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When I was a new teacher, I had a goal of differentiating instruction for every student. I would provide additional directions, project sheets, tutorials, and small group instruction for any student who needed help. My main focus was on providing the necessary accommodations on IEPs and 504 plans. I kept a list of specific strategies I would use in every phase of a lesson to help ensure that all students had access to their necessary accommodations. I also included language supports for ELL students, including sentence stems, vocabulary, and visuals.

This process was sometimes overwhelming in classes with 8-10 students who needed specific accommodations. I often had a nagging sense that I was failing to help some of my students who were not exceptional learners or English Language Learners but who still needed supports. At one point, I made a goal of providing specific scaffolds for every single student based on their mastery of certain standards. But this became even more overwhelming.

Eventually, I shifted toward empowering students to own the learning:

It started with the question, “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?” Initially, I focused on student choice in what they read or what they created. Over time, I empowered students to own more of the assessment process as well. It took me longer, though, to trust students to find their own scaffolds for learning. This shift occurred because of a collaboration with an amazing special education teacher named Crystal.

For two years, I hadn’t even considered what it might mean to let students select the scaffolds. Crystal introduced me to Universal Design for Learning. I soon realized that I hadn’t given students the opportunity to advocate for themselves and find the scaffolds that they needed. When I made this shift, I found that students were more aware of their mastery.  They seemed to persevere and continue more easily and they grew more confident as learners.

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Providing Just Enough Help

You’ve probably noticed that there are things you can do on your own and things that are impossible to do. But there are also certain things in a middle zone that you can’t do on your own quite yet but you can accomplish them with the a little help. That help might help from a teacher, from a parent or guardian, or from a peer. But it might also be a resource like a book, a video, or a podcast. This is true not only of gaining new skills but also learning new information or understanding new concepts.

In 1962, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky called this space the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He developed this idea as a criticism of psychometric testing in education, which viewed intelligence as permanent and fixed.

Here’s how ZPD works. At the center, you have the things you can do on your own. On the outside, you have the things you cannot do. But in this middle zone you have the Zone of Proximal Development, which are the things you can do with guidance and support.

In 1976, Jerome Bruner applied Vygotsky’s theory to the educational setting with the concept of scaffolding. Here, educators provide supports, called scaffolds, to help students master the learning. Then, like the scaffolds in a building, teachers pull back the scaffolds as students master the knowledge and the supports become unnecessary. At this point, the ZPD grows outward as students master new knowledge with new scaffolds.

With scaffolds, you tap into prior knowledge and build on it with key supports. These might be tutorials, videos, and visual aids. They might involve sentence stems and front-loaded vocabulary for language. You might provide leveled reading, graphic organizers, and additional think time. Or it could mean breaking directions into smaller tasks. However, scaffolding can be challenging. It takes time and energy, which is a struggle with large class sizes. But when it works, it can lead to better learning and deeper thinking.

We know scaffolds are important. However, it can feel impossible to provide the right scaffolds for each students. With thirty students in a class, it can feel overwhelming to provide the exact supports that each student needs for each lesson. We don’t know always know each students’ mastery level and it would take hours to design the exact scaffolds for every single student. And yet, if we want to differentiate instruction, we need to help students move through the Zone of Proximal Development. I’d like to explore three different ways we can think about our approach to differentiating instruction.

Three Models for Differentiation

In my book Empower (that I co-wrote with AJ Juliani), I shared the metaphor of ice cream as a way to think about differentiated instruction. A few years later, it’s still my favorite way of thinking about the process.

Baskin Robbins offers 31 flavors. The rotation changes each month, so I’m guessing there are probably hundreds if not thousands of flavors that they create. If you’re looking for choice, this is place is it. And there’s a good chance you’ll find something that you like at the store. If you can’t, you might want to reconsider your life . . . or at least your love of ice cream.

However, if you are looking for something very specific that nobody in their right mind would offer, you might need to go to Cold Stone Creamery. Here, you can order a hot fudge peanut butter and pretzel ice cream. Nobody else is choosing that flavor. It’s yours. There’s a good chance you’ll get the exact ice cream that you want.

And yet . . .

