Choose Your Adventure: Exploring Differentiation in Action


Differentiation Instructional Concepts

Challenges to Teaching and Learning

Strategies to Support ALL Learners

Supporting References

Welcome to this experiment in sharing. During some live sessions, I will facilitate an exploration by educators about topics on Differentiation. They will range from pedegogical practices to instructional decisions for supporting all learners in deep learning experiences. The participants will drive the directions we take along this journey based on what their questions and needs are. The list below serves two purposes: allows participants to take a deeper dive into the resources based on participant questions; and encourage others to explore their own burning questions without having to wait.

Learn more about Differentiation from my Supporting References listed at the bottom. Or follow and contact me on Twitter and Instagram.

Differentiation Instructional Concepts

  • Intuitive & Intentional Differentiation
  • Equity vs Equality What is fair for each learner is not always using the same materials and tools.
  • Crossroad Lessons
  • 3-Dimensional Differentiation
  • Assessments: Academic – Interests & Preferences – Community Background
  • Student Led vs Teacher Led
  • Student Voice vs Choice
  • Internal vs External Thinker Needs
  • Wait Time and Think Time

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Challenges to Teaching and Learning

  1. Differentiation is not possible
  2. Time crunch
  3. Too many students
  4. Top Down Directives
  5. Learners with significant gaps in skills or background
  6. Mixed-Skill Classroom
  7. Gifted Learner Needs
  8. Second Language Learner
  9. Special Education Needs

Related References:

  1. Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths
  2. There’s No Time to Differentiate: Myth Busting DI, Part 2
  3. Differentiating is just too difficult: Myth-Busting DI Part III
  4. Teachers Are in Control: Myth-Busting DI Part IV

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Strategies to Support ALL Learners

Resource 1: So All Can Learn – Practical
Resource 2: OP – Curated Tools

  • Think Dots
  • Think-Tac-Toe
  • Think Dice
  • Task Cards
  • Menus
  • RAFTs
  • Window Activity
  • Centers and Stations
  • Contracts
  • Curriculum Compacting
  • Social Media Tools (List): Products (Artifacts) – Processing
  • Open Educational Resources – Article & List



  • Rubrics: 4 Column or Single Column – Criteria Checklist
  • Exit & Entrance Cards: “The Best No” (video)
  • Student Choice or Student Designed
  • Eliminating Assessment Fog

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Supporting References
Find some of the above resources and more at these useful treasure of teaching and learning tools:

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Learning Supported by Digital Tools: MOCA

Using technology to support instruction continues to be a challenge that is tackled by schools and classrooms everywhere. How do we ensure that the focus is on the student learning, and not on the digital tool? One answer is to begin with the “Learning” and find the tools that support that outcome.

Learning through Technology Guide: MOCA

MOCA is a frame for identifying how learning could be supported by digital tools. Each level is valuable to the learning process. It is important for educators to be intentional about what level is the best need for student achievement at any given time. It is also necessary to review and reflect on practice for ensuring that students experience all levels, especially Collaborative Learning and Authentic Learning.

  • Managed Learning
  • Orchestrated Learning
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Authentic Learning

Managed Learning

Schools and teachers use management systems and tools to keep track of assignments, grades, and announcements. Communications to students, parents, and other stakeholders might also be included in such online platforms. Some examples include Schoology, Google Classroom, Blackboard, and Canvas. Students use these platforms to get assignments, submit work, and access files for learning tasks. Teachers manage these platforms, as well as monitor student growth and progress. Teachers maintain control of the processes and usage of the platform tools to manage the learning experiences.

Orchestrated Learning

Teachers are the orchestra directors of turning curriculum into learning experiences. They structure and provide assignments that students complete to grow academically. The tasks may vary from completing research, virtual lab experiments, posting responses to a discussion board, watching video tutorials, and completing foundational tasks through learning centers or stations. Students mostly work individually or with a teacher. Small group learning tends to be teacher structures for building knowledge or applying ideas. The teacher runs the show, while students follow their lead. Some examples include:

  • a group might jigsaw researching a topic and then filling out an online form or discussion board that everyone has access to.
  • the class practices a review of content through team play using a tool like Kahoot.
  • a virtual field trip is provided to the class to view sights and listen to virtual guide.

