Differentiation Strategies For NGSS Classrooms

Three-dimensional teaching pushes our students in a way they often haven’t experienced before. As we make the transition to three-dimensional teaching, all students can benefit from a number of supports and differentiation strategies that reduce frustration, build confidence, and develop student identity and ability as independent learners.

“Why aren’t you teaching us?”

If you’re making the transition to three-dimensional teaching and the Next Generation Science Standards, there’s a fair chance you have heard that question from your students. NGSS-style instruction looks and feels different.

It is different — fundamentally.

Three-dimensional teaching and the NGSS move education away from “teaching as telling” or “explain it all” approaches toward experiences where students are asked to put ideas together and construct their own understanding.

If that feels hard to you (and your students), it’s because it is!

The Frustration Of “Figuring It Out”

There’s so many layers to the challenges of moving to a three-dimensional style of instruction — from our teacher mindset, to understanding the 3D approach, to finding quality lessons and tools, to grappling with the classroom culture that constructivist learning requires.

But one major challenge is simply supporting students through the frustration of the “figuring it out” or “puzzling it out” process. For so long, our students have experienced classrooms in which knowledge and understanding were passed to them. Their job was simply to remember it.

In NGSS classrooms, students are challenged to develop their understandings for themselves — and this is a hard thing to do. It requires greater critical thinking skills, as well as the application of science practices (the Science and Engineering Practices) and ways of thinking (the Crosscutting Concepts). It is hard work.

And it’s no surprise our students will experience some degree of frustration.

Interestingly, in my own classrooms, I found that most students experienced this frustration — whether they were the “gifted” or “struggling” learners, whether they were motivated by grades or parental expectations or seemingly nothing at all.

Frustration was a common experience.

And we know that when students get frustrated, students sometimes shut down, behavior issues arise, and learning stalls.

While we can’t entirely alleviate the frustration that comes with true learning (it’s just a part of the experience, and it’s an experience our students can learn to embrace!), we can apply differentiation strategies and tools to support them through the experience.

And because all students were experiencing this frustration as we made the transition to 3D learning, I found it helpful to apply differentiation strategies across the board! Whether students had an IEP or not, I found that they all benefited from these tools.

In this post, I’ll share two differentiation strategies I found helpful as I transitioned my classroom to the Next Generation Science Standards. These strategies may look different than the typical “adaptations” we often talk about — because the goal, in my opinion, is not making every change for every student in every instance… but rather, helping our students learn to identify and make the changes they need in order to be successful.

To clarify, I believe it’s time to shift the responsibility of “differentiation” from its place entirely on teachers’ shoulders. I believe one of our jobs as educators, as we consider differentiation and meeting the needs of all of our students, is really to help our learners individually

  • recognize when they need support,
  • develop confidence to advocate for their needs,
  • figure out how to problem-solve and find what they need (or meet their own needs)
  • (an really) embrace a belief in their own ability to succeed as capable individuals.

Differentiation Strategies For NGSS Classrooms

 Differentiation Strategies: Support Stations // Solution Stations

Support Stations (also known as Solution Stations) are “places” where students can find help when they get stuck. This could be a physical location, a folder they can access at their desks or tables, or even a digital space. Support Stations don’t all look the same, and this differentiation strategy will likely evolve as your students become more accustomed to exploration-based learning. You may find it helpful to provide more support early on in the school year and slowly back away from the supports over time.

What Will Students Find At A Support Station?

Support Stations can vary in the level of help students receive. Your Support Stations may provide a complete answer key, partial responses, or only tips and tricks — like strategies to try out, things to notice or observe, or information that might be helpful.

For example, if students are analyzing data in a task, a Support Stations with extensive support may provide a complete summary of the observations and takeaways — the big idea students were working toward. Alternatively, students might find a graph with a few areas highlighted — a hint for students to focus on those specific parts of the data. Or you might provide a few guiding questions that can support student thinking — like, what do you think it means when the speed drops to zero?

Tips For Using Differentiation Strategies Like Support Stations

As with any activity in your classroom, it is important to set clear expectations and teach specific procedures for using the Support Station.

  • For example, you might only allow access at certain points during the activity — perhaps in the last five minutes — to ensure that students attempt the task on their own initially.
  • Along those lines, you might “ban” pencils at the Support Station — students are allowed to visit for support or to check their ideas, but they are not allowed to simply “copy answers.”
  • Alternatively, you may allow students to correct their work from the responses provided at the Support Stations, but they may be required to do so in different color pencils — so that you can check in on their initial effort and understandings but they can still self-check their assignment.

Some other things to consider when establishing your expectations for the use of Support Stations include:

  • What is the process for accessing the station? Can students visit at-will, ask permission, or are there set times for use?
  • Is there a certain number of times they can visit the station in any given activity? In any given day?
  • How many students can be utilizing the Support Stations at one time?
  • How do they change it its individual versus group work? Can any student visit, or will there be a designated group representative?

