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Recap: Five Ways to Create a Culture that Supports Differentiation

Recap: Five Ways to Create a Culture that Supports Differentiation

April 07, 2022

On April 4, 2022, Dr. Carol Tomlinson presented a webinar focusing on creating and leading a culture that supports differentiation. 

The recording and the transcript are provided below. If you would like to learn how Eduplanet21 can assist you with differentiation through Carol's professional learning institute or in your curriculum design, please request a meeting with a member of our team!







Table of Contents


#1: Understanding Differentiation Authentically

#2: Believe in Differentiation Firmly

#3: Model Differentiation

#4: Support Differentiation

#5: Be a Student and Disciple of Leading for 2nd Order Change

#6: Stick With It (Bonus!)

Eduplanet21 and Carol Tomlinson




Thanks for joining us today for our webinar with Dr. Carol and Tomlinson. My name is Clare Coupe Scott, and I am the manager of marketing and professional learning at Eduplanet21. We're going to do a few brief introductions before we get started. We're delighted to be offering this webinar in partnership with New Hampshire ASCD, and I'd like to give their President, Steve Lebel an opportunity to welcome you.

Hello, everyone. My name is Steve Lebel. I'm President of New Hampshire ASCD and an instructional coach here in New Hampshire. On behalf of New Hampshire ASCD, we are thrilled to see so many people and welcome you to this webinar. We're extremely pleased to be partnering with Eduplanet21 in this great opportunity to listen and learn from the world-renowned I did Fan Girl just a little bit with Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson. I really am looking forward to her presentation today on Five Ways to Create a Culture that Supports Differentiation. And I'll pass it over to you, Clare.


It is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson. Carol is a William Clay Parish Junior Professor Emerita at the University of Virginia School of Education, where she served as the Chair of the Educational Leadership, Foundations and Policy, and was Co-director of the University's Institutes on Academic Diversity.


She was a public school teacher for 21 years and the Teacher of the Year in Virginia in 1974. At UVA, she was named Outstanding Professor in 2004 and received an All University Teaching Award in 2008. Her books on differentiation have been translated into many languages, and in 2021 she published one called: So Each May Soar: The Principles and Practices of Learner Centered Classrooms. We're excited that she works with us as a PLUS Author, collaborating on professional learning about differentiation. And today we've asked her to focus on educational leaders, and how you all can create a culture in your school and district that celebrates differentiation. With that, Carol, thank you so much for doing this with us today, and I am going to turn it over to you.


Thanks to all of you for being here today. I salute you for having had what is no doubt a busy day because they always are this year, especially in school, and still finding time to do some thinking about topics that are important for you and the people that you work with. So, I'm very happy to have a chance to spend a few minutes with you on this. As Clare said, my topic today is Five Ways to Create a Culture of Differentiation in your school, and that is built on the information I'm going to share with you comes from, I guess, three sources. I have had the pleasure of working at the University on some research teams that studied school change. And I have read volumes of people who write about school change and most particularly have had a chance to be in schools that have taken on the formidable job of making significant change in their schools to benefit both their students and their teachers. And I think it's that latter group that always speaks most powerfully to me. But all of those sources merge.


So here we go. Clare has a question she's going to pose for you in the chat box. And if for some reason you can't see the question, I'll read it to you just so you'll know what people are pondering for a few minutes


Q: What do you think is the most important thing a school principal can do to create a culture of differentiation in his or her school?

A few of the answers:

  • Modeling for differentiating for staff
  • Differentiated professional learning
  • Being flexible and encouraging teachers to be as well
  • Provide specialized professional learning
  • Focus on students.
  • Cultural equity.

So having listened to those and read most of them myself in the chat box, I may not have much new to tell you, but we'll give it a try. Your answers are right on, I think. So, I'm going to suggest to you that creating a culture of differentiation in your school involves at least five categories that are somehow easy to overlook in the crazy world that we live in. One is to really, authentically understand what differentiation is. I'm convinced that if I'm in a school with 50 faculty members, there are at least 50 definitions of what it is. Very few times do people have a school wide definition, and most of the time there are about as many misunderstandings as our understanding. So, a leader really needs to understand that authentically second suggestion or category I'd suggest to you is that if you're going to do what it takes to make real change in a school, it has to be something you believe in firmly, something that you're willing to stake your reputation in, something that you believe is worth bumps in the road. It's also really important, as one of the folks in the chat box said, that you model it, that you support it wisely, which fell into one of the categories that several responses fell into, and then be a student and disciple of leading for second order change.