If you want to own the entire process, you need to go to a frozen yogurt place. I know, I know, it’s not really ice cream. It’s “yogurt,” which is a code word for “ice cream that pretends not to be ice cream.” At the fro yo place, you get to decide which flavor you want. There are fewer options than what Baskin Robbins offers. However, you get to decide on the exact amount you want. You also get to choose the toppings, selecting not only which ones you want but how much you want of each topping. You own the entire process.

pic from my journal


When we talk about choice and differentiation, the conversations often revolve around the Baskin Robbins model. For scaffolding, this approach tends to involve leveled reading or small groups that you pull. It is largely teacher-directed.

Sometimes, we shift from differentiated to personalized. This is when the Cold Stone Creamery model kicks in. Here, students move from choice to freedom in the content. Here, they are not selecting from a list of choices but rather stating exactly what they want. There is more agency and ownership. Engagement increases. However, the teacher still owns the process and it becomes exhausting. This is what happens when you’re trying to find the perfect scaffold for every single student at every moment of the lesson.

However, when students have agency in both the content and the process, they shift into the fro yo model. Here, they decide what they want to learn by doing it themselves. They might actually have fewer choices, but they have more freedom and a higher level of autonomy. The teacher is still present as an advisor and an architect of the master system. However, students are working in a self-directed way. If Baskin Robbins is differentiation and Cold Stone Creamery is personalization, frozen yogurt is empowerment. Here, students have a great sense of control over the learning. This is what happens when they can self-select their scaffolds.

You can think about it as a continuum of student agency from teacher-centered to student centered.

Continuum of student agency from teacher-centered to student-centered. It goes from compliance to engagement to empowerment.As we think about the notion of scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development, the fro-yo model encourages students to self-select their scaffolds based on perceived needs.

Taking a Universal Design Approach

Years ago, when I taught middle school social studies,  I worked with a special education teacher named Crystal, who transformed the way I thought about scaffolds. One of her chief goals was that there would be no visible distinction between learners with exceptionalities (special education students) and the rest of the classroom. Similarly, she wanted co-teaching to mean that we both did direct instruction and small group.

As she put it, “Inclusion needs to mean full inclusion.”

My initial response was skepticism. “What if a student uses as scaffold that they don’t need? What if general education students use an accommodation that’s meant for a special education student.”

Her response was simple, “SPED is a service not a student. We teach students. We provide services.” She then asked me if I ever used a curb cut or a ramp on the sidewalk.

“Yeah, they come in handy when I push a stroller.” (My kids were little at the time).

“Have you ever watched tv with closed captioning on?”

I nodded.

“That’s universal design,” she said.

If you’re familiar with universal design, here’s a sketch video:

In the early 1960s, visionary architect Selwyn Goldsmith designed the initial curb cut or dropped curb to encourage people with limited mobility to have access to city sidewalks. It was part of a larger movement (led by disability advocates) toward universal access in the built environment by changing policies, systems, and structures to promote full inclusion. In the last few decades, architects, product developers, and UX designers have embraced this philosophy of universal design. Coined by architect Ronald Mace, universal design is built on the core belief that we should design environments to be useable by all people, “without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

This inclusive approach allows everyone to benefit from such designs. Hence, caregivers pushing strollers benefit from curb cuts. Similarly, viewers use closed captioning on videos regardless of hearing. In other words, when you design for everyone, everyone benefits from the design.

when you design for everyone, everyone benefits from the designUniversal Design for Learning (UDL) applies this same philosophy of universal design to every aspect of learning, from learning spaces to materials to instruction and assessment to classroom culture and behavior management. Built around cognitive neuroscience, UDL is an inclusive educational framework that seeks to remove barriers while also keeping the learning challenging for all students. A UDL approach includes a paradigm shift from a deficit mindset to neurodiversity; from singular accommodations to universally accessible scaffolds and supports; and from a teacher-centric view to a student-centered approach centered on student agency.

Note that this skill of self-selection process isn’t always automatic for students. You might need to work with certain students on accessing scaffolds and self-advocating. Often, this works well as a partnership between a general education teacher and special education teacher. Earlier I mentioned Crystal, who would meet with students to help them set goals, identify strategies, and design systems for finding the necessary scaffolds. As the year progressed, her students would take more and more ownership in the process until the point that she merely observed and answered questions only when necessary. Her goal was for her students to become self-directed learners.