Alternative Forms Of Support Stations

As I mentioned, while oftentimes Support Stations are physical locations students can visit (which also integrates some purposeful movement into class as a bonus!), Support Stations can also simply be resources students are given at their desks or digital spaces.

Sometimes, there just are classes (or even just days!) where movement during group work is more disruptive than beneficial. To provide support in these situations, I utilized Support Stations Folders (although all of this could likewise be created in a digital space!) that I provided to student groups at the beginning of the activity. Whatever materials I would have placed at a physical location are instead provided in the folder (or at the digital space), and the same procedural rules applied — leaving original answers (perhaps simply drawing a line or X through errors), making corrections in different colored pencils, accessing on whatever schedule I set, and so on.

Differentiation Strategies: Why Support Stations Work

Support Stations provide a “safety net” for students who may hesitate to engage due to a fear of failure. Three dimensional learning is hard and risky — it can challenge students’ confidence and self-worth, their identity as “good students” who know how to “play school,” their esteem in their peers’ eyes, and so on. Sometimes, having this safety net is all students need to step into their learning.

Additionally, Support Stations provide opportunities for students to help themselves and be independent in the classroom. They aren’t waiting for your feedback or corrections; they aren’t reliant on your help in that moment. They are able to access resources that can move them along. Practicing this – even in such a small way – can reinforce to students that they are capable, and it can build confidence in that identity.

Differentiation Strategies: Resource Banks

Resource Banks, like Support Stations, are “places” where students can find help when they get stuck. Like Support Stations, these could be a physical location, a folder they can access at their desks or tables, or even a digital space. However, unlike Support Stations, Resource Banks are not tailored to specific activities. Rather, they are designed as – just like it sounds – a “bank” of resources that students can utilize as needed throughout class – whatever the activity!

While Support Stations help students move through the frustration of an assigned task — an exploration, a review, an assessment, so on — Resource Banks are focused on furthering student independence, meeting the individual needs and preferences of your learners, and creating opportunities to expand and/or personalize learning.

What Will Students Find At A Resource Bank?

Resource Banks can be created for each individual unit storyline — swapping out the resources available at the start of each unit. Alternatively, the Resource Bank can simply grow throughout the year — resources are added but never removed. There are obviously pros and cons to both approaches.

A Resource Bank For Individual Storylines:
  • Pro: With fewer resources to sift through, students are less likely to become overwhelmed and more likely to find the information they need.
  • Con: Oftentimes, connections can be made across unit storylines. Providing access to all the Resource Bank materials might spark unique connections for your students as they utilize the Resource Bank.
A Growing Resource Bank:
  • Pro: Students may want to utilize resources from earlier in the year as they make connections across storylines. Additionally, depending on how your Resource Bank is utilized (see below), students may want access to older resources on topics of interest to them.
  • Con: As the number of resources grows, students may feel overwhelmed when using the Resource Bank. They may have trouble finding the information they need.

One easy solution to strike a balance between these two approaches is to keep an archive of Resource Banks. While perhaps only the current unit is displayed or readily accessible, students can still find the materials for previous Resource Banks relatively easily — whether in digital form or in files near the physical space.

That said, what materials are students finding here? The Resource Bank is, in some ways, a classroom-created “course materials center.” Instead of only providing access to videos and texts and podcasts and answer keys during activities, you’re creating a center where students can access the materials at any time. [While some of these resources may be posted from day one, I would recommend adding to the Resource Bank throughout the storyline so as not to entirely “lose” the mystery of learning.]

  • Summary Of Storyline Activities For example, after completing activities in class, you might have a simple log of storyline activities and a summary of student takeaways. [This can be a great tool for student absences, too!]
  • Video/Audio Supplements Post links (I suggest using bit.ly, if you aren’t creating a digital Resource Bank) or QR codes to video/audio resources that outline core concepts, share new phenomena, and deepen or extend understandings.
  • Vocabulary Supports Provide a “dictionary” for the unit storyline with vocabulary terms, definitions, and examples. In addition to new vocabulary terms, you may want to include any relevant prior knowledge terms. For example, students may not be learning density in your class right now, but if they are exploring ocean convection, the word is going to come up. Provide them with a tool to review that!
  • Recorded Lectures, Notes & Presentations I’m not a fan of presentations and lectures as our primary vehicle of teaching, but if students have already had the opportunity to explore and construct understandings — these methods can be a way to reinforce learning and clarify student ideas quickly and concisely. While not every student may want to listen to you explain the unit concepts or utilize your notes, providing access to these resources can absolutely be useful. And if students are the ones deciding to access the material when they need it, they are certainly going to be more engaged in utilizing it.
  • Prior Knowledge Resources Along those lines, students may benefit from texts or videos that provide reviews of concepts that are not the focus of the learning but are important to developing their new understandings.
  • Current Events & Real World Applications Share news articles or clips, or new science research that relate to the concepts students are investigating.

