Differentiation Meets Digital Technology

A Planning Process for Differentiated Instruction with Digital Tools

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Differentiating instruction is a time-tested way of thinking about meeting students’ needs as they make progress toward achievement or learning targets.  Differentiation is an elegant mindset that suggests to teachers a framework that permits them to engage students while focusing on learning results, and digital technologies offer many opportunities to differentiate instruction in meaningful ways.  However, differentiating instruction takes a concerted planning effort on our parts as teachers and teacher educators. This is especially so as we develop a mindset that differentiation can be effective. In this post, I propose a three-phase approach to planning differentiated instruction:

  1. Where do we start planning for differentiated instruction with technology?
  2. What are considerations for who we teach, what we teach, and how we plan?
  3. How do I put it all together?

Throughout this post, you will notice a pattern of threes based on where, what and who, and finally how. Because examples often help, this post will close with one which I hope will inspire you to even better differentiation with technology.

Where Do We Start the Planning Process?

  • Curriculum: What standards and lesson objectives are appropriate?
  • Results: What are the key attributes of the target concept to be learned? What is acceptable evidence that students are learning?
  • Resources: What human, digital, and traditional resources are available?

Let’s start with a premise: Planning differentiated instruction enhanced by technology is a perfect fit for the principles of understanding by design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) in which teachers plan instruction based on the results they intend for their students.  This means that before any digital tools are chosen, before a single activity is determined, before assessment instruments are designed, the intended results must be decided. Results are informed by standards and further refined by lesson objectives. They are carefully honed predictions for student learning that require the teacher to determine the key attributes of target concepts and consideration for what acceptable evidence of learning might be. Once we know we have this down, the rest falls into place.

Right now, you might be wondering, “Hey, where’s the technology?” At this point in our three-phase approach, we can ask ourselves what human, digital, and more traditional resources are available to support these learning events.  It will be tempting to think something like, “I really love Prezi and Glogster” so I’ll design my activity around those two tools.” An analogy might be helpful here as a kind of caution about choosing the technology before moving forward with other aspects of instruction.

In my backyard, I have decided to build a shed to store potting soil, extra pots, shovels, and so on. I know I have a claw hammer and a sledge hammer. I like my hammers, so I decide that those are the tools I will use.  Already, you can see this will not work out well. I may need other tools, and I may even have to borrow one from a neighbor or go to the hardware store and buy a tool for this task.  To be successful, I will need a pretty good inventory of the tools that are required for the job, the tools I own, and the tools I will borrow or buy. Planning to use technology to improve differentiated instruction is like that, too.  The technology should match the demands of the tasks.

What Do I Differentiate + Who and How?

  • Differentiate curriculum by process, product, or content
  • Based on readiness for learning relative to the standards and objectives, student interests relative to the standards and objectives, and the way they learn in general
  • While considering overall lesson design and time requirements

Once we have a firm grasp on what results we expect based on standards and objectives, we can begin to think about the best ways to challenge our students. Embedded in what we differentiate are considerations for who our students are and what we know about them along with what aspects of the curriculum might result (there is that word again) in effective student learning.  Curricular elements we can differentiate commonly include the processes of learning, the products of learning, and the content on which learning is based (Tomlinson, 2001).  Juxtaposed with those elements are the needs of the students including their readiness for learning relative to the standards and objectives, their interests relative to the standards and objectives, and the way they learn as a general rule. Learning needs and curricular elements or demands can be thought of as a matrix, as represented in figure 1. What cell on the matrix might produce the best learning results for the specific students sitting in the classroom? Finally, we need to decide what part of the lesson will be differentiated, how much time is available, and how this lesson fits in broader learning goals.

Differentiation Matrix

Figure 1: Differentiation Matrix

How Do I put it All Together?

  • Develop options and choices for learning
  • Based on identified learner needs relative to the standards and objectives
  • While keeping in mind key attributes of the target concept and intended learning results

Options: High-quality differentiation typically means different students doing different things that lead to achievement of a common learning goal.  Developing options is an effective way to put differentiation into effect. Sometimes the options are choices students can make based on the information they have about their own learning needs. At other times, the options are decisions that teachers make for students or are choices students make with guidance and nudging from their teachers. Options for learning in high-quality differentiation are always made with the key attributes of the target concept and effective learning results in mind.