#1: Understanding Differentiation Authentically

We'll look at those four categories, beginning with the notion that it's really important to understand differentiation authentically. I am just fascinated by the number of misunderstandings that roam around differentiation all the time. Some of them are very common. Some of them are surprisingly unique, but most of them don't really show much of a depth of understanding. If you're a leader, a leader helping people get better in something, you don't have to be a world expert, but you certainly need to know it fundamentally well, and you need to be ahead of where those folks are in understanding so that you can all grow together. So, it's important, I think, for you to understand that differentiation has three pillars involved with it. It has a philosophy, it has principles, and it has practices, and I think it's helpful to distinguish between those three things, but also to see how they work together. So, in the philosophy of differentiation are things like the fact that diversity is normal and it's valuable, and it shouldn't be something that causes us to separate people into this room, that room, and the other room, but to learn to live together and benefit from each other as we hope people will in the big world that teaching and learning need to focus on a growth mindset.

We do so many things in life and in school to signal that some kids are capable and others aren't, and kids pick up on that really quickly. And so sometimes we have a big job to do to help both teachers and students learn what it means to believe in the almost endless capacity of people to grow, that our job is not to cover a curriculum, it's to accept the responsibility for maximum growth that's possible for each individual in our classroom. Anything else, it seems to me, is not a good bill of sales for people to come to school. And one of the things again mirroring one of your responses in the chat box is that differentiation, along with many other things we ought to be doing in school, should remove barriers that keep all of our students from having equity of access to truly excellent learning experiences. Almost all schools have some really excellent learning experiences, but many times most of us don't access those. Differentiation wants everybody in the same room and then to teach up so that everybody has access to real excellence in their schooling and in their lives. Principles that we need to have a learning environment that is invitational to all kids and serves as a catalyst for learning that if we are differentiating curriculum that bores the socks off of kids and has no relevance in their lives, we've lost so much power, it's hard to recoup it.


We need to use formative assessment persistently to know where students are as they grow. So we know how to differentiate, that we need to teach in response to students varied readiness levels, their interests, their talents, their strengths, their learning preferences, their cultures. And that we need to understand how to lead students to work with us in a classroom that we're designing to try to work for all students who are in the classroom and practices things like proactive planning to address students readiness and interest in learning preferences in the classroom, that we choose instructional approaches designed to respond to students needs and also the nature of the content that we learn to teach up, which means to plan first for our most advanced students and then to differentiate by scaffolding others so that they can get access to the really amazing things that are possible in our schools. Tasks that are respectful to students so that everybody's task looks equally interesting, equally engaging, and equally important. Not that you have things that look like teachers pet task and no hope tasks and that you use flexible grouping not just in hope, but in reality. The students are continually moving between all sorts of groups based on a number of factors in their lives.


This is my concept map of differentiation, and I'm not going to stick with it very long, but it's a helpful tool to have. A concept map shows the part of the concept that you're trying to work with in this case, differentiation, and it pretty much tells the story. It's a great guide for principals and for curriculum coaches and curriculum developers and counselors and media specialists and all the people who should be on a team to make differentiation a reality. Differentiation is a teacher's Proactive response to learner needs not good enough to come in and say, “Oops, I did the same thing for everybody today and it didn't work again. How can I try to fix this?” Some of that is inevitable in school, but it's not a real good baseline premise. Our work will be shaped by our mindset and should be guided by five principles which I mentioned to you in shorthand a minute ago. Creating an Invitational learning environment, ensuring real quality curriculum, using assessment to inform teaching and learning, using instruction to respond to student variants, and leaving a classroom that balances flexibility and stability. Teachers can differentiate content, process, product and affect or learning environment based on students’ readiness levels, interests, learning preferences, using a whole variety of instructional strategies that invite you to attend to kids in different ways.


