Tag Archives: assessment

Differentiating the Curriculum for senior students

Today was my first official day at my new school, and as is typical here in the ACT it was a whole school professional learning day. The topic that the school decided on last year was differentiation – ensuring that all students can access the curriculum and have opportunities to show their learning regardless of any disabilities or learning difficulties that may create barriers for them to succeed. It is a topic I’ve done many PL sessions on in the past, so whilst I think the day itself was well organised and run, I didn’t feel like there was much “new” information presented for me to take in.

That said, one thing I was really impressed with was the way staff conducted themselves during the day – it is clearly something that the school has identified as an area that needs to be improved on this year. While these events tend to be a lot of information presenting, there were opportunities to get details that were specific to the needs of students in my classes so it wasn’t so general as to be of limited use.

We were provided with some resources to look at before attending, exploring differentiation and/or diversity from a range of perspective. Websites, presentations, videos, policy documents – it was a pretty good collection of readings that addressed many of the aspects that are important to understand the issues and complexities of differentiating successfully. Of course, Gardner and Bloom’s came up, as did the work of Maker and others known for their differentiation research, but it was interesting to see where the emphasis on differentiation is placed by various educational jurisdictions. Some tend to focus on the gifted and talented end of the spectrum, while others look very much as disability and severe learning difficulties. Our interpretation was much broader, and tries to capture students who, for any reason, may hit a barrier to learning. These could include the above, but may also be as simple as moving around a lot due to a parent working for Defence, being a non-native speaker, being independent and needing to balance work as well as school or in more extreme cases being a primary carer for a relative at home, among others.

The video below is just one of the resources – I’ve provided links to everything at the end of this post if you want to explore some of them on your own. This one provides a good starting point for thinking about the importance of keeping students engaged with their learning through variety, and ensuring that school doesn’t just end up being a waste of time (for all involved).

One of our sessions consisted of us choosing from 8 different activities and working in small groups to either consider some of the issues surrounding differentiation or to work through a differentiation activity. I found a few of these interesting for a couple of reasons:

  1. Differentiation strategies abound on the net for primary school teachers. Adapt one of more to a college setting.
  2. To what extent does differentiation differ from simply good teaching?
  3. Choose a model of differentiation (or make up your own) and use it to develop a differentiated lesson or unit of work.
  4. Write a soliloquy/sonnet/dramatic monologue from the learning environment to the teachers of the college.
  5. Evaluate a differentiation strategy of model of differentiation.
  6. Why do some of our most gifted students get bored in class?
  7. To what extent is differentiation a ‘machine-gun’ approach to the teaching of students with diverse needs? Aim, pull the trigger and hope for the best!
  8. Choose any content. Fill out the boxes in the Blooms-Gardner’s matrix.

I worked with one of the science teachers on the last activity, mainly because I have done quite a bit in the past on this topic and I thought I’d go to the smallest group and contribute there. We only had about 25 minutes to work on our matrix, but the result of that (which we’ll probably go back to and refine at some point – some of the notes are a bit rough right now) is visible here.

The statements that I found the most interesting, though, were 2 and 7. One of the biggest gripes I have with the discussion around many of these topics and issues is that they are often discussed independently of what it means to actually be a teacher. If I didn’t differentiate within my classroom, I wouldn’t feel as if I was actually performing my duty as a teacher. My role is to instil in all of my students a passion for learning – what they learn in my class is, to a degree, secondary. And the only way I can do that is to engage them, which means taking into account their individual circumstances and making sure that they have every opportunity to tie their own experiences in with the material and activities I present to them.

The best way to do that, of course, is to know your students – relationships are in my mind the most important part of being a successful teacher. What each relationship looks like may be different – teachers and students all have their own unique personalities; some are built on respect while others may use a shared passion as the underlying foundation. Either way, getting to know your students is the number one priority, especially early in the teaching period.

Which brings me to the machine gun analogy – I don’t believe it works for effective differentiated instruction. The image I conjure up in my mind when I think machine gun is of a general target (understanding a concept) that is simply delivered in multiple ways in the hope that something clicks for each student. It doesn’t imply any considered thought about what those strategies would be, just that there are a lot of them.

Using the strong, positive relationships your build with your students allows you to make informed choices about which strategies are going to be effective for your classroom – there’s no need to just spray bullets, because each bullet has already been carefully selected to meet an identified need.