Collaborative Learning

Students lead the learning at this level of practice. Teachers plan a learning experience that empowers and requires students to be in charge of the work. Collaborative learning is based on where students’ skills are currently, then uses digital tools to support their growth individually and/or through the support of a peer team. Such student-centered work enables the teacher to facilitate thinking and coach growth that is personalized to each learner. Some examples include:

  • students participate in virtual centers or stations that include tasks that challenge learners based on their skill levels. Students are assigned a series of tasks with some choice of which ones to do.
  • teams use a collaborative space such as a shared google folder with docs for capturing meeting notes and/or slides and forms for crafting presentations based on survey data.
  • students attend a virtual field trip as part of gathering research notes. The experience includes a question session where students make deeper connections about the concepts based on the responses to their inquiries.
  • students participate in an online critique session (ie. Google Docs, Slides, or Hangout) about peer artifacts. The comment feature is used to post likes and suggested changes. Outside experts might be included in the feedback protocol.

Authentic Learning

Make learning public, and students will understand the value of the learning beyond subject curriculum. Students express their voice on issues and ideas that come from the world beyond their classroom, even at times beyond their building. Making learning public is important for students to understand the connections between the academic expectations and the applications to real world practices. These experiences include:

  • publication of student work on an online website such as a classroom blog, school webpage, or outside organization website.
  • stream student presentations through Youtube on topics that are meaningful to the local community and other audiences.
  • Facilitate a discussion with a public audience using an online discussion board, Google Hangout, Zoom, or Twitter Chat.

Here are some of tools to explore:

  • Blogs: Blogger (Google), WordPress, Edublog, Weebly
  • Wikis: WikiDot, Google Sites, PBWorks EduHub
  • Social Media: Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Vimeo
  • Classroom Platforms: Schoology, Google Classroom, Blackboard CourseSites
  • Podcasts: iTunes and Spotify
  • Live Stream presentations: Youtube or Twitter

There is much attention paid to Managed and Orchestrated Learning when using Blended Learning. This could be attributed to the understanding that for many teachers Blended Learning is a fairly new instructional approach. As learners, educators, like any profession, tend to start with what can be done without changing too much the practices that have brought them success. What has been accomplished by teachers with Managed and Orchestrated Learning is an important achievement of change in itself; yet these accomplishments should not be an end goal.

Time for Change is Now

Today’s students are ready to use digital tools for complex and collaborative learning experiences and to have a voice in the world beyond their schools. Educators with some Blended Learning practices can leverage what they’ve learned combined with student understanding of the digital world, ie. online gaming, social media, and news sites, to hone deep learning experiences through Collaborative Learning and Authentic Learning. Give students voice and practice with tackling 21st Century Learning tasks for public audiences. Start with the early years, and the result will be a new crop of students who are deeply skilled to do so much more than any previous generation.

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Coaching Log: Stardate I.18.04.17

Throughout my work with teachers and administrators, coaching is how I help educators improve their systems and instructional practices. What follows is a special series that I will add to as a coaching log. The “stardate” is a tribute to Star Trek because coaching is similar in terms of the rich experiences of visiting many different schools. There is much knowledge to be exchanged. Rarely are there “red shirts”, but there are many heroes and those struggling to do right by learners.

These posts offer the resources that are shared so that they might help your school’s story. Drop in on the journey…


While supporting a school on Project-Based Learning, I saw much passion and desire to do a high quality job. Everyone was dedicated to making PBL units systemic. Implementing PBL can be a lonely journey. Yet, when educators band together, amazing things happen. As with many schools, the process takes time, patience, and a growth mindset. Below are resources to support their efforts to move forward with their PBL journey.

(Note: Links are shown to support printing this post)

Student Learning Wall Guide: Empowering Student Voice

From a systemic perspective the Student Learning Wall is important for consistent conversations with teachers about best practices for PBL and in traditional units. A starting point is to post the Driving Question, Need to Know list list generated by students, and the project calendar showing weekly tasks.

