Authors and educators Dr. Angelia Ridgway, Professor of Education at the University of Indianapolis, and Nathaniel Ridgway join the podcast to discuss the pros and cons of differentiated learning, how to customize a course down to the individual student level, and the promise of educational technology and adaptive learning within differentiated instruction.

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Every student has unique interests, preferences, strengths, and struggles: Which means every student needs a differentiated learning approach to reach their full potential. It's a difficult challenge to take on in any classroom — and that doesn't include external forces like the recent pandemic.

Ready to tackle differentiation in the classroom, but not sure where to begin due to time constraints and the sheer number of options? In this episode, Dr. Angelia Ridgway and Nathaniel Ridgway walk us through some best first steps.

Differentiating the Classroom

We want to give our students a unique learning experience tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. While a large class size and the pandemic may raise concerns on how to accomplish that, there are resources available, like the Universal Design for Learning model, a model for improving accessibility and more in learning. 

For example, Nathaniel started building differentiation into his classroom by simply removing desks to allow flexible seating — creating a setup that helps students feel comfortable and best facilitates their learning. 

The Role of the Instructor

As a teacher – either in the classroom or at home – our purpose is to get our great problem solvers of tomorrow to reach an end goal. To achieve this, the educational design must include:

  • Variability for different processes
  • Different levels of content
  • Different products that represent their means of knowing

For one or two students, this high level of variability sounds doable. But for classrooms of 20 to 30 kids, how can an educator possibly introduce such a substantial offering? 

Nathaniel’s advice: Start with a slow drip.

Introducing differentiation doesn’t need to totally disrupt your classroom. Beyond small changes, teaching students to be aware of their personal impact on outcomes can form a path toward a more personalized learning experience. 

Nathaniel shares a personal example of a project he was involved with at the high school where he now works: In an attempt to understand and correct the school's decreasing test scores, he and a language arts teacher worked with their AP language arts class to brainstorm solutions together in small groups. One of the solutions they came up with — a freshman mentorship program to help get new students acclimatized to the school — is still in effect today.

Even with a small amount of change, you have the power to differentiate your classroom; but instructor involvement only goes so far. Make sure your students are empowered to take ownership of their learning experience. 

As tempting as it can be to believe that you know what’s best, they are the only ones who can guide you towards their best learning environment. 

Best Technology to Aid in Differentiated Learning

Unfortunately, technology is not a catch-all solution when it comes to differentiated learning. But the right tools can aid any teacher already doing their best in the classroom. 

Two of Angelia's favorite tools include:

  1. Smithsonian Tween Tribune: Large inventory of authentic, relevant content with a variety of reading levels and supports.
  2. Wonderopolis: Empowers student agency at home and in the classroom. 

These resources don't replace your efforts as an instructor, but they can help cover the scope of your students' unique needs. For example: if you have advanced readers, these options provide developmentally appropriate materials to keep these students on track. 

Differentiating Deeper, Not Faster

Differentiation doesn’t mean all students will move at drastically different paces. 

For those special few students who have found their learning groove quicker than others, differentiation allows for a deeper level of inquiry. Think of a classroom learning about ancient Egypt. Instead of having those particular students move forward to other ancient civilizations while you keep the pace with the rest of the class, they have the resources to dive deeper into Egyptian history. 

Next Steps for Teachers

For those ready to tackle the challenge of differentiated learning, it’s important to remember students' developmental limits as you plan ahead. 

Things to Consider:

  • A student may have the ability to take on a project, but do they have the emotional maturity to stick with it for hours until completion? 
  • Socially, a student needs time to stop work and have fun. Is their workload keeping them from that?

If we want to set our students up for success, we must be intentional about how we teach the concepts we want them to learn without overloading them.

Guest Links 

Recommended Resources

This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

To get weekly episode summaries right to your inbox, follow the podcast at the bottom of this page or anywhere you get podcasts. Ideas for the show? Reach us at podcast@aops.com.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Angelia Ridgway and Nathaniel Ridgway Q&A

Eric Olsen: On today's episode authors and educators Dr. Angelia Ridgeway, Professor of Education at the University of Indianapolis, and Nathaniel Ridgeway join the podcast to talk about the pros and cons of differentiated learning, how to customize a course down to the individual student's level, and the promise of educational technology and adaptive learning within differentiated instruction.

Angie, what is differentiated learning?

Angelia Ridgway: Why, thank you for asking us, Eric. We think about differentiated learning based on Carol Ann Tomlinson's work of differentiating product, process, and content for students.

Eric Olsen: Nate, talk us through the different ways one could differentiate their classroom.