Then, there’s the question of assessment. Ultimately, my view is that this can be done well – even when working within imposed constraints such as the HSC, VCE or (in our case in the ACT) the BSSS courses that dictate what should be taught and when. If, when we design our assessment tasks and learning activities, we keep in mind that what the students need to understand can be considered independently from the opportunities we create for them to learn, share and explore it, we can then introduce flexibility into how that learning is demonstrated to us. Where an external exam forces us to test concepts in a written form that can be hard (thankfully, we don’t have external testing), but for the assessment that occurs at the school level ensuring that how students present their learning is not restricted ensures the maximum success when it comes to marks and grading.


NSWDET Policy and Implementation Strategies for the education of gifted and talented students
A fairly comprehensive overview of the contemporary approaches to differentiation (60 pages)

NTDET Curriculum Differentiation and Education Adjustment Plans
Focus on individual needs and reasonable adjustments (23 pages)

UNESCO – Changing Teaching Practices: using curriculum differentiation to respond to students’ diversity
A vast consideration of the topic of differentiation notable for the international perspective it brings and the breadth of disadvantage that forms its context. (109 pages)

Basics of Differentiation
A fairly thorough example of how student choice boards can be applied.  The example considered is on figures of speech. (26 pages including some irrelevant ‘water cycle’ material)

NSWDET Developing Differentiated Units of Work
A range of practical charts, lists and templates that enable differentiation in a range of different and sophisticated ways (28 pages)


Are your lessons fun? (3m 20s)

Special Ed Differentiation – Some Ideas (Tiered Activities, Tic-Tac-Toe, RAFT) (5m 14s)

Why Differentiate? – Carol Tomlinson (3m 47s)

Learning Stations – Tiered Activity, Speech Bubbles, Memory, Choice (2m 55s)


Queensland Managing Learning for Diversity – Teaching
A range of adjustments suggested alongside some movements in curriculum design that are compatible with differentiation i.e. Productive Pedagogies, Universal Learning by Design (1 webpage + links)

WA Schools Plus – Helpful hints for differentiating the curriculum for all students
A comprehensive list of tips for teachers (1 webpage)

A Different Place – Examples of products
A list of different ‘products’ of learning categorized somewhat dubiously according to their potential to elicit more or less sophisticated performance. Most usefully used as an ideas source for products. (1 webpage + links)


Strategies for Differentiation: Curriculum Compacting, Tiered Assignments, Independent Projects
Very practical in nature but focusing significantly on curriculum compacting (50 slides)

Reaching all children in the classroom: an overview of differentiation strategies
Powerpoint presentation that is well pitched in terms of dealing with complicated ideas in an accessible way. Some good examples included. (32 slides)

Extending Gifted Students
An authoritative presentation on the extension of gifted students with an emphasis on creativity as well as some local research on the way gifted students prefer to learn (36 slides)


Maker and Williams Model Template
Curriculum design templates for differentiation based on the works of Maker and Williams respectively (5 pages)

Bloom-Gardner Matrix
Tool for developing activities that cater for both Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive difficulty as well as Gardner’s multiple inteligences (2 pages)

Scholarly Articles

Integrating the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with Multiple Intelligences
Scholarly article by Toni Noble addressing planning for both differentiation on the level of academic rigour alongside also addressing multiple intelligences (21 pages)

Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction
Scholarly article arguing for inclusive strategies for meeting the needs of gifted and talented students in mainstream classrooms as opposed to structural solutions (13 pages)


SERUpdate June 2010
Newsletter of the South Australian Special Education Resource Unit (SERU) containing a range of articles from educators in SA schools focusing on the successes and challenges of differentiation in the classroom. (40 pages)

Teacher Professionalism and NAPLAN Testing

NAPLAN testing for our students is over for 2011 and, whilst I could use this as a chance to vent/debate/rant about the merits and pitfalls of standarised testing, I’m sure plenty of my colleagues will do that for me. So, rather than spend this post raising issues such as the appropriateness of the data, the validity of it is a measurement tool etc, I’ve chosen to question another aspect of the testing that I don’t think all teachers consider in quite the same way.

You see, I administered the testing this year for some of our Year 9 students and, whilst the group I was supervising was exceptionally well behaved and followed all of the directions they were given to the letter, the whole process still managed to get me riled up. It might seem a tad silly, but the aspect of NAPLAN that made me the angriest had nothing to do with the measurement of student performance – it was the demand that every teacher deliver the test in exactly the same way. Not the timing, or the format or anything like that – it was following a pre-written script to the letter when explaining instructions and procedures to the students.

