than planning out the reading assignments in advance for all students. 
  • Learning preference: Some students choose to work with a software program that uses visual representations and simulations, other students work in teams and solve a series of problems from a book that increases in difficulty, and still others watch an online tutorial that can be viewed multiple times until a concept becomes clear rather than every student receiving the same assignments which are structured in the same way.

Well-planned instruction is designed to maximize academic learning time, actively engage learners in meaningful activities, and emphasize proactive and positive approaches across all tiers of instructional intensity. When school leaders and teachers work together, we can put in place structures and routines that focus on planning for and supporting the learning and engagement of each and every one of our students.

This article can also be found on MiniPD, a Professional Learning Hub where coaching and courses are available from a variety of inquiry-based educators. (Note: a free learner account is required to access.)

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