Nathaniel Ridgway: So there's a lot of different ways that you can differentiate your classroom. For me personally, this last year, one thing that I was able to do, which I wasn't able to do when we were teaching in really, really high COVID times, was able to have flexible seating in my classroom. So for example, I was able to get rid of the desks and then students can move around, and they can sit, and be arranged in groups and constellations in ways they want to that's comfortable to them that best facilitates their learning. But then there are so many different things that you can do.

One helpful model that we also think of besides Carol Ann Tomlinson's is something called Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, and that particular model that was designed by a group out there called CAST, they're available at cast.org, they do a lot of work about thinking about how the kinds of learning that students do can be made to be more accessible. And so they talk about different ways that students can express that learning, so it's similar to a product or demonstration, and then different ways that learning can be comprehended and could be processed. So these are all different ideas that we have bouncing around in our head when we think about how we differentiate well for students.

Eric Olsen: Angie, so in a world where we're utilizing, we're leveraging tech to help differentiate the classroom, what is the role of the instructor or the parent in alignment with that?

Angelia Ridgway: Well, I think most of your listeners, from their experience, realize that one of our primary roles as a teacher, whether we're a parent teacher or a teacher in a traditional role in a classroom, is to be a designer of learning experiences. And so I really think about this from the design element, and I know Nate does as well, that we think about the outcome from the beginning and we back map from there. So what do we want our children to know and be able to do at the end of a learning experience? And then how do you design that learning experience with variability for different processes for the students to learn, different levels of content, and then different products that represent their means of knowing? You want to tag to that, Nathan?

Nathaniel Ridgway: Yeah, I mean I think there's a really, really big, very common misconception that when we think about differentiation that the role of the instructor is that the teacher has to do everything. A lot of it comes down to actually letting go and giving students choice as to how they want to express their learning or how they want to actually make the learning happen in the first place. And although the letting go of control can be scary for a lot of instructors, and parents, and anybody who's involved in helping your child learn. I have a four-year-old. Letting him choose between the different sports that he wants to go and do, as he's becoming more active, is scary, but giving them that freedom of control, eventually you get things back in return that are really, really valuable, like buy-in, and engagement, and sustained attention over time. And so a lot of it actually, it seems like it might have to be instructor led, but it's actually more stepping to the side in a lot of cases.

Angelia Ridgway: And so we really talk about guide on the side instead of sage on the stage. And so how are you releasing agency and empowering the child to take ownership in his or her own learning? And to reflect on how that child learns and what works for him or her. And it comes back to you as both a parent of Nate and his younger brother, and then a teacher, my students will say to me, "Remember, this is how I learn best," or, "This is what I need to learn this concept."

Can differentiated instruction get our classrooms closer to personalized learning?

Eric Olsen: Yeah, Nate, that example of you personalizing to your son I think is very resonating because I think some families choose at home learning for that specific ability to differentiate to the very personalized level. I know what my kid likes, needs, deserves. How can traditional classrooms try and get closer to that personalized experience in the broader classroom when there's 20, 25, 30 kids in it?

Nathaniel Ridgway: So this is really difficult. I'm actually writing a book about this right now because this is a very, very difficult thing to do, especially when right now educators and families at home, we're all negotiating the difficulties of the pandemic. And so for me personally, there's a couple of recommendations that I give. Number one, I recommend that for differentiating in a classroom setting or even, again if you're doing this for a single child, to slow drip what you're doing. And by that, I mean don't try to feel like you have to add 80,000 options all at the same time that your students can do, because it's very unrealistic. And I was just writing this metaphor the other day, so when Netflix drops a show, a new series that they're going to be bringing out, they don't dump all eight seasons of a show on you at once. They might give you one, but they're not going to send the entire catalog at you at the same time.

You would just look at that and be like well, okay. That's a lot. And also, I think another strategy, and this is definitely very possible with families that are home, is to think about how their learning can directly reflect and also impact their immediate learning environment. So for example, this was actually just the high school I'm working at right now. I used to have a assistant principal there, or language arts teacher, she's now an assistant principal there, and one of the really, really cool things that we did in our AP language arts class is we looked at standardized test scores and how they were falling across our school, and why they seemed to be going down. And this was back in 2007, 2008. And what we did is we began, after that, a month long PDL project.

And that was looking at why test scores seemed to be going down at my high school. And so when we broke into small groups, one of the outcomes that we had from my small group and one of the solutions that we came up with was a freshman mentorship program that would help get freshmen more socially acclimated as a way to hopefully address some of those things. What's really cool is now, I actually teach at that same school that I went to high school at, and that same program is still around, it's still there. So letting students know that they can now also have an impact on their immediate outcome or their immediate outcomes that are immediately around them can have a really, really big impact. And it's not a whole lot of tweaking that has to happen in terms of what you're teaching, it's just helping them understand why it's relevant to their lives.