Collaboration as Learning

PBL units and fostering a student-centric culture needs a large toolkit. Explore student-led activities and approaches to teaching collaboration. This section has many rich resources to help understand how to teach, coach and assess collaboration.

Managing Innovative Authentic Learning Experiences

Most teachers talk about having an authentic audience for their project, along with a meaningful public product. The above link provides specific strategies for supporting effective management of a high functioning PBL unit.

Teachers commonly ask for a tool like this to empower students to handle team problems. The four steps involve students addressing issues. The teacher does not get involved in a formal fashion until the third step.
Entry Event
Launching the PBL unit at the “start” of the unit is critical. Here is one example of good use of videos for projects regarding Heroes:
Use the video to discuss the Super Hero archtype.
  1. What are characteristics of a super hero?
  2. What are characteristics of a super hero mindset?
  3. Why are some heroes more accepted by their public than others?
Use this video as a follow up to the one above. Consider these questions:
  1. What are characteristics of a hero?
  2. What makes an action heroic?
  3. Why do the lunch ladies appear heroic?
  4. How can anyone be heroic or a hero?
  5. How are ordinary heroes different and similar to super heroes?

Where Should I Start

When starting out implementing a Project-Based Unit, here is an important practice to start: composed of three steps that should be done:

Establish a Student Learning Wall

  1. Post and use the Driving Question
  2. Maintain a calendar of important tasks and deadlines for the week
  3. Need to Know is posted and reviewed several times a week.
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Learning about Differentiation

There is much to explore and learn about Differentiation. Here is a list of many of my published articles on the topic, as well as my book. Plus, I’ve added a few places where you can find the thinking by other writers.

Please comment or tweet to me about an article passage that resonates or affirms your work in this important area for meeting ALL learners’ needs.

John McCarthy, EdS – Twitter: @JMcCarthyEdS

Book: So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation


Differentiation Overview

  1. Students Matter: 3 Steps for Effective Differentiated Instruction
  2. 3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners: What Teachers Do
  3. Five Elements for Differentiation of the 21st Century Learner
  4. Learner Interest Matters: Strategies for Empowering Student Choice
  5. How Learning Profiles Can Strengthen Your Teaching
  6. 15+ Readiness Resources for Driving Student Success
  7. Quality Instruction + Differentiation: Beyond the Checklist

Myth-Busting Differentiation

  1. Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths
  2. There’s No Time to Differentiate: Myth Busting DI, Part 2
  3. Differentiating is just too difficult: Myth-Busting DI Part III
  4. Teachers Are in Control: Myth-Busting DI
  5. Too Many Students and Not Enough Time

Assessment Practices

  1. 3 Guidelines to Eliminating Assessment Fog
  2. Eliminate Assessment Fog
  3. Make Learning Last: How Diverse Learners Can Process Their Understanding
  4. Going Beyond Group Assessments for Learning
  5. Timely Feedback: Now or Never

Student Voice

  1. 100+ Tools for Differentiating Instruction Through Social Media
  2. Giving Students Charge of How They Learn
  3. Establishing a Culture of Student Voice
  4. Student-Centered Learning: It Starts With the Teacher
  5. Igniting Student Engagement: A Roadmap for Learning
  6. Differentiation in a Project-Based Learning Unit

Other Article Resources

  1. So All Can Learn
    1. Practical Resources
    2. Conceptual Resources
  2. Edutopia: Collection of Resources for reading
  3. ASCD: Differentiated Instruction and RTI: A Natural Fit
  4. ASCD: Collection of Resources for reading
  5. SDE: Collection of Resources for reading
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Improve Reading Comprehension through Protocols

When given a reading assignment, what part(s) of the reading do students typically remember for later use in classwork? When I ask groups of teachers, they say the beginning or the end of a reading assignment. It’s never both, and the middle section is rarely included.

Structured Listening
Certain protocols can help learners develop understanding of much more of a reading by how conversation is structured. Select protocols that include practice of Listening, instead of just talking. Listening can lead to active reflection on the ideas.

Chunking Reading
Another useful element is when a protocol includes a structure for chunking the reading into digestible portions. Chunking the reading requires several rounds of the protocol to take place. A result is that learners can practice deeper dialog around important content and concepts. This can encourage more opportunities for participation in whole class discussions or using protocols that involve large groups, such as the Harkeness Discussion, aka Spider Discussion.