A few of them are listed here and will be listed in the handout that Clare shares with you. One of the most common misunderstandings that I see about differentiation is that it's a certain set of instructional strategies, and it's really not. There are infinite number almost of ways that you can address needs. It's handy to have the instructional strategies, but as you can see in this concept map, they're not by any manner of means, the heart of differentiation. For me, differentiation isn't nearly as much any set of instructional strategies as it is a way of being in the classroom, a way of thinking, a way of feeling, a way of responding to students, a way of helping students learn to respond to each other, a way of helping students grow as whole young people in their cognition and intellect, but also in their effective and social needs. So it's a small community that we build that tries to model the best that we know as human beings and the best that we know in our profession as well in all aspects of the classroom. In the chat, Clare is going to ask you a second question real briefly,


Q: Given that introduction, what percentage of teachers that you work with do you think have a deep, authentic understanding of differentiation?


The highest I see is 50%, and the most often repeated one is 10%. Bottom line, whichever way you go there, we've got a distance to go. And that affirms my sense as well.

#2: Believe in Differentiation Firmly

It's important to believe in differentiation firmly. Simon Sinek, who is one of my favorite authors because he seems to understand leadership as I've seen it at its best, tells us that there are only two ways to influence human behavior. You can either manipulate it or you can inspire it. And unfortunately, too often as teachers, we try to manipulate kids behavior instead of inspiring it. And unfortunately, too often as leaders, we try to manipulate teachers behavior instead of inspiring it. The inspiring thing goes much further. Sells much better, can last much longer with people. And so your belief becomes really important there. Sinek tells us something that is also revealing to me. He says that he and his colleagues have studied many organizations of all kinds, and they find that the ones that really excel, the ones that really have a mission, not on a piece of paper, but something that's sort of in the blood of the people who work there and that make a real difference for the people they serve, don't begin by saying, what is it we're getting ready to do?


Here a thing called differentiation. Oh, wait a minute. I didn't care about the what. Just tell me how to do it. What's the first thing I need to do? What's the second? What's the third? And then maybe some night we wake up and say, why are we doing this anyhow? Or maybe we don't. Sinek says that great organizations begin with, why? Why is it worth our time? Why is it worth the upset it's going to cause? Who are these human beings we're serving? What are their deep and genuine needs? What does it mean to be a teacher? Why are we after this big thing? And so to really be able to inspire people with something that makes them say, I know you're right. I guess I wish you weren't, but I really kind of know you're right. And you seem really excited about this, and I kind of believe I can trust you. So let's go. Starting with why is critical, and that takes a leader that has the confidence to say, if this is my one bet as a professional educator, it's the right one, and we're going to figure this out together.


Steve Jobs says management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could do. And once again, my sense is that the school leaders that I have known who create schools in which differentiation is the culture and where you can go in and come into anybody's class almost any day and see them doing wonderful things with kids as individuals and small groups and classes as a whole, or inspired people, not people who have been cajoled to do things they didn't care to do it it comes think about your life, people you see as leaders you admire. And what is it about that that makes you willing to follow their ideas, even if they're inconvenient? Sinek also says this. It's the work of a school leader who must guide the school communities. Recognition of a purposeful school, a place where people understand and reach for a moral calling. This provides a reason for their work that extends beyond and strengthens each person in the community and strengthens the community itself. The leader then works with others to envision and institute this critical vision of achievement and mutual support.


I actually have come to believe over the years, partly because of experiences I've had in the classroom, but that teaching is really or should be a deeply moral calling, that it is a deeply ethical practice or should be. And again, for someone to help us dig deeply into that and see ourselves is that purposeful adds so much to the work of teachers that is uplifting even when other times are not, and certainly does so much to uplift kids as well. So, understanding it, believing it so that you can be inspirational with that. And as one of you or several of you said in the chat box, modeling It leaders, if they are working correctly with teachers and trying to guide them in differentiation, ask those teachers to create an Invitational learning environment, a place where every kid wants to come every day, even if they won't admit it. And even if they don't like any other class. That place is a place that they feel safe, accepted, welcomed, understood. They feel that they don't have to be somebody other than who they are to be okay in there. They feel like they're contributing. They know they have to work harder than they've ever worked, but they also know there is always a support system around them.

#3: Model Differentiation

Leaders ask teachers to use curriculum that's relevant, that focuses learners on deep understanding, that has authentic written all over it, and that uses clear what I call KUDs, not just a statement that sort of by the end of today, you'll need to know to do this, but what is it you should know specifically? What is it you should understand really well? And what should you be able to do? Because if we don't have all three of those pieces, we don't have enough to send the content out into the world. We can't turn it into action. Leaders ask teachers to use formative assessments to help themselves teach better, help the kids learn how to learn better, to be more in charge of their learning. They ask teachers to teach the way their students learn, not the way they're accustomed to teaching and comfortable with it, to make learning active, collaborative, purposeful, and transferable. And they ask teachers to create routines that balance predictability in the classroom and flexibility that makes room for all those different strengths and needs that kids bring. So, if leaders ask teachers to do that, then by modeling differentiation, here is what those leaders should do.


