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Great Tech Tools that Differentiate Learning

Jacqui Murray


There are two areas where technology can optimize learning better than any other educational strategy. I'm not talking about iPads or laptops or apps. I mean how you deliver your message: in such a way that more students are able to achieve their goals.

The first is problem solving. If you want students to be critical thinkers, to take responsibility for their own learning and in doing so, excel, you must learn how to use technology in the classroom to teach problem solving. More on that later.

Today, we'll talk about differentiation. If you struggle to adapt your lessons to the multitude of learning styles in your classroom, struggle no more. Tech will become your classroom's transformative tool -- a magic wand that can adapt any inquiry to student needs.

Take the cornerstone of literacy -- the book report -- as an example. When a teacher assigns this sort of compare/contrast, who/what/when/where exercise, students think of paragraphs, words and grammar struggles.

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But by learning how to use technology in the classroom, that project is no longer a nightmare for everyone challenged by phrases and paragraphs. Now, students have options that transcend pencil on paper. You can communicate the essential ideas with a comic tool like Zimmer Twins, an art tool like SumoPaint, or an audio tool like Voki –o r a moviemaker like Animoto. The challenge for you as teacher is to provide those tech options and then encourage students to be risk-takers in using them to learn how to use technology in the classroom to achieve the project goals. The challenge for students is to analyze what's available and select the tool that uses their learning style.

You're probably thinking that before students can use these fancy tools, you have to learn all of them -- and teach them.  Next you’ll be asking, “Where does that sort of time come from?” and stating, “By the way, I’m not one of the 'techie' teachers.” But I have good news for you. The ideas below require very little preparation. With them, students learn to read the screen, to look for something that says “Start,” to not be afraid to make mistakes, and to collaborate with neighbors.

This can happen as young as 2nd grade. The hardest part for you is to learn to facilitate rather than step in and solve their problems. Students will get used to the new reality: That teachers provide guidance, not step-by-step instruction. I promise.

Here are seven ways to differentiate instruction every day:

1. Does this scenario sound familiar? While some student carefully finish a project, taking their time as suits their learning style, others slam through the steps and start looking for “What's next.” You know the type. Both approaches are fine. Address it by having a lot of authentic activities going on in your classroom so students are encouraged to work at their own pace. Let them self-manage their education. Be clear about your expectations, then trust them to find their way. Have links on the class’ Internet start page for organic learning, like keyboarding practice, and sponge websites that tie into subject area inquiry.

2. Teach students how to create visual organizers, then let them use these optionally for projects. These can be graphic organizers like Venn diagrams or pyramids, or an infographic made in Let them communicate their ideas with text, layout, color and images. That appeals to the artist in lots of students.

3. Add color to everything. If you're using Word (or Google Docs), show students how to add pictures, borders and fonts. Students will tolerate the words to get to the decorating. If you're teaching Excel, show how to color cells, text, add images. They'll do the math stuff so they can make it pretty.

4. Use online tools like Discovery Education's Puzzle Maker to review concepts. Move away from rubrics and study guides. Anything that gamifies learning will go down easier with students. They are digital natives, so let them learn in a more natural way.

5. In fact, gamify anything possible. There are an amazing number of high-quality simulations that teach through play--Minecraft, iCivics, Mission US, Lemonade Stand. Here's a long list. There's probably one for every subject. Take advantage of them.

6. If students aren't excited by the tools and widgets you offer, let them suggest their own. If they can make the argument for it, let them use it.

7. Always offer do-overs. I call them “Mulligans” (from golf). In a differentiated classroom, you always want to let students redo an assignment. What if they didn't understand? Or were sick? How does trying harder defeat education's goal of learning? With technology, all students have to do is open their project and continue work based on your feedback. That's cool. Rest assured: When you offer this in your classroom, most students won't take you up on it. It's too outside-the-box. You won't be deluged with double the work. But be happy if you are.

That's it. Try these seven ideas and see if they don't transform your classroom. Questions? Email me (or leave a comment).

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blogger, a columnist for, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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