Using Differentiation to Identify Strengths in Teachers and Students

Summer 2018

By Alexandra McMullen

In February, sixth-grade science students at St. Andrew’s School (RI) finished their study of human body systems, complete with the dissection of different animal parts. Eleven students listened to a co-teacher’s oral and visual directions. Then, groups of two or three students explored animal organs on their own, while the other teacher circulated to complete comprehension checks (during the directions, some vocabulary was quite complex).
The class, although small in size, represented a spectrum of learning styles; their strengths, challenges, and unique personalities were all on display, as were their different levels of competency. As I observed the teachers, I heard clear and specific praises of strengths—how these strengths connected to the activity and how the student would be able to use them to address a challenge they might have had with the activity.
A philosophy for teaching that provides different students different ways of learning, or differentiated instruction, has proven to be one of the most effective and powerful instructional methods to use in  harnessing student strengths. It was key to unlocking the potential in so many students and helping them recognize and grow their own voice as learners. As a teacher, I used differentiation to identify strengths in my students early in the year and to teach to those strengths as a way to maximize impact on learning, both as individuals and as members of a larger community. Cultivating strengths as a way to address weaknesses grows and solidifies self-confidence, which increases output on a number of levels. 
Similar to this approach that teachers take with students, I choose to start from an area of perceived strength in my work with faculty. This has helped me more effectively differentiate the work that I do with teachers, as well as to help provide a positive path forward for more evaluative conversations. In taking an approach in which I partner with and learn alongside faculty, I’ve seen enormous benefits—both for the individual as well as for the betterment of the program.

In the Classroom

At St. Andrew’s School, a grade 6–12 through postgraduate boarding and day school, our middle school classroom model is centered on responsiveness, flexibility, and balance as a means to promote student growth. We attract a diverse population of learners; our class sizes range from 10–14 students, and classes are staffed by two teachers (one content teacher and one teacher who specializes in special education).
Our co-teaching model allows faculty to benefit from the perspectives of their partner as well as to learn different ways to approach a lesson. Instructional methods help to build a personalized ladder for each student, pinpointing strengths and facilitating growth. Faculty take careful measures to balance a student’s success-to-effort ratio. Ultimately, this helps students to build their self-confidence, increase levels of engagement, and develop a growth mindset.
In sixth-grade science, the role that differentiation plays is clearly visible. Melissa Alschuler, a teacher focused on special education, and Abdourahmane Lo, a content teacher, work together to create learning experiences that address a wide range of learners. They use a variety of formative assessment techniques and tools, such as analyzing student work, exit and entry tickets, Kahoot!, Quia, Plickers, and Quizlet, to assess student understanding. The tools help teachers track student progress at various points and show students how they are progressing in real time. They use this information to plan varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn the material, and ways in which students can demonstrate understanding. While Lo focuses on developing content, Alschuler supports this work by creating corresponding access points so that key concepts are presented to students in a variety of formats. That helps to ensure students are accessing information via an area of strength.
Teachers also use learning stations as one way to focus on strengths. Through rotating opportunities, students experience different types of lesson-related content through a variety of instructional approaches, such as videos, articles, puzzles, artwork, or direct instruction in small-group settings. When possible, Alschuler incorporates visuals, songs, discussion, and writing to reinforce concepts.
Students with similar learning styles or interests are grouped together because the teachers have found that this encourages collaboration. There’s a stronger sense of community in our classrooms now. Still, “even in these small groups, students may vary in their levels and abilities, so we need to be flexible and responsive in our approach to each individual,” Lo says.
With a deeper emphasis on leveraging learner strengths, students are able to more quickly identify what they can do, which encourages them to keep challenging themselves and ultimately helps to bring out the best version of themselves as learners. Students now want to better understand their own learning profiles, and they’re more willing to tackle their challenges, as well as help others do the same.
For example, sometimes students are grouped according to ability, while others are grouped according to interest. When grouped by ability, teachers are able to pinpoint similar strengths and challenges, and tailor their instruction to maximize individual growth. When grouped according to interest level, they learn to work with students who learn differently than they do, which not only increases their capacity for empathy and effective collaboration, but also helps them to maximize their own strengths.

Inspiring Professional Growth

Like students, teachers are all on their own individual journeys. They’re at different points in their careers, they learn best in numerous ways, and they respond to coaching practices that leverage their unique strengths. Differentiation helps them to take more risks and puts them on a continuous track of professional growth.
In my work with them, I look for ways in which I can leverage their strengths and help them recognize areas for professional growth. When I started my current role as middle school director at St. Andrew’s in the fall of 2016, there hadn’t been a director in several years. I knew I’d have to earn the trust of teachers. During my first year as director, I found that having a consistent yet purposeful presence in all aspects of the middle school program was crucial to building bridges and establishing a positive culture of leadership. I prioritized building a culture among faculty in which they would feel comfortable with regular visitors to their classrooms—and they, in turn, would feel comfortable observing their peers.
At first, some faculty were very open to having me drop in on their classes on a regular basis; others were reluctant because it wasn't something they were used to. I found that by using an individualized approach with each of them—as opposed to mandating a weekly uniform schedule—was much more effective in helping achieve our goals. By taking the time to balance high expectations with meeting them where they were on their own professional journey, I was able to be transparent and work toward establishing a trusting environment.
We take the time to discuss and implement professional development that addresses individual interests and needs, and balance it with departmental and institutional priorities as well. For example, as we adopted a new social studies curriculum in the sixth grade, shifting teaching assignments successfully addressed the needs of our students, as well as helped to promote positive risk-taking for one of our teachers. Other teaching assignments were also shifted to address student needs—we are a smaller school, so one teacher took over math instruction for grades 6–8, and another took over science for those grades. This enhanced the student experience and the teachers recognized the benefits to their professional growth as content teachers as well. ▪
Alexandra McMullen

Alexandra McMullen is director of the middle school at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington, Rhode Island.