They should create an Invitational learning environment. So that every teacher, every day comes in there feeling safe, respected, honored, supported, purposeful part of a collaborative team uplifted, and they don't have to change their essential nature as a human being in order to be part of that team. We would ask the leaders then, should also use curriculum. And there is a curriculum for differentiation, just like there's a curriculum for learning to teach art well or science well, or learning how to do inquiry well in terms of in service with teachers or professional development. What is included in that in terms of content, should be focused on the classroom, relevant to the teachers needs and experiences authentic. And what I mean by that is that it emphasizes fidelity to the intent and nature of the model of differentiation. There are a thousand ways to differentiate. There's no pacing guide for it at all. But there is a philosophy and a set of intentions that needs to stay at the core of it for us to get as much as we can for ourselves and our students as we go. The curriculum should be focused on teacher understanding of what they're doing and why they're doing it and how to do it.


And it should also have clear content, goals of knowledge, understanding, and skill that are known by both the teachers and the leaders. School leaders should use pre and ongoing formative assessments to help them lead better and to help their teachers learn better how to continue to grow in being a better teacher that's responsive to the students they teach. The principal or building leaders should also provide learning options should say learning and teaching options that match a teacher's readiness level, that tap into teachers interests, that allow for teachers learning preferences, and that's active, collaborative purposeful and transferable. And the principal should work with faculty to create cycles, expectations, criteria for success, timelines, and other things that balance both predictability. So there are no great surprises, but also flexibility enough for teachers to learn in ways that they learn most effectively. So whoever said in the chat box model, it's not quite as easy as it seems, but it is mighty powerful.


I had a chance to spend a good bit of time in two schools a number of years ago. Just serendipitously at the same time. Might have been better not to be doing it at the same time, but it was pretty cool.


One was an elementary school in the Midwest that had the reputation of a great school. People moved to the neighborhood to be there. The principal, who was a veteran. The teachers knew they were well regarded. It had a particularly strong special Ed program because nobody put the kids away in separate rooms. They were integrated in just amazing ways into the classroom so that it benefited everybody. In other words, a prime, fine school. The second school was a high school in New England, which had been a prime school in its day. But the demographics had changed and the situation in the area had morphed rather quickly, and the school was really a school in trouble. It was about to be put on probation by the state or taken over by the state. And it had a principal who was a veteran principal but was new to that school. The way the two principals had to approach their task and the visions that they had were markedly different. And yet both of them model these things for their teachers all the time. And one of the things that I was struck by in both places was the power that that example set for teachers really struck them emotionally and help them say, if it makes that much difference to us when somebody treats us that way, why aren't we doing it for the kids that we serve?

#4: Support Differentiation

Creating a culture of differentiation in your school also calls for leaders who support the change, and that support comes in all shapes and sizes and is infinite in its possibilities. But here are a few things that I think of. My friend Mike Murphy, who's an expert in leadership and school change, reminds me that one of the most important things that leaders can do, including leaders in classrooms for their students, is to make sure that there's trust in three things. In the case of leaders for differentiation in a school, trust in one another. How much do the teachers trust the principal to fulfill the promise of the work? How much do they trust each other to be real colleagues, comrades in making this move forward? How much do they trust the work that they're working on? Do they have a belief that differentiation makes any sense? Not all teachers do by any manner means, and there are lots of reasons why that's the case, probably beginning some with that word differentiation that nobody can pronounce too well. But it just seems to me that if we stop and breathe and we ask ourselves, Are those kids in your class pretty much alike all the time?


In all these ways, you suppose anybody suffers from the fact that we teach them as though they are all like in most ways? What kinds of pain do you suppose we cause when we do that? What sorts of opportunities do we bypass and short change our kids with, but also short change our own practice? What reason do we have to believe in this work? So belief in the leader who's going to make the decisions and who will as a result of doing that, be directing us in some ways, but also who will be shepherding us and asking for our input? How much trust do we have in the work? How much trust do we have in the people who will partner with us in making that work? That's a big part of support. And it's not something you do on a given Monday. It's something you set out to do. And you listen to yourself and listen to other people all the time. And when you hit bump switch you will realize there's a breach of trust here in some way or other. We have to get past that in terms of trusting the work, trusting each other, or trusting me as the leader.


