#10 – Create Differentiation for Students in Remote Learning

Unpacking Education October 21, 2020 22 min

Teachers are working extraordinary hours to meet the needs of their students in what is, for many, an unfamiliar virtual-learning environment. The thought of adding one more thing is overwhelming. Differentiation can seem like that “one more thing” when it actually means focusing on our students’ needs, and technology gives us the means to do it more efficiently and effectively.

Join our Digital Learning Specialists as they discuss differentiation of the learning environment, content, process, and products that demonstrate learning. Let’s talk about how we think about student voice and choice in differentiation to allow teachers to find the right mix so that students meet their learning targets and are engaged in the process.

Paul Beckermann
PreK-12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
Digital Learning Coach
Pamela Beckermann
PreK-12 Digital Learning Specialist

Below, you will find resources and tips shared during the podcast to support your virtual-teaching goals.

Teachers in the most exciting and effective differentiated classes don’t have all the answers. What they do have is optimism and determination.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, author


In this week’s episode, we discuss the following strategies and resources that are available on AVID Open Access for you to explore in more depth.

Creating Space for a Differentiated Virtual Classroom

Differentiating instruction is not something that is new to teachers, but differentiating instruction using technology may be untried territory. Check out the strategies below to envision what differentiation may look like for your virtual-learning environment, content, process, and products.

Differentiate the Learning Environment: When it comes to differentiation in the physical classroom, teachers often reference David Thornburg’s three archetypal learning spaces: the cave, the campfire, and the watering hole. This analogy can help you incorporate differentiation into your virtual-learning space, too. Over time, the analogy has been extended to support additional learning needs.

  • Cave: Here, students can spend time alone with their thoughts.
    • Face-to-face: This is often the beanbag chair in the corner of the classroom.
    • Remote: In virtual learning, structure the cave as independent, asynchronous assignment time.
  • Campfire: Here, students share ideas in a small-group format, led by an expert.
    • Face-to-face: Often, teachers incorporate a Jigsaw to bring the campfire to life. The Jigsaw strategy helps students learn to collaborate as group members and share responsibility for each other’s learning by using critical thinking and social skills to complete an assignment.
    • Remote: This can still be a Jigsaw, but incorporate breakout rooms and provide students with the guidelines to support their collaboration.
  • Watering Hole: This is the place for social learning, which is central to education. Without time spent talking and discussing learning with others, students aren’t challenged to reach the next level in their understanding.
    • Face-to-face: In the classroom, this may look like a Table Talk, where side conversations can inspire a new idea or way of thinking.
    • Remote: Use public and private chats in Google Meet or your learning management system (LMS) for formal exchange. Consider providing a virtual parking lot as an informal space for students to post ideas.
  • Mountain Top: This is the place where one person or a small group communicates to the rest of the world, showing what they can do with what has been learned.
    • Face-to-face: This often looks like a presentation done at the front of the classroom.
    • Remote: In the virtual world, the mountain top is so much bigger. Consider ePortfolios, blogs, videos, websites—the list goes on. The virtual classroom allows you to extend your students’ celebration of their learning beyond the physical walls and into a global community.
  • Sand Box: This is a place to play, experiment, and explore without worrying about failure.
    • Face-to-face: This often looks like makerspaces—areas where students are invited to tinker, make, and invent.
    • Remote: Encourage students to bring their hobbies and passions to their learning. Apps like Scratch (Tips) and ScratchJr allow students to use code to explore ideas and problem solve in judgment-free spaces.

Differentiate Content: When possible, differentiate through choice and interest. Choice boards help streamline your teacher workload and provide choices for students to personalize their learning process.

  • Digital Vending Machine: Make a copy of this template and personalize it for your classroom by developing learning experiences that resonate with your students. Students click the image to access a learning activity.

Differentiate Process: Process is how students make sense of the content. They need time to reflect on their learning before transitioning to the next activity or lesson.

  • Reflection: Include one or two processing experiences for every 30 minutes of instruction to help prevent the feeling of content saturation. Reflection strategies can take the form of a Think–Pair–Share, Table Talk, or Quick Write.

Differentiate Product: Product differentiation is the evidence of student learning. Technology provides students with endless options to share their learning artifact.

  • Provide Guidelines for Product Options: When product options are clearly aligned to learning targets, student voice and choice flourish, while ensuring that core content is addressed.