Eric Olsen: I loved how so much of this conversation so far has not been a blind tech will save us, but there's such deep intentionality that you're talking about with the instructor's mindset, and their goals, and their vision. That being said, Angie, let's talk tech a little bit. Give us some of your favorite differentiated tech suggestions, recommendations for both the traditional and at home classroom, not ones that replace the instructor, but ones that are really good supplements.

Angelia Ridgway: Let's stay within the bounds that the teacher or parent has a concept or skill as the outcome for the learning, because it's just like Nathan says, you're not going to say to your child, "What of the 25 choices in our kitchen do you want for dinner?" You're going to say, "Which of these three would you like to choose from?" And I think the couple that I'm going to mention that would work for your learners at almost all ages would be Smithsonian's Tween Tribune. Nathan can tell you there's a lot of great authentic, relevant content on that site, and it does a variety of reading levels and a variety of supports.

Nathaniel Ridgway: It's like Newsela, if you're more familiar with that. But if parents are looking for a free alternative, Tween Tribune is great.

Angelia Ridgway: And then there are some different language options as well and Lexile options. So if you have children, like I did, who were coming home in sixth and seventh grade going, "There's really nothing in the library that interests me," and you're talking with the teacher about getting materials from the high school, which Nate and his brother were always reading, we're very blessed, six or seven grade levels beyond once they started reading, but then you're worrying about developmentally appropriate material, you're good with Smithsonian Tween Tribune because it's all been vetted by the experts at Smithsonian.

I might also throw in their Wonderopolis, which is really great for empowering student agency, whether you're at home, learning a small homeschool network, or you're in a classroom, because Wonderopolis is based on students' wonderings. And it sparks that curiosity and that habit of mind that we'd like for our students to embody and Wonderopolis curates wonderings that students have had, well you can see the map on there, from literally all over the world. They can send in questions that they have. The classic one we use, isn't it, Nate, is can peanut butter turn into a diamond? But all these questions that Nathan's son would be asking me, these curious questions, it curates those and it researches it. And again, multiple languages, multiple Lexile levels, vocabulary support, depth of questions that you can pull from Wonderopolis for your learners.

Eric Olsen: Angie, you made a really interesting comment there in terms of reading six, seven years in advance, which I think a lot of our parents relate to that concept, either in that field or another field. But you also mentioned some of the developmentally appropriate realities here, so Nate, let's talk about some potential downsides here we can try to stem or avoid. With differentiation, we get students in the same classroom moving at potentially much different paces. Are there ways to differentiate deeper or wider, but not necessarily faster?

Nathaniel Ridgway: Yeah. And this is actually really very common misconception about, I guess in some cases, schooling in general, but differentiation in particular, is that feeling that ... For example, my child got this, so let's just move onto the next thing. From educational psychology, it's just simply not how the brain works and how it makes connections to learnings and new things. So basically, there are certainly limits that can happen inside of a traditional classroom in terms of what a single teacher can do, because we are human, and also parents are human too. There's limits to how much I can provide for my son in terms of what I've got on hand. There's going to be, in some cases, economic and other limitations. But there are though things that you can do that aren't necessarily about going faster, but about going deeper. And this is where we get into some very, very important topics. I mean you can go for hours about this, but you get into some really, really important topics about inquiry.

Inquiry-based learning is hugely, hugely important in terms of having some kind of knowledge, and it could be something as simple as the peanut butter into a diamond thing that we mentioned, and then taking that to a very deep level of depth and understanding that goes beyond simply just is it actually possible that you can do that? Because then you can start breaking it down to fundamentally, what are the processes happening here? Can I make connections to other things that we've also learned before? You can take that same topic and you can infinitely extend knowledge about that particular thing, and if you want to think of this as a comparable example, this is why when you go to college and eventually if you go into a PhD program, it's why your PhD program is about one thing, and you don't have a PhD that's in everything. Because that's not what a PhD is about, it's about very deep levels of understanding about something. It's not about an all-you-can-eat buffet. If that makes sense.

Eric Olsen: PhD of jeopardy trivia would be a baller one to get there.

Nathaniel Ridgway: That would be a cool PhD.

Eric Olsen: Part of me was also hoping you would say, "No, Eric, we want thousands of 12-year-old Doogie Howser surgeons. That's the endgame we're shooting for with differentiation.

Nathaniel Ridgway: Oh yeah, that would actually fix a lot of problems if that would happen.

Eric Olsen: Finally, any next steps advice for parents looking to help differentiate their school day for their student, starting with Angie.