Teachers develop options that meet identified learner needs while keeping key attributes of the target concepts and results in mind.

Checking for Differentiation: To check the effectiveness level of differentiated instructional tasks, fill in this sentence with details from your own lessons. Choose the element from the list in brackets or fill in your learning objectives or standards:

Based on what I know about the curriculum and my students, their [interests, readiness, or learning profiles] are [identify those interests, readiness levels, or learning profiles] relative to the objective of [insert the objective]. The [process, product, or content] will help students [achieve the objective] because…

So, Why Technology?

Early in this post, I asserted that technology offers the potential for powerful differentiation that results in high-quality learning. How digital technologies are embedded in the learning tasks is vitally important. They can be simple tinkering (or micro-differentiation, as Tomlinson, 2001, asserts) or those digital tools can vastly improve how students learn and how they interact in our digital world.  In choosing tools to be part of the options or choices available to students, three (remember our rule of threes for each phase?) questions can guide our thinking about what tools are appropriate and useful.

  • What tools do my students know or might they learn to use?
  • What digital technologies are available to the students in the classroom, at school, at home? And a corollary: What digital technologies can students bring with them to school to assist in their learning?
  • Will the digital technologies that are part of the options for students really improve their learning relative to standards, objectives, and intended learning results?

Another example of high-quality differentiation using technology is available in this video:

An Example from a High School English Classroom

Imagine a high school English course in which students are expected to understand and analyze characters in novels they selected as part of a coming of age unit.  The standard, drawn from the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS, 2010) informs these differentiated tasks.

RL.9-10.3. Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

The lesson objective relates directly to the CCSS standard; that is, students will be able to form inferences about characters from dialog and from their actions. Making inferences about characters from dialog and actions are key attributes that the teacher will use in guiding students as they work on differentiated tasks, and that will inform feedback she provides to students as they work.  In the following example tasks, notice how the tools enhance the learning rather than restrict it; at the same time students are encouraged to use new literacy skills in learning as they complete the tasks. In these examples, presented as directions to students, tasks are based on student choices, provide flexible grouping arrangements, and encourage a limited range of technologies that align with the intended learning result.

Differentiation of Product by Student Interests (based on the novels they selected to read):

1.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read say speaks volumes about them. Work with someone who read a book that is different than your own. Using Voicethread or a podcast, each partner should choose a character from their respective books. Create a dialog between those two characters that is clearly based on inferences you made about your respective characters. If you choose to work with Voicethread, choose appropriate images to correspond with the dialog you create. Ask yourselves, what would these two characters from different novels say to each other about their coming of age experiences? Challenge: Can you include, in your dialog, references to  characters’ actions that lead you to believe characters would respond in a certain way?

2.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read do tells us volumes about them. Work on your own to create a tree diagram, which includes several levels. If you would like to see an example of a tree diagram, click here. Use one of the interactive graphic organizer tools you find on the class webpage (for readers of this post, some possibilities are listed among the many tools here). At level one, identify the character and include the title of the novel. At level two, identify three or four characteristics of your chosen character that are based solely on their actions. At level three, find three or four actions in your novel that support your choice of attributes. Hint: You may want to choose the actions and categorize them, then identify the characteristics based on those attributes. Challenge 1: Share your graphic organizer with another member of your group and ask that person to add to your graphic organizer by either expanding the list of characteristics or adding to the possible actions that support the characteristics you chose. Challenge 2: Can you add a fourth level with an example from what characters say that supports the characteristics you chose?

3.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read do and say tells us volumes about them. Using the Twurdy search engine, find three reviews of your novel that include analysis of the characters in the novel you read.  Post your findings along with a paragraph indicating why you agree or disagree with the reviews you found. Be sure to include evidence in the form of inferences you have drawn from dialog or actions. Three to five examples will serve as evidence.  Work with a member of the class who read a different book than you did to determine if there are common attributes for the characters in the two different novels. Use Google Docs to create a matrix similar to the one you see here. Share your link on the class wiki. Challenge: Can you identify a character from your novel that is like any of the characters in our reading of a Shakespeare play (or other touchstone text) earlier this year?

