Tag Archives: differentiation

Fail Fast

The engineers and venture capitalists of Silicon Valley have embraced the mantra “fail fast” in their relentless pursuit of the next big thing. Failure, which for so long has been something schools did not advocate, is becoming more and more popular in the tech world. To fail fast means that people should fail early and often on their way to a great idea. Failure is now something cool. And it should be. The reality is, we all learn from failure as it’s an essential component in trial and error.

But while the Web has made it easier and cheaper to start up and succeed, it has also made it easier and cheaper to fail.

–Eric Markowitz in “Why Silicon Valley Loves Failures”

Dave McClure is a venture capitalist in a startup incubator in Silicon Valley called 500 Startups. It’s more commonly known by its alternate name: the fail factory. “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,'” explains McClure in Fast Company. “We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn. Getting used to that, bouncing back from that, being able to figure out what people hate and turn that into what people love…if you’re not willing to take the risk of failing and not experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.” The reality is, failure has not traditionally been embraced, but this is starting to change. Eric Markowitz of Inc.com hypothesizes that many factors have led people to embrace failure today. “The first, and most obvious answer, is that failure has become inexpensive,” Markowitz writes. “Decades ago, starting a business typically entailed borrowing capital from a bank, friends, or family. Opening a physical storefront required lots of capital. Today, the Web has democratized the process for starting up–building a website and hosting its data, even for e-commerce, are relatively inexpensive.” For these reasons–at least in the the technology world–failure is embraced as it is a necessary part of the learning process. In fact, there is now a global conference series dedicated to studying and celebrating failure called FailCon.

For a long stretch in the twentieth century, learning theory was dominated by the work of Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner–a man many consider to be the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. Skinner advocated a theory called “errorless
learning.” In Skinner’s model, learners were spoonfed new material in small bites and immediately quizzed on it while it remained in short-term memory. As the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning point out, students in Skinner’s model had virtually no chance of making an error. As the two renowned psychologist-authors of Make It Stick reinforce throughout the book, errors are an integral part of the learning process–especially with new material. “Yet in our Western culture, where achievement is seen as anlogo indicator of ability, many learners view errors as failure and do what they can to avoid committing them,” the authors write. “The aversion to failure may be reinforced by instructors who labor under the belief that when learners are allowed to make errors it’s the errors that they will learn.” We know today that this belief is misguided. Freedom from “errorless learning” has so empowered people that a group from Finland has created the Day for Failure taking place next week. It’s a chance for people to lose their fear of messing up. People can participate by tweeting their failures to #dayforfailure.

Fail fast, manufacturing fail, fail factory, FailCon are terms that help capture the mood of the technology and venture capital world today. However, the idea of celebrating failure is not likely something you see embraced in daily life. One way schools can embrace failure and teach perseverance is by encouraging self-directed learning (and yes, failure) by giving students a place to invent and learn from their experiences. This is why we are beginning the process of putting makerspaces in our schools. A makerspace is a place where students come together with expert faculty to design, create, and build projects using material and technology they might not come in contact with during the regular school day. Exploration in a makerspace is student driven. Makers are limited only by their imagination.

A makerspace is a place to tinker and explore. It’s a place where you can build with legos, print in 3-D, or even learn how to fly a drone. In a makerspace, failure is expected as is learning from mistakes. The reality is, as you explore new ideas and technology, you will always make mistakes. On this blog, I’ll chronicle our makerspace journey as we move from concept to reality. Besides, don’t you want to learn how to fly one of these?

Invent Anything

As someone who has spent a lifetime in education, I’m always on the lookout for free or cheap ways to do cool stuff in classrooms. Whenever a new idea comes out, I always try to find ways to lower costs or to get the latest fad for free. I obviously don’t mind spending money on quality products (hello, Apple and WordPress), but I have to be wowed before I can be convinced to splurge on something that costs money. I’m fearful of not spending wisely or spending money on something that could be irrelevant in a year or two. It seems that technology improves so fast that it can be difficult to commit to anything because you fear your purchase might be obsolete in a few months. As David Pogue wrote in Scientific American, “It’s human to fear new technology.” However, you can’t let fear of making a bad decision paralyze progress. You need to take chances and try your hardest to give students all the tools they will need to be competitive in an ever-evolving workplace.

