Using Universal Design to Differentiate Instruction

"Universal Design for Learning" by Giulia Forsythe CC 2.0

“Universal Design for Learning” by Giulia Forsythe CC 2.0

As part of my recent exploration of peer coaching, I have recently explored what it means to peer coach and what 21st century learning looks like in the classroom. Now, my attention has progressed to think about lesson improvement within the peer coaching process. As previously discussed, effective learning challenges students to shift from simple consumers of information, to producers of knowledge in the real-world (Foltos, 2013). For many, this type of learning is not easily integrated into daily teaching (Foltos, 2013). What steps are necessary to co-plan an effective lesson plan?

Creating a Task

Foltos (2013) wrote that first you need to create a task that is complex and real-world. It shouldn’t be too simple or too easily solved (Foltos, 2013). While this concept sounds good, it can be difficult to translate into a learning activity that is both relatable and digestible for students. Foltos (2013) suggested that real-world problems presented are aligned with student interest and that requirements can be easily defined and understood by students.

Defining Standards

Next, it is important to define the standards being focused on. There can be multiple categories of standards to consider: curriculum standards like those found in the Common Core, 21st century standards such as those with the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and technology standards like the ISTE Student Standards.

Crafting Student Directions & Assessments

From here, the learning context can be defined. This might be more easily understood as a “series of carefully sequenced learning activities” (Foltos, 2013, p. 125). It is, of course, important to determine how the learning activities correlate with the standards (Foltos, 2013). Finally, student directions can be crafted, assessments can be created, and resources can be identified, all through a process of receiving and sharing feedback.


One of my collaborating partner’s current focuses is differentiation. As such, I thought it relevant to align this week’s guiding questions about co-planning lessons to questions of differentiation. Differentiation is easily discussed but not as readily implemented into the classroom. It remains a great theoretical concept that is difficult to implement on a daily basis, given time constraints and curricular demands.

What protocols can be used to collaboratively design differentiated instruction effectively?

Continue reading

Why Do We Need to Define What 21st Century Learning Looks Like?

“Shared Vision” by Annie Tremonte created using Piktochart is licensed under CC 2.0.

This week in my studies with the Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University, I am continuing to explore ISTE Coaching Standards 1 and 2 by investigating what effective student learning looks like. Just as norms are an important part of a peer coaching relationship, so too is a shared vision for what effective 21st century learning looks like. This shared vision creates a starting place for any collaborative work.

The future of education is changing to respond to the internet’s information age. With an overwhelming amount of information accessible online, the role of teachers is less about possessing knowledge and more about facilitating learning driven by the students themselves. It is about preparing students for the emerging skills of tomorrow’s jobs. Resources like the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) set out to define what effective students learning looks like to get there. Commonly referred to as the four C’s, communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity are referenced as the basic elements of 21st century learning. However, these skills can appear vague or nebulous compared to the daily needs of instruction. As a result, it is important for coaching teams to define which skills are most important to student success (Foltos, 2013). The work to define these characteristics becomes “a road map that describes what teachers need to do to improve their practice and specifics on how to shape teaching and learning activities to reach their goals” (Foltos, 2013, p. 105). Foltos (2013) provided a solid reminder that while it is easy to say that students need to learn 21st century skills, it is more challenging to transfer skills such as critical thinking to daily classroom practice.

How do we turn these frameworks, standards, visions and characteristics into realities? What does it looks like, specifically in an English language arts classroom?

Continue reading

ISTE Student 2: Collaborating in a Digital Space

Untitled Banner

As part of my ongoing exploration of how ISTE Student Standards can be implemented in the classroom, I am focusing this week on ISTE Student Standard 2: Communication and Collaboration, addressing how students  will communicate and collaborate in a digital space to construct new meaning. I am specifically looking at the following performance indicators:

a. Interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media.
d. Contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems.

Assigning collaborative work in group projects is often a difficult task, especially at the middle school level. Students range in their ability to contribute productively to assignments, and are frequently left frustrated by the inconsistency of contributions. Assessment can also pose a challenge; final products do not necessarily reflect individual productivity. Desanctis (1987) researches the effects of technology on group work in “A foundation for the study of group decision support systems” and confirms our long held assumptions that certain members tend to dominate communication, while other less dominant members exert less effort overall (p. 596-7).  Regardless, as educators we know that collaborative learning is important for students because it  “fosters the development of critical thinking through discussion, clarification of ideas, and evaluation of others’ ideas” (Gokhlad, 1995). And regardless of the challenges, collaboration is an important 21st century skill to teach. Forbes magazine regards virtual collaboration as one of the top ten workplace skills for the future; so, “Whether you’re a fan of it or not, working and collaborating effectively virtually, whether on a simple task or a very complex challenge is a necessity as the nature of our work is globalized” (Gorscht, 2014, para. 12).

How do we as educators effectively use technology for student collaboration? If we rethink the group project as a means of developing skills alone, we may be guided in the right direction. Bates (n.d.) reinforces in Teaching in a Digital Age, that there has been a shift from teaching content, or academic knowledge to teaching skills, or applied knowledge (p. 37). Therefore, we should focus on fostering the skills of collaborating and communicating effectively, rather than on the final product of the group work.

Currently, I am in the midst of designing a  lesson with a silkscreen artist out of Toronto (my sister-in-law) for a lesson art designed for social movements. We developed a project in which small student groups will use their background knowledge of the middle ages to design a visual message. They will collaborate to design a poster that champions a cause from the perspective of a specific, medieval community. This project has emerged as a ripe opportunity to enhance their collaborative design process with the aid of some digital tools.

How can students collaborate creatively in small groups to design a visual product in a digital space?

Continue reading