Noting Passages
Offer guidance to students on how to identify passages for reflection and dialog.  Note passages that supports their thinking. Such as ask students to choose passages based on this list of criteria:

√ = Check off a passage that you agree with. The ideas resonate with your own.

! = Mark a passage that is a new idea, or different way of thinking. Perhaps the idea is not new, yet it sparks a new idea in your thinking.

? = Label passages that spark a question. You want to learn more on the topic. Perhaps you do not agree or wish to challenge the statement.

Protocols List
Here is a list of protocols to start with for supporting students with comprehension. Once taught, students lead the protocols, and thus their learning. Here’s a pdf of steps to follow for each.

Find more Readiness strategies in the resource section of this site, and also in the book: So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation.

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Blogs to Read and Grow

Check out So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation

I was looking through the blogs by others who I read frequently or go to when I’m looking for ideas and perspective. In the spirit of sharing, I’m listing some below. I hope that you find some new ones to check out, others that perhaps we share similar taste, and some that you might return to.

  • Edutopia
    While it’s not one author, there are many great ideas from a diversity of topics. It’s written by and for educators. Check what’s currently posted or use their Topics section to find the ideas you’re looking for. Their video library has amazing content to meet everyone’s needs. Here are educator voices to explore:
    Beth Rayl, Suzie Boss, Matt Levinson, and John McCarthy 😉
  • 21st Century Education Technology Learning
    Mike Gorman is always good for a wealth of ideas for Project-Based Learning, Instructional Technology, and STEAM. No surprise that this site is on my list, as due to its many recognition, it’s on many people’s radar.
  • Rewarding Education
    Robert Ward has written several important books on the relationship of teachers and parents. The ideas were so compelling, I started reading his blog.
  • The Newbie’s Guide to Publication
    Author, JA Konrath has much to say about the publishing world, particularly about e-publishing. Why should educators read his blog? E-publishing is a great opportunity for student agency and authentic learning. Learn from the man. He’s got a lot to give.
  • TeachThought
    This site offers articles from a variety of educators on current topics that we grapple with in schools. Also, check out their podcast library. Some of the top people in education are interviewed about the instructional and leadership topics that you care most about.
  • ASCD Express & Education Leadership
    Both resources by ASCD have great ideas and strategies to reflect on and use for teaching, learning, and culture building. Some articles are free. Their deep archive of articles require a membership. Well worth visiting.
  • Opening Paths & John McCarthy
    Check out my blogs after you’ve explored the great list above. Included are strategies and exploration of ideas to help improve the learning experiences of our students. Enjoy 🙂

Please share blogs that you recommend in the comment section. I’m looking for others to check out to keep growing.


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The 1st Truth about Differentiation

In the past, I’ve written several articles about the myths that prevents many teachers from using Differentiation as an integral part of how they meet learner needs.

They have resonated with educators who comment and share these articles with colleagues. I often hear how the articles empowered or gave teachers permission to do more. Best of all, most express finding affirmation for what they are already doing, which is one intention of these articles: Teachers do differentiate, whether unconsciously or with deliberation.

It’s time to change the focus from the myths to the truths. What are the realities for Differentiation?

There are many. Here is the first:

Differentiation starts with learners.

The standard language for Differentiation was introduced early on by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Allan in books in 1999 and 2001. It’s a language that continues to work today, as I note in So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation.


Teachers often start with Content, Process, and Products as those are the vehicles for differentiating learning experiences.

It makes sense to begin with these three elements because they are most familiar to educators when it comes to planning instruction. Richard DuFour, among many respected education thinkers, described these steps as:

  1. What do students need to know, understand, and do?
  2. How will students demonstrate what they’ve learned and not learned?
  3. What will we do for students who fail?
  4. What will we do for students who’ve already learned the content and concepts?

Despite all this information, instruction begins with the learner through Readiness, Interests, and Learning Preferences.

The student is best equipped to make connections or determine if the lesson is best for them. They do this all the time through expressions of engagement to disengagement.