Angelia Ridgway: I mean I think probably shoring up on project-based learning, the Buck Institute has some great resources and examples. If I recall correctly, it's bie.org. I hope I have their website correct. But if you Google the Buck Institute, you're going to find it. I mean many of their projects could be launched by an individual or a small group. We use them for small group work at the university level. That's a place to start. And project-based learning would encourage this, tapping into local experts. We own an engineering company too and one of the things that delights my husband is when someone asks him, he just did a project-based project at a middle school in the local area, and ask him about connecting with the students to solve a problem in their school.

Many community members love to participate in things like that and you might start there, but again, you want to think very intentionally. What topic, or concept, or content do you want your children to learn about and what do you want them to be able to do with it? And there's where differentiation can come in from a very concrete example for a four, five, six, or seven-year-old, because developmentally that's how they think, even when they're very bright, to something that's more on the formal operational application evaluation synthesis level for a student who's accelerated at the 10 or 11-year-old level. And so you could have multiple levels of a project.

Nathaniel Ridgway: And that's something I actually should have mentioned earlier is that there are some limits to what students, in terms of depth of understanding, that they can understand about a certain topic at a certain time. A lot of that, again, just has to do with how our brains change and transform until again our prefrontal cortexes are fully developed by about age 25 for most people. So it's why I can't go to a middle school classroom and ask them, "So please help explain to me the intersection of the various historians' theories of what came as a result of the civil war." It's too much. So that's also something that there are limits to differentiation in terms of what the human mind at certain times is developmentally ready for.

Angelia Ridgway: Can I add to that, please? I think we also want to think about the social and emotional maturity of a child. Because what I've seen in my many years in education is that a child might be cognitively capable of a project that requires tremendous analysis or evaluation, but may not have the emotional maturity to do that, carry that out hour after hour after hour as a young adult or an adult would. So I think you have to be really careful when you're thinking about very rigorous content that you're also setting it up in a socially and emotionally appropriate way for a student of that age range.

Nathaniel Ridgway: Giving time for processing and collaboration, and a lot of the soft skills that really undergird what makes people ultimately very successful later in their lives.

Angelia Ridgway: And time to play. So that's a really important part of learning, really for all of us. If we learn an instrument as a young child, we want to play around with it. If we pick it back up as an adult, we want to experiment with it, and see how comfortable we are, and create new things, and make mistakes and be comfortable with that. All of that applies for children as well.

Enroll in AoPS Academy Math and Language Arts Summer Camps

Eric Olsen: And do you know where else your students can create new things and make mistakes this summer? AoPS Academy's Math and Language Arts summer camps are perfect for your young math beasts and grammar geeks. Whether you're near our 12 physical learning centers across the country or want to learn online from our AoPS Academy virtual campus, our engaging summer camps are high rigor but low pressure, the perfect mental boost to help your student avoid the summer slide while having a whole lot of fun. Visit AoPS Summer Math & Language Arts Camps today to learn more and secure your students' spot.

Angelia Ridgway & Nathaniel Ridgway Rapid Fire

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Starting with Angie, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Angelia Ridgway: Adequate funding and staffing for all children.

Nathaniel Ridgway: Mine would be disproportionality of students of color in special education.

Eric Olsen: If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Angelia Ridgway: Don't be so driven by the grades, be motivated by the experience.

Nathaniel Ridgway: I would say the same thing and to add to that, not everything has to be perfect. It's okay to make mistakes because that's how learning happens.

Eric Olsen: What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Angelia Ridgway: Every child having equal or adequate access to content, and experiences, and amazing teachers.

Nathaniel Ridgway: I would say the exact same thing.

Eric Olsen: That’s cheating, but I’ll accept it. And finally, what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Angelia Ridgway: Have a literacy literate rich environment and teach your child to think. There are no bounds. You might regret it. Sometimes I would turn to my husband and say, "This is what we get." But teach your child to think.

Nathaniel Ridgway: I would say that the number one thing that you can teach your child that's really important is a sense of empathy, and a deep sense of reflection and critical thinking.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Angie, Nate, thanks so much for joining us today.

Angelia Ridgway: Thank you.

Nathaniel Ridgway: Thanks.

Episode Summary & Conclusion

Eric Olsen: I really loved how Angie and Nate talked about the nuances of differentiated instruction. So much more than just make sure the smart kids aren't bored and make sure the kids who are struggling get extra help, but a broader strategy for reaching students where they are, even when there are 30 kids in a classroom all at a wide range of academic levels. I loved hearing how while perfect personalization is very difficult in the traditional classroom environment, how there are things we can do to move in that direction as well as supplement their opportunities at home. I loved how they spoke about how to use technology well in this pursuit of personalization, without putting all too much hope in ed tech alone as a panacea for this problem. And I love the hope of getting closer and closer to a world where we're meeting students where they are and not just hoping they're close enough to the median in the classroom to make a one-size-fits-all approach work for our students. And may you continue your journey alongside us raising the great problem solvers of the next generation.

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