A lot of current educational thinking places real value on the establishment of relationships with our students. A large part of my day is not spent delivering lessons or preparing learning activities, but rather involves talking to the kids about what they want to achieve, what they want to learn, how they would like school to be better/different – things that help me engage them not only when they walk into a classroom, but also when we encounter each other on the playground or (shock horror!) at the shops or in the community. And, when the relationships we build are strong, respectful and built on trust, students value their interactions with you and value their learning.

As professionals who use what they have learned through formal education and (more importantly) experience, teachers know how to get the most positive results from their students because they have strong relationships with them. Our students learn a bit about who we are, and they build expectations about how we’ll behave and what we expect.

However, delivering NAPLAN requires us to follow a script when the kids enter our class to begin the test. We are instructed not to deviate in any way from the provided text, and it contains no emotion, is uninteresting and designed to ensure a common and consistent experience for all students in the country. Every student will hear exactly the same instructions, and no student is therefore advantaged or disadvantaged. So the theory goes.

I understand the reasoning behind it all, don’t get me wrong – and I see how following the procedure prevents teachers from inadvertently giving some students assistance that others don’t receive, but I question the justification of such a need. Teachers are professionals – we are all educated, have chosen to pursue a career in a field aware that we’re not going to be rolling in cash or working short hours, and know and understand the purpose of testing on this scale (and the importance of being fair and equitable). Does ACARA have so little faith in the profession that it doesn’t trust us to do the right thing by our students?

If the data was used for purely diagnostic purposes (which is what it is designed to do) so that we can assess how our kids are progressing and can tailor our educational programs to address their needs, we’d have no reason to “artificially inflate” our students’ results – we’d be doing them a disservice if we did. It also wouldn’t matter whether our students were, as a cohort, above or below “the line” – it’s an average, and therefore it is IMPOSSIBLE for ALL students to be above it! Even comparisons of “statistically similar” schools will lead to some kids being below the benchmark, purely because of how it is calculated. And, if we know which kids need the additional support, that data can be used to help us address their needs through better resourcing, investment and potentially through action research.

I may appear to have drifted off topic a bit, so let’s reel this all back in…

Let’s consider another occupation that performs diagnostic analyses on a regular basis – the medical profession. Every day, GPs will have their patients visit for a myriad of reasons – some for checkups, some to collect results from tests, others with some sort of discomfort they are experiencing, and so on. I’m not sure about you, but if my interactions with my doctor involved them stepping through a scripted, pre-determined text that failed to acknowledge our relationship, my needs and personality and my medical history, I probably wouldn’t go back. I can also guarantee I’d be less likely to actually open up about any problems or concerns I may have, especially if they were embarrassing or awkward. Why? Because I wouldn’t be comfortable. And my failure to feel comfortable/relaxed, and the inability for me to develop trust in that relationship, is going to be negative for both me and for my doctor – me because I get poor medical care, and for my doctor because he is unable to do his job effectively due to the constraints of the procedure.

This wouldn’t happen in the medical profession – in fact, the many doctors I have met/spoken to/visited in my life so far have all had their differences. And some I haven’t liked. I like my doctor to be direct – I don’t want them to soften the blow if there’s something wrong, and I want the most practical and direct advice they can give me. I don’t want them to be consoling if the news is bad, I just want to know what the next step is. You might be different, and if you are, then you wouldn’t go to my doctor because you wouldn’t be comfortable. Or you would go to my doctor, but his response to you would be very different to the one he gives to me.

And this works, because we all respond to people and data differently. Doctors are expected to use their professional judgement to identify how best to establish a relationship of trust and respect with their patients. They’ll use the strategies they have developed to do it, and we accept that they are capable of doing so.

Our kids want to know that when we’re in the classroom with them, we’re there to support them and all that they do. They know they don’t have to be the brightest kid in the class to have our respect, nor do they need to get everything right all the time. What matters most to us is that they continue to learn and develop a passion for learning that they’ll carry with them when they leave us to move onto the next phase of their lives. If every time something “matters” we turn into unfeeling, uncaring robots that all say exactly the same thing and stop being the people they know and trust, how does that make them feel?

Are teachers not professional enough to respond appropriately in such a “serious” situation? Is that the fear? That we are unable to make good judgements about what is best for our students and for the outcomes of the testing process? If so, then I find it both disheartening and infuriating that society does not respect educators enough to give us credit for the work we do. If it’s not, then why is the benchmark for professionalism in various occupations different?

