Differentiation With (and Without) Technology

Erica Babb, science teacher at West Middle, has been sending me a number of different student creations in the past few months – videos, prezi presentations, Weebly websites, etc. I wondered what was happening in her classroom that was allowing students to produce such varied and high-quality curriculum work with technology. When I spoke with her, her answer was a combination of pre-assessment, compacted curriculum, and student choice.


Erica begins each of her units with a pre-assessment. Students who demonstrate proficiency on the assessment are presented with a choice: continue following the unit plan with the rest of the class or deepen their knowledge of the topic through independent study. The simple offer hands students control of their learning. Each is able to determine the path that would yield the most personal reward, increasing engagement and placing the locus of control squarely on the shoulder of the student regardless of his choice.


Students who choose to pursue an independent study have a few steps to go through.

  1. Erica provides a handout outlining what a “compacted unit” independent study will look like for a student. Though much of the child’s time in class will be spent on an independent project, she must still participate in elements of the class where she scored poorly on the pre-assessment.  Details of Erica’s compacted curriculum assignment for her “Earth’s Waters” unit is below:
  2. If a student elects to do the independent study, she then begins planning a deeper investigation of the unit topic. An independent study is not a free pass to learning any topic the child wishes to learn. The product created must continue the work of the present unit, but at a level of depth that goes beyond that of the learning activities of the larger group. Because of this focus, the project topic is somewhat limited, but the methods of presentation are many and varied, often including some element of technology in them.  One example from her product possibilities for the “Earth’s Waters” unit is below.

  3. Once a child has chosen a presentation medium, she fills out a product proposal form, detailing her topic and medium she will then present to Erica for approval. Erica has created a rubric for each medium: booklet, brochure, pictorial journal, poster, PowerPoint/Prezi, report, song writing, and oral presentation.
  4. After Erica approves a child’s proposal, the child copies a portion of that plan onto a “Compacting Contract” that she and her parents sign.
  5. Throughout the unit, the child must journal in an independent study log about her progress each day as well as her work with the class during days where she is participating with the larger group.
  6. Finally, the student presents her project to the class and Erica gives her feedback through a general rubric of the student’s independent work.


Erica’s students have created some amazing products through this process – and it hasn’t been only the select few. According to her experience, a variety of students have been able to take advantage of this opportunity.

One particular story was of a young man who, overall, is not a strong student. For one unit, however, he demonstrated quite a bit of knowledge and earned the opportunity to create a compacted curriculum product. In addition to offering him a chance to grow his existing understanding of the unit topics, the “award” of independent work has given him a sense of confidence in his own ability to succeed.

Technology isn’t the focus of this approach – students are. Just as they should be.

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