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?

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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?

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ISTE Teaching Standard 1: Aligning a Genius Hour with Curriculum Standards

This quarter in my graduate studies in Digital Educational Leadership at Seattle Pacific University, I am exploring the ISTE Teaching Standards as a follow up to my study of the ISTE Student Standards last quarter. I am beginning with a look at ISTE Teaching Standard 1, which centers on facilitating and inspiring student learning and creativity.

Caine’s Arcade is often highlighted as an example of what can happen when young minds are given the ability to explore their own passions. Many educators, including myself, wonder how they can foster the same type of creativity and student-driven learning seen in Caine in our own students. One method has been a practice called Genius Hour, which follows the example of companies like Google, who have been known to encourage employees to devote 20% of their work time to passion projects. As such, this method of inquiry-based learning is also sometimes referred to as 20% time. Like Google employees, students are given regular allocations of time to explore topics of their own interest, a deviation from only participating in teacher-driven lessons. Personalized learning like this can intrinsically motivate students and fosters the skills needed to become a lifelong learner. There is research to support that students who are given the opportunity to personalize their learning show achievement growth. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014) specifically found that personalized learning had a significant impact on reading and math achievement.

So, what does a genius hour look like in a classroom?  My first round of research led me to the Genius Hour website, which includes a helpful video overview, as well as a wealth of resources implementation including how to introduce the concept and set expectations for students. The implementation of a genius hour facilitates and inspires student creativity and innovation as outlined in ISTE Teaching Standard 1. Initially, it seems exciting to release students like freed butterflies to explore a world of information online. However, one might wonder how to also remain focused on ensuring students learn and master standards and benchmarks.

How can educators implement the idea of a genius hour, to promote and support innovative and individualized learning, while still focusing students on necessary standards-based curriculum?

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