I think one of the most important things you can do to make a culture of differentiation happen in your school is to provide some permission and protection. And here's a shortlist of what that might include. You feel free to add your items to this. I think we have to give teachers permission to be student focused instead of and you can fill in that blank. I'll fill it in for you in a couple of minutes. But giving teachers not only permission but encouragement, big encouragement to focus on those human beings far more than they focus on anything else. Giving them permission to teach compelling content in relevant and dynamic ways. One of the two principles that I mentioned to you that I had a chance to be with in her school during their long change process. Because change takes a long time, real change takes a long time had this wonderful ability for people to love her, and yet because they trusted her, and yet to be able to be not blunt or sarcastic or hurtful in what she said, but just kind of direct in her own way. And she'd come in class and she always said to the teachers, I'll be in your classes all the time. And it's not about assessment of evaluation of you. It's about learning with you. I need to know how you're thinking. I need to know what you're doing and why your head is taking you in that direction, because we need to come to common understandings and learn from each other. So, I'm here to learn from you. And she'd watch. And then if the teacher had a little time after that, she'd sit with the teacher for a bit. If not, she'd do it in the afternoon and just ask the teacher to talk about the lesson she'd seen. Where did that come from and why do it in those ways? And what are the learning goals? And I heard her on more than one occasion say, I want to ask you a question I'm having a little trouble answering for myself. Why would any fourth grader have wanted to do what you all did today? And because the teachers sort of knew the answer to that and trusted her anyway, you could see them sort of wrinkle their brow and say, I don't think if they're normal that they would have wanted to. School ought to be a place where kids come to not to be pampered, not to have a birthday party, but to a place where learning is joy and excitement and revelation. Not fill in the worksheet after fill in the worksheet after tight deadline. After tight deadline. School is where kids ought to learn that learning is one of the most powerful and positive influences in their lives. And some days it would be really hard for them to pick up that message. Help teachers know that you believe that.


As one author I read says, curriculum is really about answering the question, what is life and who am I in it? Big deal. Not there yet. Give them permission to fail. I heard a principal number of years ago who recorded a welcome video for her teachers at the beginning of the year, and she said in that here are some changes we've been talking about. These are changes we have to make. We can't do what our students need if we don't. And I want you to clearly hear me say, I would rather watch you fail time after time in good faith than to continue to do the things that you know how to do and are comfortable doing. That's good permission.


It's hard for people to fail, and I think particularly hard for teachers because we're seen as those people are supposed to know everything. We need to bust that myth really quickly in the year and help kids see us failing and learning to get up and do better. Fun to be able to say to a class one day, you know, I had that brilliant idea we did yesterday, and I knew about 15 minutes in that it was not brilliant. And I really should have stopped you then because it wasn't working, but I didn't. And so we're going to try something different today. That's a good lesson for the kids. Give them space and time and permission and encouragement to collaborate. One of the chat box answers said, that - really important. Working alone in your classroom with the door shut isn't nearly as effective as pulling together with a group of teachers that are on your same grade level or on your same wavelength or whatever rationale needs to be used for getting groups together. Sometimes we don't feel we have permission. Often we don't feel like we have the space or time or resources, and that just doubles the chore of training, the weight of it. So here's my fill in the blank thing from the first item here. When it comes to protection, protect them from a sole draining focus on raising test scores.


I'm an old creature. I've been working in education about 52 years now, going on 53 probably started that test focus about 35 years ago for the book that Clare mentioned that I had published last year. I did a bunch of work going back and looking at what has come from our 30 plus years of test focus, and there's very little to be said for it. On the whole, our scores are no better. In some places, they're worse. The kids that we said we wanted to serve the most have fared the worst. Our teachers are tired. Our kids are uninspired. We give tests to see if the test is going to work. We create pacing guides so everybody has to cover the same thing in the same way. And we now have a generation of teachers who only know how to teach that way. And so to stop that train also takes some real leadership. But I have to believe that most teachers would be invigorated by teaching the kind of stuff that, for example, Jay McCain, Grant Wiggins espouse, and that Eduplanet works with real closely would have to be liberated with those ideas.


