Differentiation 101

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Differentiation 101Anyone in the field of education who hasn’t heard the term differentiation hasn’t been paying attention. Since the late 1980s, teachers have been encouraged to differentiate as a way to provide individual students with what they need, when they need it. As differentiation has gained popularity over the past almost-30 years, it has also attracted its share of controversy.

Some believe differentiation is a fad that is unattainable. Some say the pure nature of trying to address 30-some individuals in one classroom is time consuming and not necessarily worth the effort. Others state that there is no research or evidence to support differentiation’s use. Personally, I agree with famed educator Dr. Dylan Wiliam when he says that consistency in delivering lessons targeted to learning standards, that include multiple checkpoints for understanding, and that include adjustments to instruction for all to find meaning may be the most powerful, cost-effective action to ensure learning. That’s differentiation!

Differentiation is not 30 separate lessons, nor is it something that happens all the time in all classrooms. As my friend Dr. Diane Heacox states, differentiation is not an event, it’s a habit of keeping students at the center of learning. I often tell people that differentiation is a philosophy of doing the business of learning. Teachers must have the mindset that every child can learn and that every child learns differently. Knowing how each child learns, what interests her, and what her special/individualized needs are—and then being able to adjust or modify curriculum and instructional practices accordingly—is differentiation. See my answers to five common questions about differentiation in this blog post.

The place to begin the process of differentiation is through your curriculum. Curriculum is not your textbook! Textbooks can support us in delivering the curriculum, but they are a source, not the source, of information. Curriculum is what we want our students to understand (conceptually), be able to do (procedurally), and know (factually). The national, state, provincial, and local standards inform us about these three components (or lenses) of curriculum. With clarity about the three objectives within your curriculum comes focus for how to engage your learners through interests, how to scaffold or extend activities based on levels of readiness, and how to address special learning needs and learner profiles (whether higher or lower).

Here’s an example of a differentiated fifth-grade social studies assignment.

Strand: Citizenships and Government
Substrand: Governmental Institutions and Political Processes
Standard: The United States government has specific functions that are determined by the way power is delegated and controlled among the three levels (federal, state, local) and the three branches (legislative, executive, judicial) of government. (MN K–12 Social Studies State Standards)

This standard can be examined through the three lenses of the curriculum.

Students will understand (conceptually) government’s power and control. (Do note that I have broadened the understanding beyond the unit topic of the US government—this is essential to the conceptual understanding of any content area.)

Students will be able to (procedurally) explain and analyze:

  • The specific functions of the three branches of the US government
  • How leadership in each branch is determined as established in the US Constitution
  • How the three levels of the US government interact and work together

Note: The procedural level includes all the skills being developed and the strategies being learned.

Students will know (factually):

  • Vocabulary
  • The three branches of the US government
  • The three levels of government

Note: At the factual level, there are many things you want students to be able to recall—I have not listed them in their entirety.

Some standards, especially those in ELA and math, may not be as specific on the conceptual level, with greater emphasis placed on the procedural level. This gives you the opportunity to investigate why the strategies and skills matter. In ELA, for example, it’s about the concept of effective communication; in math, it’s about the concept of problem-solving. For more information on concept development and essential questioning, check out this past blog post.

Next, decide how you are going to get your students to greater understanding of the concepts, greater skill development of the procedural aspects, and greater factual knowledge recall.

With understanding concepts, keep in mind that students learn conceptually through experiences. For the social studies assignment example, provide students with different ways to experience government and the balance of power. For example:

  • Some students may be interested in creating a classroom government that parallels the US government (interest-based).
  • Some students may prefer to view videos on how governments balance the controls of power (preferred ways of doing/learner profile).
  • Some students may need to read or listen to the textbook explanation of how the US government controls balance of power (readiness).

Base your experiential options on a preassessment of what students understand about the concepts of government and the balance (control) of power. Here’s an idea for a conceptual-understanding preassessment:

Differentiation 101

Procedural learning (what we expect our students to be able to do) happens through practice. Some students need a lot of practice, others need less, and others may need more complex applications. Again, using preassessments to determine the level and amount of practice necessary will be essential to providing the right adjustments to activities. Using station rotation with leveled activities can be an effective way to differentiate at the procedural level. Learn more about centers and stations in this blog post. For some wonderful resources on developing centers and stations, check out the website of my good friend, Dr. Katie McKnight.

At the factual level (what we want our students to know), we learn best through repetition. Again, some students need more while some need less. I’m cautious about giving some students more facts while others do less. What may be more effective is providing students with different ways to memorize and retain the facts, such as through mnemonics, songs, or flash cards. You can also use websites or apps, such as Quizlet, to help kids learn factual information in a more interactive way.

