Responsive Instruction Unpacked

Responsive Instruction is one of Our Conditions for Learning that has received tremendous attention; it is evident in most of our School Learning Plans and is part of regular improvement conversations. As such, it is a Condition that many people are beginning to understand in a deeper way.  Recall below, the success criteria for Responsive Instruction, as well as the Things to Consider:

Responsive Instruction
I know I am providing responsive instruction if I am collecting a continuum of data (to show progression), towards an identified goal and my responses are reflective of the learner’s strengths/needs.

Things to Consider

  •  Learner’s basic needs are met
  •  Need to know the learner (educator)
  •  Clear Goals linked to the curriculum
     Success Criteria
     Self – Assessment is embedded into learning/task
     Multiple opportunities for feedback
     Checking and Developing a Common Understanding
     Exemplar Use
     Multiple Entry Points
     Scaffolding
     Gradual Release of Responsibility
     Diagnostic Testing
     Activation of prior learning
     Engaging
     Different Opportunities using various learning styles
     Challenges learners at different levels
     Learner “see” themselves reflected in the learning
     Seeing a purpose – meaningful, real-world connections
     What is being learned is developmentally appropriate
     Flexible groupings
     Planning is foundation to an assessment for learning culture (need for content knowledge)
     Learners need to be accepted at the level where they are at
     Developmentally appropriate goals
     Opportunities to share and reflect
     Self-regulation

We need to be careful that we aren’t distracted by the notion that “learner’s basic needs are being met (which is our first Thing to Consider); while we know that students need to have basic needs met in order to engage in any type of learning, I would argue that this isn’t what we are discussing in this Condition for Learning – we cannot forget that we are speaking about responsive instruction.  

This week, I would like to suggest that we review this initial thinking in light of the work of Mary Cay Ricci (2013) from Chapter 3 in Mindsets in the Classroom: Building a Culture of Success and Student Achievement in Schools.  In this chapter, entitled “Why is a Differentiated, Responsive Classroom Important to A Growth Mindset Culture?”  Ricci (2013) states, “The mindset of a teacher contributes greatly to his or her responsiveness to the needs of students.  If an educator views a child through a deficit lens, then that child will not be given opportunities to grow unless she is in a responsive classroom” (pg. 31). She defines the deficit lens as that which is impacted by our deep rooted beliefs about intelligence and how it is developed or what factors impact its development. “I would argue that it is not possible to plan and facilitate an effective, differentiated, responsive classroom if an educator does not really possess the belief that intelligence can develop” (pg. 32).  This statement supports our Board Learning Plan SMART goal around the continuous growth in our efficacy towards learning – that possessing and acting with a growth mindset is critical to the success of our students.

Note that Ricci uses the term “differentiated”  alongside the term “responsive”. As I read this, I began to truly make the connection between several of our “things to consider” for responsive instruction (multiple entry points, scaffolding, different opportunities using various learning styles, challenges learners at different levels, learners need to be accepted at the level at which they are at …although I am not sure that I completely understand this consideration as all students can learn…) and Ricci’s statement that “Differentiation is responsive instruction…differentiation is the way a teacher responds to student’s need” (pg 32).  As a district, the concept of differentiated instruction was looked at deeply at least 7 years ago which makes me wonder where we are in our understanding.

Recently an educator wondered out loud how they can possibly meet the needs of every learner in their classroom – it is feeling like a mountain to climb in terms of planning for each student! Sound familiar? Ricci suggests that this is possible with the use of responsive instruction structures including diagnostic assessments, accessing background knowledge and flexible groupings; each of which are contained within our Things to Consider. She also discusses the nature of formative assessment, curriculum compacting, management, and summative assessments.   Contained in this chapter is a Teacher Checklist for Planning Differentiated, Responsive Instruction on page 54. As you can see from this brief description, much of this chapter connects to the work that many of you are engaged in…your copy of the book is currently waiting for you in my office!

This chapter taught me that we are on the right track to achieving a culture of responsive instruction with our focus on assessment for and as learning. As we continue to develop our understanding of how to promote and act with a growth mindset within our responsive instruction (tools, tasks, conversations, assessments, etc), a greater impact will be achieved – which will ensure that our students truly see learning as a process that they can be successful in.  After reading this chapter, I am wondering about the following responsive instructional practices in terms of how I see them promoting a growth mindset in our learners:

  • How we structure learning so that we engage in effective diagnostic assessments (after we have activated some background knowledge according to Ricci)?
  • When does differentiation occur? (throughout the formative process as well as the summative)
  • Do we optimize time and engagement in learning through the use of “anchor activities” – ongoing tasks that students can engage in to enrich their knowledge and understanding of the current topics being studied to allow the teacher to work with groups of students (pg.44)
  • Is formative assessment seen as a “reflective tool for a teacher” (pg 47) that helps to determine their next instructional steps for small groups of students?
  • Are all summative assessment grades based upon the mastery of learning that was tailored for the specific student?

What are your thoughts?