Creating, Consuming and Knowing

I’m active in a number of forums online (Blogging is probably my lightest online presence) and I follow educational debates very closely. One that occurs in just about every forum in the online and physical world is the argument about students creating their own knowledge through projects and activities, and the critical importance of a constructivist approach to education in the world right now. I agree with the view that our kids (and indeed everyone else) need to construct their own knowledge, and that teachers should be providing students with all of the assistance and skills they need to be able to do this, but there are a couple of things I think a lot of educators forget about when they go on and on about the need for students to be creating ‘something’ to demonstrate their learning.

Assessing what students have learned is fraught with difficulty – they may not necessarily want to demonstrate what they know for social or personal reasons, they may be required to use a medium that doesn’t necessarily work for them (yes I’m looking at you standardised testing), or it might simply be that on the day we formally assess them they’re off their game. To help overcome this difficulty, we can use formative assessment strategies and can give the kids greater flexibility over how and what they present. So far I don’t think anything I’ve said is too controversial, and if you’re an educator I’d like to think that so far you’re nodding your head in agreement with me.

Here comes the kicker – how well do you differentiate between the creation of knowledge and the creation of things?

The iPad was met with a very mixed response when it was introduced – some people think its fantastic, others say it doesn’t have all the features they want but that it has potential, and others think its just a downright stupid idea. Without a doubt though, the greatest criticism I hear of it is that its emphasis on the consumption of information means it is not a relevant device for the world our students live in. Those who hold this view point to other portable devices and say how much more superior they are because they allow students to create things, whether they be multimedia-rich projects or simple word processing documents. Without getting into a debate about whether or not the iPad can ever be a creation device (I think it has that potential), if you are one of those people that holds this view, I want you to read through the scenarios I present below and reconsider your view. In both scenarios, pretend you are a student.

Scenario 1: Consumption, Consumption, Consumption

Imagine yourself walking into a library that has been redesigned from the ground up. It’s full of all of the latest novels, magazines, journals, and it’s got multiple TV screens and computers that deliver streaming media, news and commentary 24/7. It has a podcast library that allows you to download directly from it to any device, as well as open access to any online subscription service you can think of. You can turn on your own iPad, Acer netbook, Android mobile or Ubuntu notebook – all of them connect instantly to a wireless network that is secured but has no blocking filters in place, allowing you to interact with the world around you in a multitude of ways, including access to your social networks and chat services. You spend 8 hours in that environment, investigating things you’re interested in and learning about things you didn’t even know existed, simply by following links and catching interesting tidbits of information from the variety of stimulus material around you.

Question: Have you learned anything? Has that experienced allowed you to construct new knowledge?

Scenario 2: Creation, Creation, Creation

You get home from school and sit down to work on an assessment task. The task requires you to demonstrate what you have learned in class by posting to a blog, constructing an ePortfolio of your classwork, contributing to a class wiki and creating a 2 minute podcast episode that highlights what you have learned. You sit down and spend 8 hours working on this task, and create products that you’re fairly happy with.

Question: Have you learned anything? Has that experienced allowed you to construct new knowledge?


My guess is that in both cases, you’ve answered the question the same way – yes, you’ve learned something and you’ve had the opportunity to construct some new knowledge or understanding from the experience. I’m not going to argue about that – I agree that in both cases the student has been given real opportunities to engage with and develop their own idea of what knowledge is.

What I’m curious about is which experience has been most useful for the student in terms of learning new things and developing an informed opinion about what (s)he learned as a result of each experience.

I think it would be fair to say that if students are consuming information that comes from a variety of sources and provides alternative perspectives and views, that the consumption of that array of information allows them to truly construct knowledge. If, however, we simply sat them down and got them to simply make things from what they know already (e.g. make a podcast, now make a blog, now make a website, now write a computer program, now create a movie…), I would argue that the experiences of that student would be much less rewarding and the knowledge they create is much more narrow.

It’s easy to hold up the creation of “stuff” as being the ultimate goal of education – if kids are making stuff, they are obviously learning something – but I also think it’s important that educators do NOT underestimate the value of consuming stuff too. The creation of knowledge does not have to result in a tangible product being produced – if that was the case, there’d be a lot of people out there who wasted a LOT of time over the years. Equally, the creation of stuff does not necessarily demonstrate the creation of knowledge.