Ways To Use Differentiation Strategies Like Resource Banks

Again, Resource Banks are focused on

  • furthering student independence,
  • meeting the individual needs and preferences of your learners,
  • and creating opportunities to expand and/or personalize learning.

With that in mind, the goal is for students to access Resource Banks when it makes sense for them. This is a skill we will need to help our students develop — learning how to identify when they need help, identify ways to get that help, and really just advocate for themselves. So just having the Resource Bank there isn’t going to necessarily mean students are going to use it. In addition to plenty of reminders, it may be helpful to craft activities in which students use it to complete a task.

Some ways you might use a Resource Bank:

  • When a student asks you about a term or a concept during an activity, you might redirect them to the Resource Bank. [I would suggest helping them find the tool to best meet their needs until students get comfortable with using it themselves!]
  • Create a Resource Bank Scavenger Hunt. Whether it’s one question during one class, several for a week, or a whole bunch to complete over the course of the storyline, prompt students to use the resources there to find a response. This may be easier if your Resource Bank is a digital resource, but even a physical Resource Bank can be used in this way if students are given a range of time to access (to prevent 25 kids from fighting over a small collection).
  • Assign an extension project – something along the lines of 20% time – that students can work on periodically, utilizing the materials provided in the Resource Bank (as well as whatever else they may find). The Resource Bank can be a great starting point for these projects, as students can explore concepts that are related but perhaps “outside the scope of the storyline” in Resource Bank materials.
  • Offer as an alternative or supplementary medium for an assignment. For example – if a text is assigned, you might provide both the text and a link to a similar video or audio file/podcast/etc. Students who struggle with the text may find it helpful to first watch the video before tackling the specifics in the reading.
  • Review unit concepts with prompts or tasks that are resource-independent — meaning, your students can use any resource to answer the prompt or complete the task. While some students may find their own notebooks and materials the way-to-go, others may find the tools you provide in your Resource Bank a great way to review specifics as they apply what they have learned.

Without a doubt, there are other ways to incorporate Resource Banks into your classroom – from the materials you add to the ways you use it. And I would love to hear some of your ideas inside the Spark [iExplore]Science Cafe! But I figure this is enough to get your wheels turning or just get you started!

Differentiation Strategies: Why Resource Banks Work

Resource Banks are an opportunity to build student independence and subsequently confidence in their own ability and agency. When our students repeatedly come to us for answers or clarification or supports, we become the “problem-solver” and “information-giver” in the classroom. While providing a quick answer may make everyone feel better in the short term, it isn’t benefiting our students in the long run. Resource Banks are one way to shift our methods so that students are directed again and again to seek out and find what they need, instead of relying on one single person to provide all of the information and interpretation.

Differentiation Strategies Rely On Classroom Culture

You very well may be thinking, but my students won’t seek out the information! They won’t do the work necessary to find the material in the Resource Bank. They won’t utilize the Support Station; they aren’t willing to struggle through anything.

And you may be right.

The reality is, we can’t really force our students to do anything — it’s ultimately on them. What we can do is create relationships and build a classroom culture that cultivates intrinsic motivation. We can foster connections between our students and the content through relevant phenomena, student-driven approaches, and engaging instructional activities. We can layer our engagement strategies to find the “thing” that works for each student.

Because learning is ultimately on the individual, differentiation – or meeting the needs of our individual students — in a three-dimensional classroom can become more about supporting our students in a variety of ways to learn to meet their own needs.

And I’m certainly not saying these are the only differentiation strategies you should be using! There are so many other ways to support all learners — through our questioning techniques, through task adaptations, through tools and materials we can provide, through the variety of materials and techniques we can utilize in learning activities. Those are all vital parts of meeting our students needs.

But Support Stations and Resource Banks are simply two ways we can help our students begin to take ownership of meeting their own needs with the goal of creating more independent learners.

Learn More

Questioning To Support Discovery Through Exploration

Supporting Group Work In Science Classes

Supporting Students Through The Transition To The NGSS

Why I Use Classroom Stations For Science Instruction

Amplify Authentic Engagement

Authentic engagement is the foundation for all true learning. We can talk at our students, we can assign work, and we can issue consequences for failing to comply… but we can’t actually make our students learn. We can’t make them think.

Learning is a two-person job… and it requires the active engagement of the learner.

So how do we get that active engagement?

In the Amplify Authentic Engagement workshop series, we will be exploring the basics of engaging and motivating our students to become self-driven learners in order to set the stage for the transition to a more student-owned science experience.

  • Understand why “relationships first” is fundamental to authentic learning and explore tangible strategies to develop your student community
  • Learn how to utilize the “relationships first” approach to select the right phenomenon for each and every unit storyline
  • Explore concrete strategies to sustain flow and maintain high levels of engagement from start to finish

Exclusively inside Spark.

differentiation strategies for ngss classrooms