In each example task, the students act on the interest in the novel they have read, and they create a product that is true to the standards and objectives.  Each can be assessed based on the intended results that are embedded in the standards, and each includes technology components that might increase student learning through collaborate to further enhance learning. Using the sentence frame suggested above, the teacher checks for differentiation:

Based on what I know about the curriculum and my students, their [interests ] are [grounded on the novels they selected to read for literature circles] relative to the objective of [character analysis]. The [product] will help students [analyze characters] because they must attend to the critical attributes of a character’s actions or interactions in dialog.

In your classroom, what successful tasks have you designed with the end in mind that were built on solid principles of differentiation and use of digital technologies? Use the comment button to add your thoughts to the conversation.


Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Standard RL.9-10.3. Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/english-language-arts-standards/reading-literature-6-12/grade-9-10/

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). Differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners: Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development


Search engines and multimodal representations

I was recently working with my third year, teacher candidate, students exploring the skills, strategies and dispositions necessary to successfully conduct Internet inquiry within the information-seeking cycle. The information seeking cycle is comprised of (a) planning inquiry questions and forming goals for internet inquiry; (b) generating and revising search terms; (c) investigating search results with a critical eye; (d) locating and transforming information; (e) critically evaluating information; and synthesising and communicating information to others. The students undertook an Internet information challenge, What caused the downfall of the Mayan civilisation?, to develop metacognitive awareness of their own skills, strategies and dispositions when conducting Internet inquiry. What I observed was that some students began this information quest by exploring videos and images relating to the Mayan civilisation. Helen explained the strategy to me, “I usually search for information by looking at videos and images to get the main concepts related to a topic. Then I will look up some articles when I have this background information”. Does this strategy represent a shift from privileging text as the primary source of information to favouring more multimodal representations of information? In this blog post I will explore some search engines which provide multiple representations of information.

Googling’ has entered the lexicon to become synonymous with searching for information online. The left hand panel on the Google interface, as shown in the screen shot below, provides a number of interesting representational choices such as, images, video, blogs, discussion fora, news features and time ranges. However, you can also customise your search results according to reading levels at basic, intermediate or advanced reading levels. This is a positive affordance for struggling readers. The Twurdy search engine (http://www.twurdy.com/ ) will also sort search results according to readability levels. You can also, of course, customise the search results by using the customised Google Search Engine Tools (http://www.google.com/educators/p_cse.html ). See Jill’s wonderful post on Customised Google search engine on Literacy Beat, March 2011

screen shot of Googel left hand panel

Screen shot of the left hand panel on Google Search engine

Other search engines privilege a more multimodal, multi-representational approach to presenting information. The Qwiki search engine (http://www.qwiki.com ) combines images, infographics, video and voice to enhance interactivity. Some of the pronunciations, especially for Irish place names are hilarious and entertain my students greatly! Qwiki is also available as an app for IPad, IPhone and Android devices. Qwiki Creator has just been released by the Qwiki team in alpha format and is currently available by invitation only. Qwiki Creator allows the user to create their own Qwiki representation with voice, text, images and video. I can see many possibilities for using Qwiki Creator with students in our classrooms. I think it’s certainly one to watch out for. A screen shot from the Qwiki interface is shown below.

Screen shot of Qwiki related to Inishbofin, Galway, Ireland

I have also recently begun to explore the Instagrok search engine. (http://www.instagrok.com/ )
Instagrok provides both a visual representation and a journal format. Watch the video for an overview.

To grok, the developers tell us is to ‘understand thoroughly and intuitively’. Instagrok presents a visual graph of the key concepts related to a topic. You can click on any of the key concepts to investigate that concept more thoroughly. In addition, on the right hand side of the screen, you can view key facts related to the topic¸ web sites, videos, images, and quiz topic questions related to the topic. You can pin any of these representations on to the visual graph. See my screen shot related to a grok I conducted related to the collapse of the Mayan civilisation. There is also a slide bar at the top of the screen to adjust the level of difficulty of the information presented. What really excites me about Instagrok is that you can also create a journal, which is automatically generated, as you annotate the visual graph. See the screen shot of the journal below. As Instagrok allows the teacher to create student accounts you can view the work of students in these journals.

Screen shot of a grok related to the collapse of the Mayan civilisation

Screen shot of the  journal created by Instagrok realted to the collapse of the Mayan civilisation

So have fun exploring these search engines. Have you noticed any changes in the ways you are searching for information online? Do you privilege text over other formats such as, video, voice or images? What about your students? Do let us know by replying to this blog.

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