What Does This Look Like?

The best approach involves a partnership with all teachers, including all general education teachers along with ELL and Special Education teachers. As a team, teachers can identify practical scaffolds and develop a plan for teaching students to self-select the scaffolds they need. This process might involve taking a deeper dive into an IEP, 504 Plan, or ELL/ESOL documentation. But the idea is to seek out the expertise and advice from ELL and Special Education experts who can help general education teachers determine what scaffolds they might need. In turn, general education teachers can often speak into certain content area expertise and share some of their strategies they have found helpful. Here are a few ideas for how you might provide scaffolds that students can self-select. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

  1. Provide tutorials for all students. This could involve a curation of tutorial videos in content areas or step-by-step directions with embedded .gifs that explain the approach. While many of the tutorials will be academic, you might have tutorials for technology, for classroom processes, or for best practices in other areas (like best practices for video editing or podcast creation). The key idea is for all students to have access to these tutorials at all times.
  2. Incorporate anchor charts, visuals, and graphic organizers that all students can access at any time. We can provide calendars and checklists as well as project blueprints that break tasks down for students. Similarly, you might want to provide slideshows ahead of time and allow all students access to the slide deck in advance. Each of these strategies can help students more easily break down information from working memory to long-term memory. For a deeper dive into this topic of retrieval practice and memory, check out Uncommon Sense Teaching.
  3. Make small groups optional. PBL and SEL expert Mike Kaechele introduced me to this idea years ago. Instead of pulling small groups based on a label (such as ELL or Special Education), he reteaches key concepts by running optional workshops. Every student has access to these workshops and can attend them each day during their project time. This helps prevent the stigma attached with small groups while also sending the message to all students that it’s okay to need a little extra help. In the process, students develop a growth mindset, as they move through the challenges and shift toward mastery.
  4. Provide learners multiple methods for accessing the learning content. This might include using multiple font sizes, closed captioning, text-to speech technology, or the ability to change speed in audio and video. For example, you might pre-record direct instruction and play it for the whole class. However, students also have the option to slow down videos or audio (to x .5 or x .25 speed levels) to review the content again. While this flipped learning model can take more prep time, when you partner with other teachers, the process becomes more manageable.
  5. Provide flexibility with timing. I recently wrote about the problem of focusing too much on “learning loss.” Too often, students internalize the notion that learning is all about speed and accuracy. When we are flexible with timing, students can work at different paces, making differentiation more of a reality. This might include flexibility on timing and due dates for assignments but it might also mean additional think time or more opportunities for practice and retrieval during a lesson.
  6. Front-loaded vocabulary ahead of time so that all students have access to the shared language of the content area. You might do a total physical response (TPR), use a Frayer Model, or use the Marzano approach. Whatever you choose, this front-loaded vocabulary allows all students the same access to the language. You can then use anchor charts, visuals, or an online shared document that students can access at all times when they are confused about a word or a concept.
  7. Provide sentence frames that any students can access. Sentence frames can very from hyper-structured to loosely structured. Typically, you have a portion that you provide and then a fill in the blank area that students complete. For example, “One difference I notice about _______ is __________.” You can provide sentence frames for entire paragraphs or for a single sentence. I’ve used them for peer discourse, for forming questions (especially in research), and as starters for writing assignments. While sentence frames (or sentence stems) are an ELL scaffold, I’ve found that any student struggling with complex or academic language can benefit from this scaffold. Similarly, you might provide sample sentences that they can modify on their own.

As educators, we want students to learn how to become self-directed life-long learners. We won’t always be available for students in every facet of life. So, when they learn how to self-select scaffolds, they learn how to find help on their own. They internalize the idea that getting help is a good thing and that they don’t need to be helpless and wait for an adult to provide supports. In the process, they learn how to determine what they know, what they don’t know, and where to find the strategies to access new learning. This allows them to plan their next strategies and monitor their learning through the ongoing process of metacognition:

In the long run, they grow into the empowered, self-directed learners we know they can be. If you want to learn more about student empowerment, check out the free Empower Blueprint below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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