In an edcamp raffle last week, I won a Little Bits Base Kit that comes with everything youbaseBoxAngled need to get started creating amazing inventions. Little Bits says their mission is to “democratize hardware” but I think they have done more than that. They have created a way to bring the spirit of innovation to students by introducing them to circuits, hardware, basic technology, and encouraging them to experiment. I set out to test Little Bits with my seven-year-old son and am blown away by the product. I think a series of Vines will tell our Little Bits story better than words, so here it is:

We opened the box and made a buzzer (you need sound):

We used the dimmer (you need sound):

We made a tickle machine (this is cool and it works):

We made a windmill (I’m most proud of this!):

Watch the founder of the company, Ayah Bdeir talk about why she wanted to democratize hardware. After watching her talk and playing with Little Bits, you’ll realize why they should probably be a cornerstone of every classroom makerspace.

Making the Classics Relevant

This post is by Bree Valvano, an English teacher at Randolph High School

While I believe reading classic literature is a valuable experience, helping students see how the themes and ideas in these works are relevant to their own lives can be a challenge. My Ancient_Greek_theatre_Segesta996English IV classes recently finished reading the play Antigone. While no one can argue the value of the play, I wanted to come up with a way for my students to demonstrate their understanding of the major themes while also showing them how the themes are still relevant and how they connect to their own interests. The Antigone Making the Movie Project helped me to achieve my objective.


For this project, students were challenged to create a prospectus for a movie connected to one of the themes in the play. Students had to select the theme that was most interesting to them and create several documents including a rationale, a movie poster, a script for a major scene in their movie, and a movie trailer using iMovie. The results were outstanding. One group focused on civil rights and fighting against discrimination. One group focused on a female’s right to play football, a typically male sport. No matter what movie idea the students decided to focus on, they were required to make connections between the theme in Antigone and the theme in their movie. Below you will find two movie trailers my students created for the project. When you give students choices and the power to create something that is meaningful to them, you will be happy with the results.


Student Engagement

hands-raising-student-engagement-stakeholder-participationI’ve been thinking a lot about student engagement lately and how to get all students in a class excited to learn. A great lesson introduction, a passionate student-centered teacher, and a classroom environment that encourages risk-taking and freedom of expression are essential ingredients. What else needs to happen?

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Robert Balfanz’s Report

In a 2007 report on why students drop out of school, Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins categorized all dropouts into four categories. One of these categories he called “fade outs,” a group of people he believed were inclined to drop out because school was not relevant for them. Fade outs are “students who have generally been promoted on time from grade to grade and may even have above grade level skills but at some point become frustrated or bored and stop seeing the reason for coming to school,” Balfanz writes in his report. “Once they reach the legal dropout age they leave, convinced that they can find their way without a high school diploma or that a GED will serve them just as well.” This lack of relevance between a student’s life and what is learned in the classroom can plague lessons and, at its worst, incite students to drop out.

Today our humanities teachers had the morning to discuss student engagement during a two-hour professional development session. We did an activity in which all teachers in our department wrote an answer to this question: What is engagement in the classroom? I loved the responses. “Engagement is getting every student actively induced in the learning process,” wrote one teacher. “Engagement in the classroom is students caring enough about your content to want to actually learn and learn more about it,” wrote another. I put all responses to the question from teachers in a word cloud to better visualize answers. A few words jump out at me. Making, sharing, connecting, participating, connected, actively, working, curiosity, and of course, relevant. For me, relevance is key. Relevance answers the age old question of why do I need to know this? Relevance is key for Robert Balfanz as well. Balfanz writes that “high schools have to actively structure their electives and the themes of the core course to stress the relevance of what is being learned to adult success” if they are to thwart the problem of fade outs. I think one of our teachers summed up the importance of relevancy better than I ever could. “Engagement is relevancy as perceived by the student,” they wrote. For educators, ensuring content is relevant to students’ lives is paramount to making the learning environment an engaging one. Using current events in class, tying content to students’ interests, and giving real-world scenerios for students to study can help bridge the gap between what is purely theoretical and what is relevant.

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Some Quick Ways to Check for Everyone’s Understanding


In a recent article in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Dylan Wiliam writes about  ways teachers can ask the right questions the right way. In the article, Wiliam recounts perhaps the most familiar way teachers formatively asses their students. A teacher asks a question to the class and picks a student who sits eagerly waving a hand in the air. The teacher and that student interact and the class moves on. This cycle is repeated in classrooms across the country. Wiliam calls this method “the standard classroom transaction model or I-R-E (for initiation-response-evaluation).” It’s not that this method is bad, it’s just that more effective models exist. For Wiliam, “just about every aspect of this scenario actually gets in the way of learning–and it doesn’t provide enough information on what most students in the class know and need to learn.” The goal in every class should be to assess all students every 20-30 minutes of instructional time. Some traditional ways to do this are by having students use dry-erase boards to write answers, thumbs up/thumbs down, entrance/exit slips, and short, timed writing assignments. While these methods are tried and true and will work great in your classrooms, I thought it might be a good opportunity to illustrate some new tools that might change the way you assess. In this post, I’ll link to some amazing tech-savvy ways that teachers can check for everyone’s understanding.

