Connecting Responsive Instruction to our Board Work

Recall this graphic from the Leadership Learning Team sessions from last year? (you may want to click on the link as the graphic is small!)


The graphic is called The Complexity of Instruction and can be found in the Edugains site. Consider the components illustrated in the graphic; each of which are important to responsive instruction.

  • Learning Environment (the Third Teacher Monograph!)
  • Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Knowledge of the learner, curriculum and program within and across subject disciplines)
  • Assessment and Evaluation (Assessment Framework, Evaluation based upon observations, conversations and products)
  • Design for Learning (universal design for learning and understanding how learning happens)
  • Instructional Strategies (engaging, strategic, based on where the learners need to go)
  • Inquiry Stance (Evidence-informed thinking about the current state, the ideal state, how to bridge the gap, and how to gauge progress along the way; and seeking feedback on impact of teaching to inform next steps)
  • Differentiated Response (know and respond to the learner’s needs)

What is important for us to recognize, as a district, is that each of these components have been the focus for our learning over the past number of years.  This graphic allows us to see/reminds us how these pieces are connected; which in turn helps us to see that we are all working on the same overall goal.  It does sometimes feel as though we have many different foci – seeing how the pieces are connected is vital to our individual and collective efficacy.

Much interest was generated last week about Differentiated Instruction so I began to review the many materials that are contained on the Edugains website.  Below is the definition which we likely all know.


However, it is the HOW of differentiated instruction that many asked about/talked about last week – there is a feeling that we know what it is, but the actual practice is the area where we are at different stages of implementation and where we have questions.

So what does differentiation look like and sound like in a responsive classroom? There are four key features of DI  (again, noting the alignment between the “Things to Consider” for Responsive Instruction as one of our Conditions for Learning)

1.  Choice

– Choices are a response to ongoing assessment.  Note that this isn’t just in summative assessment – choice is embedded throughout the teaching and learning/assessment for learning cycle.

– Choices are carefully constructed so that they all  address the same curriculum expectations, take about the same amount of time and require all students to work at their current level of readiness.

– Students are taught to make good choices based on their strengths and needs.

– It is far more important to offer a few high-quality choices than to provide lots of choices.  Offering too many choices is time consuming for the teacher and may overwhelm/confuse students.

2.  Respectful Tasks

– All students work on the same curriculum expectations, skills and learning goals with varying degrees of support.  – Tasks for all groups are interesting and engaging.

– Tasks are respectful when struggling students are engaged in learning opportunities that are just as interesting and appealing as those of other students.

  1. Flexible Groupings

– Students have a chance to work with various groups; sometimes by interest, sometimes by readiness and sometimes by learning preferences.

– DI does not mean “ability grouping” which can lead to stigma.  For example a student may be in a low readiness group because they have little prior knowledge about a topic – not because they have limited ability. Some participants, although gifted in many areas, could be in a low readiness groups for downhill skiing.

  1. Shared Responsibility for Learning

– Students who know how they learn best and how they are progressing towards a learning  goal are prepared to take more responsibility for their learning

– Students are active in self-assessment, goal setting and co constructing criteria for assessment and evaluation.  – Students learn how to make good choices that will help them learn and demonstrate their learning best

We know that Ricci (2013) in Mindsets in the Classroom provides us with a Teacher Checklist for Planning Differentiated, Responsive Instruction that includes the following (note that for clarification on some of the terms that she uses, please see chapter 3 of her book):

  • Determine skills, content, concepts, or procedures being assessed and develop or use school/district preassessments.
  • Develop anchor activities related to the unit.
  • Present preview (2-5 minutes) to activate background knowledge prior to preassessment.
  • Students take preassessment.
  • Analyze preassessments:  determine areas already mastered, any gaps that may exist, and areas of need for each student.
  • Identify students who would benefit from curriculum compacting and plan instruction for the areas of need.
  • Identify any students who have complete understanding and are ready for another learning outcome.  Plan for enrichment and topic/content acceleration for these students.
  • Form instructional groups –model anchor activity expectations if necessary and share the group rotation for the day. Teacher will instruct each group every day. Plan for a few minutes between groups to respond to any questions from students, make sure everyone is on the right track, and praise effort students are putting forth.
  • Administer formative assessment daily.  Use the information to inform instruction for students as well reflection for the teacher.  If understanding is not evident with most students, reteach in a new way.  Student movement among groups may occur based upon the formative assessments.
  • Summative assessments, performance tasks, and products (as well as homework) must be differentiated based on the instruction for each group.