What motivates learners to participate? What engages students to dedicate time and energy into the lessons? The answers can only come from them. The solution for teachers is to make the conscious decision to communicate and collaborate with students, including them in the planning and decision-making of the learning experiences based on Readiness, Interests, and Learning Preferences. If this feels uncomfortable, or the voice in your head is giving excuses for why this cannot be done, then you understand what your struggling learners feel about your lessons.

Starting places:

  1. Use a Learning Preference inventory to help craft 2-4 choices that students might opt to complete tasks. Bonus points if you then get their feedback about the choices, and make revisions based on their input.
  2. Collect formative assessment data and use it to craft variations of the same task so that students can be assigned or choose the appropriate level. Make sure that each task includes critical thinking and is respectful to the learner. Every student can analyze, evaluate, and synthesize, even with very basic understanding. Over simplifying work that’s stuck at the comprehension and fact-base level for struggling learners insults their intelligence. Again, bonus points if you get their feedback about the choices, and make revisions based on their input.
  3. Clearly explain and coach the learning outcomes so that students understand them and what is expected of them. Then support students as they construct products of their design that demonstrate the learning outcomes.

Find more related resources from So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation.

Stay tuned for more Truths about Differentiation and Learning…

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#1 Amazon’s Hot New Release – What do Reviewers Say + 1 Strategy Why

Thank you READERS. As of today: So All Can Learn remains the #1 Hot New Release on Amazon in Experimental Education Methods is amazing when you consider it’s been there for 8 days.

More important are the reader reviews, which offer clear value for the ideas and strategies that are useful to teachers and professors.

Differentiation happens in everything we do with students. The key is being effective and efficient in practice by intentional planning. In So All Can Learn, intentional differentiation is done by teachers when they do planning before the lesson implementation. Teachers draw on assessment data and their experiences to anticipate the potential challenges or needs that come up regarding concepts and content to be taught. The supports are incorporated during the planning phase, instead of coming up with the adjustments “in the moment” (known as intuitive differentiation) of the lesson.

One example is when a teacher wants to show a video of current events and have students have an in-depth conversation, including analysis. A challenge is how to ensure that all students are prepared to participate in the discussion with substantive contributions.

One method includes using Edpuzzle to chunk the video for building learner understanding. Edpuzzle enables teachers to embed question prompts into a video. Instead of showing a 5 or 10 minute video without pause, question prompts can be embedded for discussion and answering after 1-2 minutes. This gives students differentiation by Processing content into smaller chunks. Here’s a demo video from the CEO:

Learn more ideas from Amazon’s #1 Hot New Release: So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation. If you already have a copy, thank you for making this moment happen 🙂

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Teaching & Learning: What’s fair is not EQuaL

An equitable learning environment is not an “equal” experience. If student data is used closely, some experiences and resources will vary so that all students can achieve the same learning outcomes. Available materials may be the same, and ready to be provided, but not all students need the same materials.

Differentiation is partly about Content, Process, and Product. The other components that are perhaps even more critical are student Readiness, Interests, and Learning Preferences. A hands-on experience may only differentiate at a “basic” or “surface” level. For example, a hands-on activity around math concepts might be more effective in groups of students based on similar readiness levels. The task, if not the tools, would be different based on the students’ current skill level.

What value is there for a student to do the same activity as everyone else, if they already have mastered the skill? The same can also be said of the students doing the activity who lack understanding of the basic concepts for completing the task.

Readiness, Interests, and Learning Preferences can increase the depth and effectiveness of differentiation for a truly equitable learning environment.


John McCarthy, EdS, authored So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation
See what readers are saying (Quotes gathered from Amazon)

R&L | Amazon | Amazon Kindle | Barnes & Noble| Amazon UK

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Reached #1 on Amazon’s HOT NEW Releases: So All Can Learn

It’s great to see how a need is being filled by the book, So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation. Early results are good as the book has reached #1 in Amazon categories several times. Currently, 1st (paperback) and 5th place (kindle).

It’s a humbling experience to see that the book ideas are compelling enough for others find value. I will continue to strive towards maintaining that faith.

To this end, here are two articles I’ve recently written to support student learning and agency:


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