Differentiating Instruction In Professional Learning

This post originally appeared on the ASCD Whole Child Blog and is reposted here by permission.

Differentiation is discussed as a promising practice in education for supporting student learning, building on prior knowledge and experiences, and for connecting students to each other and their place. Ideally, we provide regular opportunities for students to engage with content and each other in a variety of ways.  Practically, we allow for students to make meaning and show their understanding in multiple ways - not just for one unit but over the course of a year.  However, when the students are adults it is often a different story.

At a recent professional learning opportunity, I was sitting at a large round table with 7 other teachers in the middle of a banquet hall surrounded by nearly 300 K-12 educators and staff.  The topic of the day was differentiated instruction. Some of the teachers were focused on the presenter on a stage.  Most, however, were either surfing the web, knitting, reading a magazine or otherwise disengaged.  I know what you might be thinking -  that isn’t very professional!  Would you have been like me, both incredulous and frustrated, wondering if this was actually happening?

I kept thinking of the irony of lecturing 300 people on differentiated instruction for 6 hours.  Somehow this educational flop –that is, ignoring that adults, like students, learn in different ways – has been at the forefront of every decision we make in offering professional learning for educators.  We’ve all experienced horrible professional learning and yet so often we subconsciously recreate those experiences for adult learners.  The statement,”do as I say; not as I do” rings true for most professional development workshops.  

We know that differentiation is as essential for adult learning as it is for youth learning.  Learning Forward, a leader in professional learning, suggests that in order to create a culture of continuous improvement and learning, teacher leaders should “Use information about adult learning to respond to the diverse learning needs of colleagues by identifying, promoting, and facilitating varied and differentiated professional learning”.  We can apply the same thinking to adult learning environments as we do to youth.  Here are some ideas we play with each time we offer a professional learning experience for educators.

Before the Experience

  • Know your audience: Get to know participants before they arrive.   How can you gather information (beyond demographics) about your audience?  Attending to what they already know, how they best learn, what their expectations and needs are for the experience? Is there a way we can engage educators prior to the experience in order to better meet their needs?  Consider doing a “needs and assets assessments” or written reflections and short responses to readings.   I love asking teachers to complete these two sentences; “I learn best by…… and If I don’t learn about or experience…..I will feel disappointed.”
  • Plan with flexibility: How can you develop an agenda for learning that allows for flexibility?  What formative assessments do you have in place in order to garner feedback?  How can you prepare professional learning staff to respond to participant needs, learning styles and ways of expressing their understanding?
  • Think about what they need to know as practitioners:  Remember to think about teacher as learner and teacher as practitioner.  What do they need to know in order to do their best work, understand the complexity or the level of the knowledge the need to know.  Can you pair the research base with the practical application?  Can you share data with the hands-on experience?

During the Experience

  • Model different ways of teaching:  Sounds really simple, right?  But more often than not we powerpoint teachers to death.  Your decision making about how to teach adults is as important the content you teach, think   “is what we are teaching in congruence with how we are teaching it?”  For example if you are teaching about active learning, be active learners.  Or if you are teaching about author’s craft, engage the teachers in a writing task.  
  • Remember that how you learn best isn’t always how everyone else learns: This has been a critical realization for me personally as a professional learning provider.  I’m extremely extroverted and I tended to develop learning experiences that require verbal processing, large group work, and rapid processing and responses.  Purposefully collaborating with peers who  learn and process differently than myself helped me to design better experiences for all participants.  Now I think, how can I balance active learning and collaboration with quiet reflection and processing.  Or can I send readings in advance so some folks have more time to process and feel ready?
  • Transparent facilitation and check-ins:  We use a hand symbol - a sport time-out T - to interrupt our facilitation and note why we might be doing something with teachers.  It could be as simple as saying, “I’m checking to see if you’re all comfortable right now or if you need a break?” or “We’re trying out this approach so you can get a feel for it but we won’t be engaging in this way all day.”  We find that a quick check-in can really help meet people’s needs.  
  • Consider the whole-learner:  What are you doing to take care of their physical, emotional, social, spiritual and intellectual being?  This might seem like it has little to do with differentiation but in order to learn we need to attend to a variety of needs throughout the day.  Are you able to make space for these to be well tended to?  
  • Formative Assessments:  Typically we are checking to see if our students are getting the content of what we are saying.  I like to do “informative assessments” that inform me about how good of a job I’m doing in helping them access content or build skills.  

Post Experience:

Beyond the offer of “call me or email me with any questions” how can you build in options that allow for on-going learning and differentiation?  Consider different models such as coaching/mentoring in the classroom, online learning, access to resources, or reflection logs.  


Jen Cirillo

Posted by Jen Cirillo

March 2, 2015


Hi Jen! I think so fondly of my time up in Vermont with you and your wonderful program. I am still plugging away here trying to get the gardens integrated into the curriculum. I have just been given the go-ahead to present the idea of a gardening class, but with the criteria that it has to meet the goals of the school (of course!) and that I also present a UBD. I remembered formulating one with everyone at the school that summer, but no longer have it and was also remembering that you had some online resources. I don't seem to be able to find them and am looking for some help and direction! Hopefully I will hear from you soon. I keep hoping to come back and bring some other teachers with me! Hope all is well with you! Sheila

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