It helps us answer the question, too. What is life and who am I in it and why am I in this teaching world anyhow? And this is a real one and a tough one.


If you want teachers to make significant change, protect them from the hundred daily demands that have little to do with real teaching and learning. One of the ones that I see this is one of a thousand I could mention. Well, maybe not a thousand, but a big bucket full that I see real often. I have to put a grade on my website Internet site every night for every kid in whatever it is we've done that runs counter to everything that we know about the purpose of assessment, how we should be using it in school, and it eats gobs of time and probably generates far more angst and tension and difficult conversations than almost anything else we do not easy to make change happen. If you want to really promote change, support it. Then you have to know what teachers need to know, understand, and be able to do in order to create professional development that sends them in a direction that is the backbone of what it is they're trying to do.


And so in the handout that Clare sends you, you'll have a copy of this. There's certain knowledge kids teachers need to have at some point, certain insights, understandings principles that should guide everything we do in a differentiated classroom and certain skills teachers need to develop. This is the professional development. There are so many ways it can be received, so many ways it can be engaged with so many different routes that it can go and so many different emphasis it can have. But this is the backbone and this is what should guide us. It's actually a great thing to know because then there's not so much doubt about where you need to go. In addition to that, if you want to support differentiation, you have to get your folks beyond one of the most common things I hear about differentiation, and that is, oh, yeah, differentiation. We did that in our school last year or oh, differentiation. I already do that. I have been doing that now in classrooms, truly for 50 years. And I learn every day. And I have learned so much over those 50 years about what makes teaching better and what makes differentiation better.


And I'm not sure those two things are different from each other. And I absolutely know that if I had another 50 years to keep on, I would keep learning. So we need some mechanisms, sort of like this one. This is a rubric for how teachers might change as their learning environment matures, as their curriculum becomes more dynamic, as their use of assessment becomes more ingrained in everything they do and so forth. This should not be used as an assessment tool for teachers, an evaluation tool for teachers. And I would never show this whole thing to a group of teachers and say, this is where we're going. If it were me and I were that teacher, I'd head right out of the room. But it's a great thing to be able to look at and use pieces of with teachers to set goals and make commendations and that kind of thing. Only if as leaders, we have the knowledge of what it is we're trying to lead can we really do that. I want to say there though, something that sounds like a contradiction, but it's not. The principal should not be the lead staff developer.


Principals needs to be involved in teacher growth really fully, but they should not be the lead professional developer. You need somebody who's really both very good with teachers and very good with differentiation to do that. And from my experience watching what happens in schools, it's really important to find a person that's going to play that role for you and let them stick with you for several years so you can grow together so that you're all on the same page about what it is you're aiming for, who's growing, who's benefiting from what kind of support, and so forth.

#5: Be a Student and Disciple of Leading for 2nd Order Change

Then finally, I'm going to suggest to you that it's really important if you want to lead a school for differentiation, to be a student and a disciple of what it means to create second order change in a school. People who studied the change process in schools and in other places talk about first and second order change. Differentiation is a second order change, and it's not an easy change. But like many things in life, sometimes the most difficult things are by far the most rewarding. And experts tell us that if we want our schools to become what they have to be to really serve everybody as they need to be served, we need to be in the business of leading second order change, not first order change.

Leading for differentiation means that we are really trying to lead and manage differentiation, becoming a part of the school's fabric, making differentiation who we are and what we do and how we think as professionals. It's sometimes hard to get us as teachers to remember to shut the door and turn off the lights when we leave at the end of the day because so many crazy things are happening. But to change us from the inside out as people and as professionals and to help us find dynamic new ways to work with kids is not a simple thing. And it is second order change. First order change when somebody comes to your school and says, wow, I have these five really wonderful strategies you can use to help kids be deeper thinkers. And here's what they are, and here's how you use them. Here are the steps, here are some illustrations. Let's participate in them. People in that room think, well, yeah, we've been doing some of this, but this is a little bit better. I can do this and keep my lesson plans pretty much exactly like they are. I'll just pull out this chunk of what I've done and plug this chunk in. And these things are consistent with what we're doing and how we feel about teaching and learning. And given what we learned today and a little bit more reading and a little bit of practice, I can do this with my knowledge and skills that are already in place.


