The Thinking Classroom

A Colorado case study on the use of differentiated instruction

Carrie DeWaters

In today’s differentiated classroom, each student receives from his or her teacher student-centered instruction and customized assignments to reflect the students’ skills and knowledge. Teachers differentiate their assignments for each of their students so they may access the Common Core State Standards, interact with complex nonfiction texts, integrate rigorous literacy skills across the content areas, and contend with complex mathematical skills, procedures, and understandings.

At North Elementary School in Colorado’s Brighton School District 27J, a dedicated teacher’s tireless work is helping to redefine student-centered learning. In the standards-oriented education environment at North Elementary, Scott Peterson shows to what extent personalization is possible.

Peterson came to North Elementary as a first-year teacher after graduating from a school in North Dakota and moving to Colorado. He evolved from being an expert at differentiation to becoming an expert at personalized learning. He raised his differentiation practices to a higher level by gaining intimate knowledge of each student’s strengths, learning style, academic needs, affective needs, and the student’s readiness for the tasks at hand.

Building a trusting culture
To create a trusting culture and rapport, and to know his student(s) on a deeper level, Peterson first made a point to engage in reflective dialogues with each student about the requirements to achieve each of the academic standards. Then through a collaborative process, Peterson and his students worked together to create individualized goals—personalized final projects based on each student’s individual strengths and needs, allowing each student to engage on a personal level with the content and process towards achieving the goal based on an academic standard.
Courtney, a student in Peterson class, thrived on his instructional practices. Peterson helped Courtney identify her learning styles, which were organizing, planning, and executing a plan to complete a task.

It wasn’t long into the school year before Peterson made a connection with Courtney’s passion for writing and her desire to be informative and persuasive in her writing voice. Using that as leverage, Peterson supported Courtney in using the strength of her writing to demonstrate her understanding of the goals and outcomes within the Colorado Academic Standards.

To capitalize on Courtney’s strong writing skills, Peterson and Courtney collaborated to write a goal based on one of Colorado’s academic standards—CAS-1, which was about oral expression and listening. Based on CAS-1, they determined Courtney’s individual goal to be: Student can analyze various eras in Colorado history and the relationship between these eras and eras in United States history, and the changes in Colorado over time. Courtney’s evidence of achieving this goal would be in the form of an essay in which she would write her analysis of the eras in Colorado history and their relationship to other eras in U.S. history

The thinking classroom
Peterson personalized differentiated instructional model at Brighton School District 27J is rooted in the concepts of the thinking classroom, which includes three essential elements: goal, evidence, and learning experiences.

Goal: Peterson and his students worked collaboratively to design non-negotiable, standards-based goals. Not only did he provide analogous instructional experiences so all students could attain their goals, he also customized his instruction to meet the unique needs of his students. He got to know his students on a personal level and could therefore consider each student’s developmental level, strengths, preferred learning style, motivation, and growth areas.
Peterson started differentiating Courtney’s goal by identifying and analyzing the type of knowledge needed to achieve the learning goal. In Courtney’s case, the type of knowledge needed was defined as the ability to synthesize multiple pieces of text, describing the various eras in Colorado history, and to determine the trends and themes that were evident across multiple eras in United States history.

To further clarify students’ learning goals, Peterson included personal conversations with individual students to address each student’s roles and responsibilities in achieving their goals. By engaging in metacognitive think alouds, students could drill down to their specific needs and highlight action steps to help create their own pathways to their individual learning.

As in the example of Courtney, Peterson wanted to be sure that Courtney’s goal was not only clear to him but also to Courtney. Through personal rich dialogues with Courtney, and through accountable talk among peer students, Peterson could better articulate Courtney’s role and responsibilities in achieving her goal. Through the personal conversations, the essence of the Colorado Academic Standard—CAS-1, to which Courtney’s goal was aligned, would become more “alive” and “clear” to Courtney.

Throughout the school year, Peterson and his students continued to write systematic learning goals and integrate the practice of engaging in comprehensive dialogues. The essence of the standards, performance indicators, and individual student profiles began to emerge. Peterson’s powerful class goal-setting conversations resulted in a differentiated classroom climate and culture that fostered enriching personalized relationships between Peterson and his students.

Evidence: Peterson centered the one-on-one conferences with his students on the individual student’s readiness for the tasks to develop the evidence necessary to show the student’s proficiency and progress towards achieving his or her goals. Students created their own evidence or projects in the form of tasks and performances and collected them in a student portfolio. During the conferences, Peterson reviewed the portfolio with each student and gave him or her the opportunity to reflect on his or her progress.

When looking at Courtney’s e-portfolio on his iPad, Peterson and Courtney could see the instructional strategies that worked and writing samples as evidence. Furthermore, as Courtney presented her writing samples on various eras in Colorado history and the relationship between these eras and eras in United States history, and the changes in Colorado over time, she also gave feedback so she could voice her own opinions and reflections on her learning process. In this way, both Peterson and Courtney owned the evidence being collected.

Learning experiences: Peterson experienced momentum as he continued to work through the goal and evidence components of the thinking classroom. He also provided for his students learning experiences—ample opportunities to make sense of the content through students’ reflection, self-monitoring, and self-regulation. Peterson was confident that the students’ reflections would deepen their understanding of the content due to his students’ synthesis and evaluation of their own work when reflecting.

Throughout the year Courtney gained capacity in using her self-reflections as a springboard for continuous goal setting. She wrote regularly in her reflective journal, capturing her thoughts and continually referred to them as she conferred with Peterson and her peers. This journal served as a prompt for Courtney to keep focusing on her goals and areas of growth. With Peterson’s support and knowledge of her personal learning style and strengths, Courtney was not only able to identify both the growth areas in her work but she was also able to respond to them with relevant and attainable action steps towards achieving her goals.
Peterson began to understand that the students’ reflections were a driving force to his differentiation and individualized instruction. By looking for trends and themes in the reflective journals, Peterson could evaluate his instruction to guide his next steps. Based on his own reflections on his instruction, he could create tiered activities aligned to the differentiated needs of his students, their learning profiles, readiness, interests, and talent areas.

Peterson continues to persevere and work through the three components of the thinking classroom: goal, evidence, and learning experiences. He realizes that differentiation is not a strategy to be implemented when the curriculum was complex, or when some students did not understand the lesson. Differentiation is a mindset; it is a specific way teachers think about teaching and learning.

To implement concepts of differentiation, Peterson needed to have a relentless focus on individual students’ academic and affective needs. He was exceptional at creating a classroom culture and climate where he welcomed differences and fostered risk taking. He now needs to reflect and refine his scaffolding for specific students, and to ensure that each student in his class might access their goals, evidence, and learning experiences.

One of Peterson’s most memorable statements about his teaching practices was, “This will allow for each one of my students to have daily opportunities to show their own personal grit. When I am successful at meeting my students where they are at and can provide engaging learning experiences aligned to their needs, it is then that they will understand how grit is a life skill that will propel them forward.” Peterson’s statement illustrates differentiation on an exceptionally personal level.

Carrie DeWaters ( is the student services coordinator at Englewood Schools, Englewood, Colo.

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