Mary Cay Ricci (2013) Mindsets in the Classroom,  pg 54

Remember this resource (on Edugains as well as in all of our schools)…which contains many examples, tools and resources to support DI…


Now consider the School Effectiveness Framework Components –  especially #4 Curriculum, Teaching and Learning.  Indicator 4.5 Instruction and assessment are differentiated in response to student strengths, needs and prior learning. 



How are we using these tools to inform the conversations that occur as part of our School Learning Plan processes around responsive instruction?  

Can these resources be used as a guide for us in engaging in our self-assessment conversations of responsive, differentiated instruction?  

How can we return to some of these resources to help us to make even deeper connections between our work (and the many terms and jargon that may cause deep meaning to be compromised), and to continue to become increasingly responsive through differentiated instruction?  

This is a complex piece however I know that it is critical to ensuring that everyone sees the alignment and connection between all of the components of our work. I am looking forward to your responses…especially those who we haven’t heard from in a while! Take a risk!

Until next week…

4 responses

  1. There is a lot of valuable information here. Thank you Nicki for pulling it all together and showing the alignment. I hope this information with be shared with teachers.


  2. I really like the complexity of learning graphic because it shows just what it says “complexity of learning”. I like to think that we are all working in all of these areas however we like to take time with specific puzzle pieces in order to reshape them for our learners. Being responsive means adjusting and “shaping” some of these puzzle pieces in order to meet our learners needs.


  3. After reading, Nicki’s blog post last week, the part that stuck out to me was the wondering from the educator around how to possibly meet the needs of every learner…and seeing that as the need to plan for every student, and then just this past weekend the following article “Differentiation Doesn’t Work” was posted to Facebook by a teacher friend, and it made me wonder about the meaning or connotation that may have developed around that word. The article can be found at:

    The article references ‘differentiation’ as a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students. The author notes that is shouldn’t be complicating teacher’s work (and that I do agree with). When the author references differentiation being harder than juggling with one arm, it makes me wonder again if that is because of what we believe the notion of differentiation to be. I think the author is on to something near the end when he talks about understanding what/how we are differentiating – the curriculum or instructional methods or both…

    Over the last two days I have been fortunate to participate in Early Learning sessions, and we had great conversation around the notion of learning TO do something and learning ABOUT something….and the need for both of them to be merged together, and it helped be to further reflect on the article and wonder if maybe that balance has been missing when it comes to understanding the notion of differentiation? We know that the work being done in the Early Years is helping us to redefine ‘school’ with the belief that kids are more capable then we first understood.

    We know that here are many ways to differentiate – by task, which involves setting different tasks for pupils of different abilities; differentiation by support, which means giving more help to certain pupils within the group; and differentiation by outcome, which involves setting more ‘open’ tasks and allowing pupil response at different levels; be resources, allowing pupils to access information at their own level, by questioning, to allow you to target purposeful questions at specific pupils…and I’m sure there is many more…

    I’m not sure how the author sees differentiation as working only if we return to the days when similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own…as what would then be differentiated??

    It brought me back around to the importance of our Conditions for Learning and the work we are doing around mindset and the viewpoints of our students around their sense of belonging, and how maybe one of the reasons why educators struggle with differentiation is because they are still ‘teaching to’ students instead of ‘learning with them’?

    During my travel I often listen to podcasts, and the two I listened to (will mention below) on my trips this week helped me to reflect even further on the article….(I find that reading and hearing things that create tension help me to reflect on things and try to make connections).