To take your learning of differentiation deeper, check out Free Spirit’s many excellent resources.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


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First Semester Goals Check-In: Assess the Effectiveness of Your Classroom Procedures

By Andrew Hawk

First Semester Goals Check-In: Assess the Effectiveness of Your Classroom ProceduresFor most schools in the United States, winter break marks the halfway point of the school year. This is a good time for teachers to step back and examine the success of their classrooms.

My school system requires that teachers write and monitor two yearly specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely (SMART) goals. For my colleagues, and for you fellow teachers with similar requirements, winter break is the perfect time to assess the progress you have made toward these goals. Even if teachers are not required to write and monitor goals, we all should have a goal in mind relating to the growth made by our students. This is also a great time to analyze the effectiveness of classroom procedures. If procedures need to be overhauled, the New Year is a good time to start.

Taking Stock of First Semester Goals

  • Use Data. Stakeholders, teachers included, sometimes get frustrated when people bring up data. Whether you believe students are assessed too much or the correct amount, it’s important to recognize that data is more than a buzzword. Data from both standardized assessments and classroom grades are how many people measure the progress of students. At this midpoint of the school year, pull together the data you have (whether it is a lot or a little) and compare it to your data from the beginning of the year. Have your students made a half year of growth? What areas were they strongest in? Why? How can you help them reach their full academic potential? If you are not on track to make your goal, start working on a plan to help yourself meet it.
  • Anecdotal Notes. During my student teaching, one of my professors emphasized the use of anecdotal notes to help assess student learning. My classmates and I were taught to collect anecdotal information on all our students. Naturally, we did not do this for every student every day. Anecdotal notes are a series of written observations. These do not have to pertain specifically to academic performance, but they are based on behavior in general. Collecting anecdotal notes encourages teachers to pay attention to each student. If you already collect these notes, review them to see if any trends pop out at you. If you do not write anecdotal notes, I recommend starting, even if you only write one blurb for one student each day.
  • Parent Input. When you are assessing progress toward meeting your goal or goals, consider reaching out to one or more parents to glean their opinions. After all, if you meet all your goals but your students’ parents are unhappy with their children’s growth, have you really succeeded? Make a few phone calls and get a feel for how the parents of your students feel about the first half of the school year.
  • Student Survey. Student input is more valuable than most people recognize. No matter what subject or age group you teach, you should make school enjoyable for your students. Put together an age-appropriate survey to gauge how your class, or classes, feels about the success they have experienced. The depth of your students’ responses might surprise you.
  • Self-Reflection. If you completed a traditional teacher preparation program, you most likely are familiar with reflecting on the success of lessons you teach and your performance. There is a reason why college professors insist that teaching candidates reflect on a regular basis. Your own knowledge of what has taken place offers information that cannot be captured in a data point. If you do nothing else, make a list of five things you did really well and five things that you could have completed in a better way during the first half of the school year. Save your reflections to review again after the last day of school.

Reevaluating Classroom Procedures

  • Academic Success. Once again we are back to data. Procedures have a direct impact on the academic success of students. While some procedures are in place in the majority of classes in our country, for example, students raising their hands to talk, others may be specific to a group of students. Once I had a group of students who constantly would play with my electric pencil sharpener. I had never had an official procedure in place for using the pencil sharpener because I had never needed one. But for a portion of that year, I put a procedure in place regulating the use of the classroom pencil sharpener. Review the academic success of your students. If they have not made the growth you would expect, consider if there are any procedures that you can add to maintain a productive learning environment.
  • Student Behavior. Are you experiencing more student behavior issues than usual? Is student behavior interfering with classroom learning? You might want to take a look at your procedures. Even if you arrive at the conclusion that your procedures are effective, you might find that some procedures need to be retaught or reinforced. Developing a new behavior plan is also worth considering if you are having behavior issues. Classes have their own personalities, and procedures need to be adjusted to meet the needs of each group.
  • State of Your Classroom. Are your students hard on learning resources? Are there often messes at the end of the day? When reevaluating your classroom procedures, consider the state of your classroom when you leave each evening. I once had a second-grade class that had no serious issues except that they were very rough with my reading books. I am disappointed to say I never found a procedure that solved this problem. However, that didn’t stop me from trying!
  • Lesson Timing. Reflect back on the Setting SMART Goals Worksheetfirst half of the year. Did you finish the majority of your lessons on time? If not, you may want to consider some new procedures to save time. Consider your daily happenings when you run out of time, and determine if you are planning too much material or if an adjustment in your procedures would be beneficial.
  • Student Independence. It is also worth considering whether you have more procedures than are necessary. Procedures are meant to keep your room running smoothly, but they should not prevent students from gaining independence. If you think you have a group that can handle more independence, consider deregulating some of your procedures.