Second order change is when somebody comes in and says, yes, you really do need to know them as individuals, not perfectly, but well enough to teach them better. And yes, I really, truly do believe that most kids can learn. The vast majority of them, the vast, vast majority learn what we need them to learn if we have the right support systems in place. And yes, we probably will have to discuss some things about changing grading. And yes, the learning environment is important, and we do need to work with kids academic, cognitive, social, and emotional needs, not just the one part of that. And I'm not sure I even really believe all those things. Do you expect me to? And man, this is going to take a lot of new knowledge, but when we can do these things, it revolutionizes teaching, learning the school.


And I agree with Sinek that it even revolutionizes the community around us. Differentiation is tough, not so much because of what we have to do. When we differentiate, much harder, much, much harder is what it asks us to let go of. It asks us to quit believing in the fact that some kids are able and some not able, and instead to believe in our capacity to help release potential in kids and in kids' capacity to do way more than we think they can. It asks us to give up coverage of curriculum in favor of understanding. It asks us to give up so much emphasis on teaching and what we do and place more emphasis on learning and what the kids do. It asks us to quit the whole class stuff as our predominant way of working, in favor of lots of focus on the needs of individual kids, small groups of kids, not permanent small groups, but small groups that are presented to us as a result of formative assessment and change all the time, particularly as we also assign kids to them for different reasons. It asks us to quit being the worker bees in the classroom and to shift in terms of making the kids become the worker bees.


It asks us to quit looking at fixed time. I can't do this in 45 minutes. All I have is 45 minutes. I can't differentiate in 45 minutes. Actually, you can do a lot. But what if you couldn't get it all done today? Are your kids capable of saying, okay, we got this part of the day. This is how we'll put things away. And when we come in, we'll know tomorrow that this is where we pick up and keep going. And it asks us to let go of assessment as judging in favor of assessment as mentoring. Good stuff to let go of if our knowledge of our profession is right, but much harder to do the letting go than it is to replace it with the new stuff. Here's what Differentiation is trying to do, why it's second order change. Right now, the teacher is seen as the superordinate in the classroom, the one in charge, the one that has to make everything work, the one that needs to do all the work, get it all right. And the teacher uses management, or sees management as a kind of control mechanism, often sees teaching as telling, sees instruction largely as practice and drill.


And much of that is because of the standardized test that's coming. And we do see assessment as grading and judging. The students are definitely subordinates, and their job is to comply with what we asked them to do, to pay attention, and to retain the stuff that we've done with them until the test is over. This is certainly not universal, but a very common model in our schools. Differentiation says, Wait a minute. There's a more defensible, more research based, more experience than a sense of artistic based approach, more empathetic way to approach the variety of kids we have. And that is that the teacher is, you'll see in this diagram, still slightly in height above the name, the word students because it is our job to make sure that things are going well. And sometimes that means just letting go and letting the kids follow the ideas that they have. But the student is our partner, not at the bottom with us at the top. And Differentiation asks us to work together, to see curriculum as meaning making, to see instruction as facilitating learning, to see assessment as charting a course, and to see management as leading for success.


And so that's a big change, but one that I believe is not only worthy of our time, I believe this is when we talk about equity and excellence and making those available to all kids, I believe this is the most compelling need of our time in schools.

#6: Stick With It

Finally, I want to add one thing. So this really makes it six things on Clare's list rather than five. You've got to stick with it. The journey is mountainous and there are holes in the road and there are storms that come along the way and days that you want to run out of the door. And that's just how it is. It's like parenting, like lots of other things that we've all done, even trying to be a great cook or play a masterful game of golf. It's always like this, and if you don't stick with it, it's all over.


Of the suggestions we have examined briefly, which one do you think is the most challenging for leaders?



I want to share this quote with you. It came from a student who was taking a course on differentiation, a master's program on differentiation at the university where I used to teach. But I didn't teach, or I've never met her, somebody just shared this comment with me. The transformation in her, I think, is the one that I longed for in so many teachers. She said:


“Overall, this semester has made me an educator. Yes, I've taught before, but my thinking about what a lesson plan should accomplish has changed dramatically. Looking back at the teaching I did, I had very little philosophy informing my decisions. This is not to say my teaching was bad. Certainly some of the activities would still stand up to my current thinking, but it was uninformed. My thinking about teaching was from the perspective of wanting to get through certain material to check off specific boxes, not actually to drive meaning and learning on behalf of the student. In a way, differentiation is about letting go of ego, moving away from thinking about what you, the teacher, need to accomplish and instead genuinely prioritizing student needs. And that's why I say I'm an educator now, because in my mind, students and their education comes first.”