    After listening to the podcasts, it became even more clearer, that one of the reasons differentiation may be difficult is because it relies on the need for us to understand ‘who’ our learners are and what their strengths are, as well as the trajectory of learning they are to be on. A lot of it comes back to planning, and understanding what our long term goals are for the students and helping them to understand the goals and see the purpose/relevance to them, and then to understand where they are and working with them to set smaller goals, helping them to see that they are capable of success and believing in them that they can and will be able to obtain the larger goal….that differentiation is just ‘student-centred leadership’.

    The podcasts are from ASCD and the first was titled: Believing in Students So They Believe in Themselves and can be found at:

    In it educators shared responses to “what is the difference you are trying to make?” and “how do you know you’ve made a difference?” Themes emerged around creating environments so that all kids would want to be in school and enjoy learning,helping students discover their strengths/passions and who they are as learners getting students to believe in themselves – their ability and believing that is ok to fail meeting students where they are – not as a challenge but as an opportunity for growth…having students realize their own potential

    They talk about giving up control in the classroom, one of the speakers makes a good comparison to coaching, comparing it to what a practice looks like, and how to teach in the classroom they same way that you coach – that it is at times a very noisy, collaborative, chaotic environment, where the learners are doing different things but working towards the same goal; that when you give up the control and invite a little chaos in, that’s where learning begins.

    They reference how student focused learning environments can make a difference; that it’s the content and the process – the relationships…. and the importance of interpersonal skills and how they are all interrelated; the importance of a healthy environment, putting the onus on the student, that they are part of the environment/part of the community. And the importance of having every student believe in themselves and have high expectations, and that expectancy begins with having relationships… the need to help them establish short term goals so that they can see their success over time, so they can believe that they can get to the long term goal.

    The second podcast (also from ASCD): Is Resilience the Secret to Student Success
    ( )
    is also relevant here, especially after hearing George speak to us last week. It also notes the importance of our belief system and how it should reflect that all students are capable and competent, hence we should be able to differentiate and “create, provide, support and sustain environments that nurture the development of children”. That it all starts with a ‘mindset’ approach, the importance for all to believe in the capacity of all individuals.

    They also state that resilience is a philosophy… a process that should be integrated across all content areas,’s not what we do, but the manner in which we do it… They note that it is tied to the sense of belonging one has and how that sense of belonging becomes the underpinning of resilience, and how the classroom becomes one of the most powerful sources of belonging in a child’s life….

    They reference Bonnie Benard….that all individuals have needs…………, power, belonging… and identify her three protective factors: caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation and contribution. That when these factors are found together in an environment it leads to the development of personal strengths, which led to life success and outcomes…and that it all begins with the adult having positive beliefs in the child.

    So (to make a long post short…..) it all made me think about how does differentiation link to students’ sense of belonging and to resiliency…and to growth mindset?…all are a process and are very closely related to each other, as are our conditions for learning and more importantly the need for conversations around these topics so that we are being responsive and meeting the needs of our learners so that we can help them to move forward. It also made me think about the following quotes:
    “If children are given the chance to believe they’re worth something—if they truly believe that—they will insist upon it” (Maya Angelou).

    “Every child is gifted – they just unpack their packages at different times.”



    1. I just have to add on the following link…. I apologize for making it even longer – or for giving you yet one more link to check out…but Mr. Grant Wiggins (if you don’t yet follow his blogs…you should 🙂 posted tonight a reply to and a rant to the article: Differentiation Doesn’t Work… click on the link to access his ‘rant’ 🙂

      …my gut told me from the beginning that Mr. DeLisle’s viewpoint didn’t have much merit… but I wasn’t aware of the names or had yet taken the time to check out his references…I am so grateful to see that Mr. Wiggins has taken it on and am sooo looking forward to his next posts where he plans to pursue some of the questions at the end…and I’d love to see if Education Week posts or responds to his post 🙂


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