There is a big paradigm shift looming in education: the need to shift focus from teaching to learning, from teacher as information deliverer to teacher as facilitator of learning. That means on any given day, the teacher’s primary focus should be not on a lesson plan or textbook page, but on a student, and another, and another. How can schools ensure that all students learn? By focusing on the student and giving each one exactly what they need to learn. How can one teacher differentiate for a classroom of students?

In practice, it can be a nightmare for teachers. Given a typical learning activity is anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, teachers would have to be constantly assigning the next appropriate activity to each student! And with 20 to 130 students (sometimes more), that’s most likely not going to happen; and then learning suffers.

The missing piece in this scenario is who takes responsibility for selecting instructional activities! If you empower the student to make deliberate and appropriate decisions, you will have much more freedom to differentiate instruction. If students are focused on solving real-world problems, they will have a “felt need” for content and will more likely make appropriate decisions because they have a vested interest. Empower students through real-world problems and differentiated opportunities to learn, and they will succeed!

In our work in designing student-driven classrooms, we categorize this as Priming, Prepping, and Partnering.

We begin the year with a Priming Plan where the teacher places deliberate emphasis on teaching students to take responsibility for their own learning. That might look like this:

  1. Teach students how to use a rubric to drive their learning path.
  2. Teach students how to read an activity list and select appropriate activities for their readiness level and learning-style preferences.
  3. Teach students to reflect on learning activities and their choices.

Planning for a unit of study, the teacher then identifies and/or designs a variety of ways to address key skills, concepts, and content. An internet search will offer some options; classroom curricular resources will offer others. The teacher may design some screencasts, how-to sheets, or learning centers. Former students may have as well. Schoolwide, teachers can create a library of learning activities for particular skills, as some students in higher grades may need to access learning activities focusing on skills from an earlier grade.

Once students are focused on a real-world problem, reference the rubric for expectations, and schedule their time from an activity list, the role of the teacher shifts to that of a facilitator and partner in the learning process. Partnering with students in their learning involves moving around the room sitting with individual or groups of students, quickly assessing their progress, and then offering instruction, questions, or challenges to facilitate their learning.

When students take responsibility for their own learning, teachers are no longer attempting to orchestrate a whole class in the moment. The focus is on content discussions, connections, application, and achievement. The role of the teacher becomes much richer when students are empowered to take responsibility for their own learning, and differentiation becomes part of the classroom culture.