All-Student Responses (without paying for clickers!)

When people hear about all-student response systems, they immediately think of clickers. However, there’s a host of free services teachers can use that will get the job done just as Unknownwell–and maybe with a bit more style. I’ve written about tools like Socrative, PollEverywhere, EduCanan, and TodaysMeet in previous posts. These four sites are great for generating instant student feedback during a class in different ways. For example, Socrative works great with objective-type questions while EduCanan allows users to embed questions into videos. But, if you’re looking to add targeted questions to your daily classroom routine, perhaps the best all-student response system I’ve seen recently is Nearpod.

Nearpod lets teachers upload or create presentations and add questions within the presentation for students to answer. Students log on to Nearpod with a teacher-generated access code and the presentation becomes available on their device. Students can answer questions as they appear on their screens from multiple-choice questions to open-ended  responses. This data gets transmitted to the teacher in real time. Nearpod is quickly becoming perhaps the most-used online assessment tool in our high school. The teachers at our school who discovered this deserve a TON of credit. Nearpod amazes.

How To Assess Quickly

The reality is that not every class will work with a Nearpod presentation or TodaysMeet backchannel. If you’re short on time and computers, there are a few methods you can employ to “assess all.” Dylan Wiliam explains perhaps the simplest way for teachers to improve classroom questioning is to stop asking for volunteers. Wiliam calls this method “No Hands Up.” popsicle_stick_namesThe traditional way to call on students during no hands up is to use names on popsicle sticks. Ask the question, then pick a stick at random and that’s the student who has to answer the question. This forces all students to think of answers in anticipation of being called on. Sometimes I think we don’t give students enough time to think of answers when we’re teaching. I know I’m guilty of sometimes choosing the first hand that gets raised. By giving students time to wait after you have asked a question and then select a candidate, slower learners will have time to formulate an authentic answer. While popsicle sticks certainly work, are there any cool apps or websites out there we can use to pick students? You bet there are!

There are many student randomizers available online. iLeap’s Pick A Student is free and is a very basic app to use. There are other versions that, for a dollar or two, offer better screen480x480graphics and more fun. HAT by Cool Classroom Software ($.99) is one that allows teachers to select names out of a virtual hat using their device. Students aren’t repeated until everyone in the class has been called on. Another interesting possibility is a web-based service called Random Name Picker. This website features a giant spinning wheel where you can add all the names of students in your class. Click to give the wheel a spin; whoever is selected has to answer the question. I’ve thrown in some names from our department on the wheel. Maybe the first person selected has to write a post for Randolphhum?


During a lesson, think about trying to hear all your students’ voices. In his ASCD article, Wiliam writes about one teacher who described this assessment process as “making the students’ voices louder and making the teacher’s hearing better.” That sounds great to me. Regardless of whether you’re picking names out of a real hat or a virtual one, if you assess all students in your classes regularly, you’re bound to become a better listener.

Ways to Develop a Culture of Differentiation


Differentiated instruction is a concept whose nuances are too numerous for a full understanding from a single blog post. However, after writing a brief introduction to differentiated instruction earlier on our blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight some strategies and wisdom discussed by the differentiation master, Carol Ann Tomlinson, at a recent workshop I attended called Differentiation and the Curriculum-Assessment-Instruction Connection.

Tomlinson during her workshop

For Tomlinson, good instruction starts with curriculum. Planning a focused curriculum means—at the very least—clarity about what students should:

  1. Know—facts, vocabulary, definitions
  2. Understand—principals/generalization, big ideas of the discipline
  3. Do—process, skills

The principals of KUD serve as the framework for Tomlinson’s curriculum and lesson theory. “To ensure understanding,” she exhorted, “work from clear KUDs!”

Another interesting component of Tomlinson’s theory is her plea that every lesson plan should be, at its heart, a motivational plan. “Young learners are motivated and engaged by a variety of conditions,” she explained. From Tomlinson’s 2003 book Fulfilling The Promise, she lists those conditions as:

  • novelty
  • cultural significance
  • personal relevance or passion
  • emotional connection
  • product focus
  • choice
  • the potential to make a contribution or link with something greater than self

For Tomlinson, the best lessons are ones that capture a student’s attention from the beginning by asking questions to which students will want to know the answers.