Until next week…

6 responses

  1. Heidi Patterson | Reply

    This is a interesting connection to the work that we have been involved with about differentiated instruction and creating a culture for learning through being “responsive”. It makes me reflect on the work that was done a number of years ago around the resource – “Teachers Change Your Bait”. As we wrap our the first semester and will soon head into second semester we will have the opportunity to be “responsive” for a new set of student need/learning. What is in our tool kit and how do we need enhance the tool kit. When we think about differentiation, we think about instruction. But we also need to be “responsive” to the classroom (physical and social) environment. (The Third Teacher – Capacity Building Series, July 2012) How are our classrooms responsive to the learner and reflective of the work that is going on in the classroom?

    NIcki posed this question – “Are all summative assessment grades based upon the mastery of learning that was tailored for the specific student?” One would hope that through the process of learning that the summative assessment would be reflective of the learner – that they would have been able to use their strengths to reflect their learning in a particular area. This is an interesting notion and one that as educators need to spend more time thinking about the type of learners that we have in our classrooms and how will do they compliment/support each other in their learning journey !


  2. Thanks Heidi for your thoughtful reply. You made me think about how I sometimes think that I know the “ins and outs” of a particular instructional or assessment strategy, and then I read more about it and realize that, for the strategy to have the greatest impact, there are details that I didn’t realize. For example, Ricci speaks about the essential nature of diagnostic assessment as a vehicle to determine what students know and are able to do, to group the students based upon that knowledge and to plan my instruction. She also speaks about the essential need to spend a short period of time activating the student’s prior knowledge BEFORE engaging in the diagnostic…to brush off the cobwebs so to speak. This has never been part of my practice however it makes total sense. Students need to have the change to talk about what they know before they complete the diagnostic. This is a huge piece…as is the use of the diagnostic assessment to group the students for differentiated instruction. I am not sure that I actually thought deeply about this and the impact of this practice on a student’s growth mindset…when we group students and differentiate to what they know and can do, we are being responsive…which leads to greater success and thus a growth mindset. Thanks for getting me thinking tonight after a long holiday!


  3. I have been pondering Nikki’s post for a while now and have been trying to assure myself that all of the teachers in my building are responding to the needs of the learners in their classrooms, because that is something that all teachers do! Now, I think I think that because it’s something that I do because I’m a ‘seasoned teacher’, I know what the final outcome is for my students. I know what they need to know when they leave my classroom, I know when a student is struggling and can go into my bag of tricks to differentiate, to find another way to reach them. I know what to do if a student is bored and needs a challenge, I know what to do to engage my students…. but this is stuff I know because I have been at this business for 30 some odd years. Do I expect my new teachers to know this? Is it a fair assumption that they are going to hit the ground running with all of these tricks in their first years teaching? Again it comes back to time. We have to give our teachers time to build the knowledge they need to respond to students, they need resources and training, they need prior knowledge. Earlier in Nikki’s post she quoted a teacher who was questioning how to reach all of the students in their class, and I’m sure this a question a lot of teachers are asking themselves. But give that teacher a couple of years to get comfortable with the curriculum, to understand what they need to do to get their students ready for the next year, to build some confidence and to attend some PD to support their learning and I hope that they will respond a little differently to the question.


  4. In response to both Nicki’s and Angela’s post (and perhaps still under the influence of the jubilation from Canada’s win at the WJH) I would never expect the inexperienced teacher to be able to respond to the needs of the child with a wide array of appropriate strategies. Nor would I expect a veteran teacher to pick up a new strategy and exercise it with any level of expertise right from the start. It takes time to fill a tool kit with effective instructional strategies and it takes extensive practice to master those strategies.

    Regardless of whether they are a new teacher or a seasoned veteran people need time to absorb the concepts and the terminology we share with them. If we don’t give them time to absorb it, internalize it, and see it as relevant to their own teaching experience before they put it into practice we won’t make any progress. As instructional leaders we are often called upon to coach and in this capacity we accept the fact that in teaching as in any other pursuit there are different levels of ability and rates at which people learn. Just as we employ differentiated instruction with our students so to do we with our teachers. Our role as a coach is to monitor from the sidelines – providing pressure and support. Occasionally we step in at those opportune times to clarify a teacher’s understanding of a concept, a term, or a practice and steer them in the right direction. As coaches we need to be consistent in our messaging, persistent in our delivering and patient with the progress.


  5. Happy New Year everyone!
    For one of my professional New Year resolutions I am trying to be more involved in the blog. Just like going to the gym, I am going to need some friendly encouragement sometimes 🙂

    Nicki I really appreciate you sharing your thinking in regard to responsive instruction. We reviewed your post as a conversation starter at our January staff meeting. It fit in perfectly with our conversations, as we talked last time about our conditions for learning. We discussed how we could look at responsive instruction through a growth mindset lens. As educators it’s so important to keep in mind the big picture of truly knowing our students and trying to meet their needs. With this important knowledge we can begin to tailor (differentiate) our teaching toward student strengths and really begin to get a picture of what intrinsically motivates them. We can use this motivation along with the notion of having a growth mindset to motivate our students to make tomorrow better then today, to begin to push a little harder and to see that effort pay off toward something that they truly care about .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Chris,
      I truly appreciate the manner in which you have used this blog with your educators – these conversations are so powerful to move the theory into practice. The concept of intrinsic motivation is widely written about however my learning has really been consolidated as I have learned more about growth mindset and motivation. Thanks for sharing and appreciate the goal for the New Year!


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