And that's where I think this change would take us and is worthy. That's my pitch for you. As Jay McTighe says, that's my case and I'm going to stick with it.

Eduplanet21 and Carol Tomlinson

I just wanted to share a little bit about how Eduplanet21 works with Carol. When we talk about Eduplanet21, we're a curriculum management platform, and we have several components, all of which can support differentiation. We have a course planner, we do unit design, so you can design your lessons. You can plan for differentiating for extensions, for modifications. We have lesson planning software, and we have professional learning. And in terms of the professional learning, that's where we've been working closely with Carol in that she has been developing a Differentiation in the Classroom Institute. One of the things she mentioned at the beginning was getting everybody on the same page about a definition of differentiation and getting some common understandings about what differentiation is. Well, through her Professional learning Institute, you can bring your team together to go through the same professional learning on differentiation to develop that common understanding. And her Professional learning Institute is very in-depth. There are six different learning paths, which is an individual course covering everything, all the principles she talked about. So, things like curriculum and assessment and leading and managing a classroom instructional practices. It's a great way for teams to go through a PLC to really look at it.


If you're using our platform for curriculum management, you're able to make those ties to your units, to your lessons, to your courses. We really try to make those connections between what Carol's teaching and her professional learning and being able to implement that in your curriculum. We would love the opportunity, if you're interested, to share more about the platform, about Carol's Professional learning Institute and how you can use our platform to really lead differentiation in your school or district.


That's my two minute little infomercial about Eduplanet21. I think it's important for you to know the work we're doing with Carol and kind of how it ties together in terms of differentiation.


Q: Sean has asked: Carol, in the early years, play and differentiation go hand in hand. Based on your observations over the years, what are some priorities you would encourage all early years teachers to keep in mind?


A: I think the early grades sometimes do a better job than most of the rest of us do in the sense of honoring the young people that come to them. The best places that I see are doing exactly what I'm reading into your question. And that is to say, when the very early year children come in, play is their job. So we don't need to start in pre K or K or even grade one trying to prepare them for a standardized test that's coming in third grade. We need to let them be the best PreK they can be or the best first graders they can be and create learning experiences that both attach to their interest in their lives and also begin to build foundational concepts and principles that will help them develop vocabulary and thinking skills from there on out. I think many times when people explain to me that they can't differentiate for their students who are in fourth grade or fifth grade or 10th grade or 12th grade because they can't be trusted to work on their own, I'm always inclined to say, go look in kindergarten in first grade and see what's happening in there because they do that so well.


But I think it is again to say these are very young people that are coming to us with different stresses, different strengths, different proclivities for learning. And our job is to know them as well as we can in individuals and provide as rich an opportunity as can possibly be provided for them with the support to help them grow at a developmentally appropriate, in a developmentally appropriate way, including those kids that come in in kindergarten and already are reading chapter books. That's part of that as well, but not trying to force that on students before any psychologist would tell us they're ready for them.


I will have to say that the work that Eduplanet has done with me and for me has really been remarkable. Clare has been responsible for a lot of that, but they have come to where I was to film. They have stayed there sometimes for two days at a clip. We did some stuff as the pandemic was still going on and sort of had to go in hooded to pick up take out food to bring back to be able to work. And she works just amazingly well to edit and carve down stuff that I do that's too long and to put with it thought provoking questions and activities that people can work with. I don't know of a group that I've ever worked with that has invested as much time and thought in the products that they're creating. So I'm proud of what they've done and I hope they are too.


[Clare] Thank you, Carol. I do want to take an opportunity to introduce Jeff Colosimo. He's our CEO and I know he wanted to thank everybody for joining us as well.


[Jeff] Steve, thanks to New Hampshire ASCD for helping to pull this together. You have been a great partner over the years and we hope to continue that partnership. And to Carol, I mean, just wow, your depth of knowledge and leadership is just amazing and your willingness to share with everybody is just inspiring. So thank you thank you for working with Eduplanet21. Thank you for all you've done in education and hopefully will continue to do. We really appreciate it.


[Carol] My pleasure. It’s how you learn.


Thanks for joining us and enjoy your evening.


Want to learn more about how Eduplanet21 can help your school or district? Contact us and request a demo.


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