Differentiating Instruction in Professional Learning


WholeChildBannerBy Jen Cirillo

Cirillo 2-18In education, differentiation is discussed as a promising practice to support student learning, build on prior knowledge and experiences, and connect students to each other and their environments. Ideally, we provide regular opportunities for students to engage in a variety of ways with both content and each other. Practically, we allow for students to make meaning and show their understanding—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. The topic of the day was differentiated instruction. Some of the attendees 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 six hours. Somehow this educational flop—that is, ignoring that adults, like students, learn at 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 differentiating instruction is as essential for adult learning as it is for youth learning. Learning Forward suggests that in order to create a culture of continuous improvement and learning, teacher leaders should “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? What do they already know, how do they best learn, and what are their expectations and needs 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 assessment” or having teachers produce 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 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 the teachers as learners and as practitioners. What do they need to know in order to do their best work? How complex does their knowledge of a topic need to be? Can you pair a research base with practical application? Can you incorporate data into a 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. The way you teach adults is as important as the content you teach. Remember to ask yourself this question: “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. 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 I do 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. 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 attendees’ physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual well-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 use formative assessments to determine whether or not our students understand what we are saying. I like to do “informative assessments” to let me know how well I am helping them access content or build skills.

After the Experience

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


Jen Cirillo is director of professional learning at Shelburne Farms and coordinator of its Sustainable Schools Project. She works with schools and educators in Vermont and across the globe to establish and promote sustainable curriculum, campus practices, collaboration, and community partnership. In her role with professional learning programs, she works with a variety of partners to develop and offer transformative learning experiences focused on creating healthy and just communities.


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