ImageDr. Tomlinson used this image as an allegory for her philosophy about curriculum and instruction. In classrooms, we need to say, “if you hit these targets you will be successful.” In the end, if we as teachers are unclear about learning goals, how can we expect students to master them? In the words of Rick Stiggins, the founder of the Assessment Training Institute, “Students can hit any target that they know about and that stands still for them.”

There are many ways to bring elements of differentiation into your classes. Remember, the primary goal of differentiation is that all students will learn as much as possible. Strategies for bringing differentiation into your classroom are:differentiation

  • Breaking students into different groups based on their understanding
  • Have students answer questions asked by other students–Can they arrive at understanding without you?
  • Use “experts of the day” to answer questions
  • Use brainstorming or think-tank groups prior to beginning work
  • Provide graphic organizers with prompts to guide gathering and synthesizing of information
  • Have students show you what they know
  • Create assessments that allow students to show they learned the content–the hallmark of a good test is that kids have the opportunity to show you all they know about at topic
  • Try really hard to find different ways for students to show you what they know
  • Use exit cards as a way for students to show understanding
  • Give students choice
  • Besides giving students essential questions think about the teacher’s essential question: Why should young learners care about this stuff?
  • Give students surveys to determine if your teaching is working

Regardless of your instructional approach, the lessons from an expert like Tomlinson have tremendous value. I was particularly struck by a slide she shared which outlined her philosophy. In short, it describes what effective teaching is.

Effective differentiation is part of effective teaching:

  • Creating an environment that invites learning
  • Knowing with clarity the learning destination
  • Checking regularly to see where students are in regard to the destination
  • Adapting instruction to ensure steady progress for each learner
  • Establishing routines that balance structure and flexibility to allow attention to varied learner needs

Looking for more on differentiation?

Carol Tomlinson’s website has many resources including a list of all her publications. The Teaching Channel has over 50 videos on the topic. And here’s a blog by the Education Technology Guy with a whole host of links to resources.


An Introduction to Differentiation

“Education is an art, but it is also a science.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

Dr. Tomlinson speaking at the Roxbury Education Seminar

On Friday, I attended a workshop by Carol Ann Tomlinson, one of the foremost authorities on differentiated instruction. Dr. Tomlinson has written many books on the topic and currently serves as a faculty member of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. Her talk was an amazing experience so I thought I’d share some wisdom from one of education’s leading personalities.

What is differentiation? Differentiation is best explained as a way of thinking about teaching and learning and not a set of strategies. The hallmark of effective teaching with a differentiated mindset is thinking about teaching with the learning environment, curriculum, assessment, and instruction working together in harmony. “It means teachers proactively plan varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they will show what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can, as efficiently as possible,” said Tomlinson. In other words, “differentiation is a sequence of common sense decisions made by teachers with a student-first orientation.”

Tomlinson shared a series of five steps teachers can use to bring differentiation into classrooms:

  1. Ensuring an environment that actively supports students in the work of learning (mindset, connections, community)
  2. Absolute clarity about a powerful learning destination (KUDs*, engagement, understanding)
  3. Persistently knowing where students are in relation to the destination all along the way (formative assessment for and as instruction)
  4. Adjusting teaching to make sure each student arrives at the destination and, when possible, moves beyond it (addressing readiness, interest, learning profile)
  5. Effective leadership and management of flexible classroom routines

“If this is all differentiation is, why isn’t everyone doing it?” wondered Tomlinson. Throughout the session, she returned to the theme of meeting the needs of all learners. To drive her point home, Tomlinson shared a Charlie Brown cartoon where Charlie and Lucy talk about their teacher–“My teacher thinks that teaching is just like bowling; you aim down the middle and try to hit as many as you can,” Charlie explained. Lucy replied, “She must not be a very good bowler.” It is obvious that Charlie’s teacher was only hoping to reach all students in the class and not taking a proactive approach to ensure that outcome actually happened.

Ensuring that the needs of all learners in a class are met is the fundamental point about differentiation. Taking a student-first approach to teaching is a way to get there. But, what does being student-first mean?  To help explain this principle, I think a slide I saw from a presentation by author Chris Lehman speaking at the University of Wisconsin can best illustrate this point:

From Chris Lehman’s talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

While Dr. Tomlinson did tend to focus on the classrooms of elementary and middle school teachers, I found many aspects of her talk applicable to our high school classrooms. As teachers we know that every class is different and every student is different. Thinking about differentiation and a student-centered approach can remind us to pause, reflect, and check that everyone in our classes understands the material.

In my next post I’ll outline some ways teachers can begin implementing differentiation in high school classrooms.

*KUD is “know, understand, do”