Talking to teachers around the United States, we often ask how people feel about the topic of differentiation. These are just a few of the common responses we’ve gotten back:

“I’d love to do it, but It takes a lot of time.” 

“I feel like differentiation is that I have to create 10 different lesson plans every day.”

“Only really experienced teachers can do it. It seems really overwhelming”

And maybe the most frequent one of all:

“It sounds great, but I’m not sure how to do it.” 

I can agree with all of these sentiments, especially the last one. I think the answer with the overwhelming feelings around differentiation has something to do with what my co-author, Matt Miller, says.

“Overwhelm isn’t the problem of having too many options. It’s not knowing where to start.”

So, let’s dedicate this blog post to explore three things teachers can do to start. And if it sounds like we’re just scratching the surface, that’s ok. Just remember, big things have small beginnings.

1) Copy/Paste/Mutate.

This saying should be the mantra of differentiation done quick. Lots of apps have the capability for users to copy a product, activity, or an assessment, and then “mutate” the new version with more/less scaffolding. All that it takes from there is making sure that students utilize the version most appropriate for them (look for more on how to sneakily distribute differentiated content in an upcoming blog post). 

Here’s three apps that make Copy/Paste/Mutate a breeze:

  • GSuite- every GSuite product has this capability, from Docs to Drawing.
  • Classtime- Classtime is an app that lets you create “rapidfire” assessments that can be scaffolded in less than 30 seconds.
  • Insert Learning– Insert Learning lets you take any online published content and add annotations, questions, videos, and more. Simply duplicate any lesson and add/subtract scaffolding. 

So what should you “mutate” between different versions? The short answer is that it depends upon the needs of the your students. Here’s some suggestions though.

You could add/remove:

  • Pictures, GIFs, or YouTube clips
  • Vocab word banks
  • Sentence stems or solved examples (as a picture)
  • Question complexity (vocabulary, length, rigor of the answer)
  • Response types (written responses tend to be a bit more difficult than multiple choice, for instance)
  • Number of options on multiple choice questions (no more than five, no less than two

2) Offer Choice.

Simply stated, if you want to empower students, give them options. Although this can seem scary at first, a big part of differentiation is “letting go” of trying to control every aspect of how, what, when, where, etc, your students learn (insert your Frozen memes here). This doesn’t mean that you offer every student 50 different options–as we mentioned in the intro, trying to do that will be as frustrating for you as it is overwhelming for your students. Instead, start with a small batch of choices, maybe two or three. And you don’t have to attempt it over multiple days or with multiple classes either. Give it a small trial run with one group of students for fifteen minutes. Then build from there.

A common question we hear with choice and differentiation is, “Wait. Doesn’t that mean my students will be learning different things?”. The answer is no… and yes. For instance, one of the objectives I have to teach in US history is “trace the abolition movement in the United States before the Civil War.” As you can imagine, there’s quite a few ways that students could explore that content. The good news is, by picking any one of them, they’re still participating in the same curriculum. And, students get the freedom to explore what interests them.

To dive deeper into how differentiate with choice, check out our blog post Breaking the Blockbuster Model. 

3) Keep Metacognition in Mind

Students need to know what they know–and what they don’t. The importance of metacognition can’t be understated. It allows students to target–and ultimately tailor–their learning to their needs. 

There’s a whole bunch of research that supports that the skill of metacognition boosts student learning outcomes. Here’s just a few examples:

Schneider and Pressley (1989) write that students equipped with metacognitive knowledge about reading and memory improve their uses of  learning strategies. In their study, metacognition gave students the capacity to understand when and why they should use certain learning approaches.

In her book “Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8, “ Debbie Silver suggests that adults model the thinking and behavior that they want to see in children. She recommends, “Adults can help students learn to internalize self-regulation by modeling the behavior they want to see in children. Orally elaborating (thinking aloud) about one’s choice emphasizes the conscious nature of taking control of the situation.”  In other words, modeling metacognitive practices helps turn the productive thinking and actions over to the learners themselves.

Here’s a few ways to start building metacognitive practices with students:

     A) Brain Dumps. As suggested by Patrice Bain and Pooja Agarwal in their book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, practice “brain dumps” with students, where they write everything they know about a topic (either before or after they learn). These can be done digitally (such as through a whiteboard app like Aww App or Google Drawing) or on paper. Their blog has many more ideas about metacognition–definitely check them out! 

     B) Quick Checks with Google Forms. Progress checks can be just as much for students as they are for teachers. Creating them in Google Forms doesn’t take long to do, and even less to share with students. 

Here’s some prompts you could use with primary students:

  • This topic was easy (or hard) to learn because___.
  • What helped me learn ___ was ___.
  • I can do better ___ if I ___.
  • My teacher or classmates helped me learn___ because___.

Or for secondary-level students:

  • This topic was easy or challenging for me because___.
  • What helped me to learn most easily was___.
  • If I think about my learning, what I can do to learn more easily is___.
  • Family/friends might support my learning by ____.

There you go– three ways to start! Just remember, start small and build from there!


Nate Ridgway is a tech-loving history teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana and a co-author of Don’t Ditch That Tech: Differentiation in a Digital World. He specializes in lesson design and also is licensed in Special Education Mild Interventions. He’s taught in both middle school and high school settings, but currently is enjoying teaching World History & Dual Credit U.S. History. He is currently finishing a Masters degree in History at the University of Indianapolis.

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