Bonus! Download a free printable SMART goals worksheet.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 16 years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2019 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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To New Beginnings

To New BeginningsAs we jump into 2019, the bloggers at Free Spirit want to thank you for sharing time with us this year.

Looking ahead, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions for blog posts in 2019. What topics do you want to read more about? Do you have a great story to share? Drop us an email or leave a comment at any time.

Have a safe and happy New Year! We will return to our regular posting schedule on January 3.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


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8 Ways to Encourage Positive Food and Body Conversations Through the New Year’s Resolution Diet-Talk Onslaught

By Liz Bergren

8 Ways to Encourage Positive Food and Body Conversations Through the New Year’s Resolution Diet-Talk OnslaughtAs the clock winds down toward 2019, many of us start to finalize our New Year’s resolutions. These resolutions can be anything we want them to be—spend more time with family, spend more time in nature, volunteer, save more money, and so on. However, many of us associate New Year’s resolutions with weight loss. Why do we do that? Weight loss is a great resolution if you have been advised to improve your health and well-being.

For those of us who live and/or work with kids, we want to make sure that we are modeling healthy and appropriate conversations about food and weight. At times we can make mindless comments about food or bodies. Americans live in a weight-obsessed world, and it is very common to allow our thoughts and beliefs about food and weight to slip out in casual conversations with other adults and kids.

This post offers eight suggestions for parents and teachers to be more mindful about our language regarding food, bodies, and weight when discussing New Year’s resolutions.

  1. Avoid making body-shaming statements or frequently talking about weight loss. If you are uncomfortable in your body and hoping to make changes with your weight in the New Year, work hard to focus on the overall health benefits. Send the message to young people in your life that you want to prioritize your health and vitality. Avoid making comments about other people’s body shapes and sizes.
  2. Use New Year’s resolutions to discuss how to set goals and the steps necessary to reach those goals. To combat diet culture, have students set goals that have nothing to do with health, bodies, or food. Help them associate New Year’s resolutions with other topics. This post from the Free Spirit blog has strategies for helping students set goals.
  3. Parents can use this time of year to set family goals. Those goals can be about food or other changes that can be beneficial for the whole family. Think about setting a goal to try one new food each week or to reserve one day a week to exercise as a family. Perhaps you’d like to set goals for less screen time. If you’d like to set health goals, focus on just that—health and vitality—and not on weight loss or altering or fixing one’s appearance.
  4. Help students become critical thinkers about diet culture. This time of year, we may be barraged with messages to fix this, change that, lose this, alter that. Use this time to teach students ways to challenge the beauty industry. Help them understand strategies used by marketers who generate money by making us feel dissatisfied with our appearance. The Dove Self-Esteem Project has ready-to-use lesson plans that address challenging beauty industry standards.
  5. Although there are foods most of us know should not be consumed frequently, it is best to take an “all food can fit” stance. When you allow room in your diet for foods traditionally labeled as “junk,” you can eliminate rigid food rules and reduce the risk of bingeing. We can and should enjoy dessert, and it can be part of a healthy overall diet. When students are eating in the lunchroom or in your classroom, refrain from making comments about their food. When feeding children at home, try not to withhold all sugar or all foods with low nutritional value such as candy and chips. With nutrition education and healthy food modeling, the “all food can fit” stance helps build a better relationship with food.
  6. Think about how you label food. When applying the “all food can fit” stance, avoid labeling foods as good or bad. Placing labels on “types” of food can be confusing. Actions speak louder than words, and working on how you model your relationship with food is what matters most.
  7. If you are a parent of a child who is overweight and want to support your child’s efforts to improve health and well-being, wait for your child to lead the conversations. Help children understand that they are loved regardless of size or weight, focus on eating patterns, and explore feelings about food and how emotions may influence eating patterns. Practice cooking together.
  8. If you are using the New Year as an excuse to set weight-loss goals, try not to keep a scale in your home. For young people, it is important to send the message that the number on the scale is not an accurate representation of one’s body composition. A scale—and the number that it reads—can become an obsession. A good rule of thumb to use for weight loss is to use your clothes as a guide.

Liz BergrenLiz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2018 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Home for the Holidays

Happy Holidays from Free Spirit PublishingDuring this hectic holiday season, Free Spirits are reflecting on the past year and the people who have made it memorable. We have welcomed wonderful new authors and illustrators into our publishing family and learned so much from you, our readers. We wish you happy holidays and a hopeful New Year.

The entire staff at Free Spirit Publishing is heading home this week to celebrate and recharge. We’ll be back to blogging Monday, December 31, with a post from Liz Bergren on encouraging positive food and body conversations.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2018 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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