Talking Differentiation & Education with Lisa Westman

3Points Communications
5 min readJul 10, 2018

Access to education is important to us at 3Points. As just a few examples, the charity table tennis tournament we co-founded, T4Youth, supports STEM education through Chicago Tech Academy. We’ve spearheaded numerous projects around Women in Tech/Women in Finance (you can read about some of them in this blog post) — though women have faced a variety of challenges while working in these industries, the original hurdles women have to overcome are stereotypes in schooling, which impede women’s entry to the industries long before they enter the working world. And one of our newest case studies highlights one of our favorite projects, helping local students learn financial literacy at the 2017 Magnetar Academy Team Challenge.

(Not to mention, we’ve embraced the opportunity to welcome college students as interns throughout the year, as any regular followers of our blog will know.)

As such, it has been a thrill for us to jump into the edtech space this year with one of our new clients, Otus. Aside from working directly with the Otus team, we’ve appreciated the chance to learn about education from other thought leaders in the space, including Lisa Westman, an accomplished author, educator, and consultant, who is also married to the COO of Otus, Keith Westman.

Lisa started teaching in 2001, and has held a variety of positions since then, from teaching in both general education and gifted education programs to serving as an instructional coach. She recently published her first book, Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom. Lisa was kind enough to spend some time talking with us about differentiation and how it applies to some of the other initiatives we’ve worked on. Here are a few of the key takeaways from the conversation.

How would you define differentiation?

For teachers, when planning instruction, differentiation comes down to asking yourself a series of simple questions: what do my students need? How do I know? How will I try to address their needs? How will I know if what I am doing is successful?

Rather than focusing on the specific activity or project students need to complete, teachers focus on the skills they want students to learn. Differentiation focuses on assessment for learning (small check-ins to see if students are learning) rather than assessment of learning (big assessments to see what was learned).

How did you become interested in differentiation?

I never really set out to become so versed in differentiation, but through teaching both gifted and regular classes, I realized that different kids needed different approaches in order to learn effectively, and started differentiating instruction naturally. But, I didn’t begin writing on the topic until I was interacting with schools as a parent. When my own children started in school, and my older son had a difficult time, my initial approach was to be the parent I never wanted be — always calling the teachers to share a piece of my mind. So I started blogging as an alternative approach, one that helped me better articulate a path forward for my son and others. As the blog grew in readership, I was encouraged and challenged by readers, and that led to me writing this book.

Do parents ever get upset that their child is not doing the same work as others in the same classroom?

You might think so, but when differentiation is implemented correctly, there’s rarely pushback from parents. That’s because every student is growing at their own ideal pace. Usually, there is parental pushback if things are too easy for the student, or if the student is failing. With effective differentiated instruction, nothing is too easy or too hard for any student.

Can differentiation be used to help combat racial and gender disparities in education?

It can, but first educators need a different type of mindshift before they can focus on differentiating instruction. That mindshift has to do with implicit biases.Teachers need to own whatever implicit biases they have. A lot of people think, “I’m an educator, I give all my students everything they need.” But we’re all human, we all have biases. And we have to try to recognize those biases and reflect on how those biases impact our relationships with students. Teachers can’t let their expectations get in the way of their intentions.

There’s an example from my book about a girl with selective mutism, which means she will only speak to a very small handful of people. It’s a medical disorder, not a choice. The student was perfectly capable of doing everything in class, but sometimes she would be penalized for not speaking. Going back to expectations vs intentions, our intention is for students to learn, our expectation is for students to speak in class. But, do students really need to speak in order to show they have learned something? Not at all.

We have worked a lot with Chicago Tech Academy — can you speak at all to the work they are doing, and how that might relate to differentiation?

I have not worked directly with Chicago Tech Academy, but their philosophy seems to match mine. If a teacher wants to teach using the traditional factory model (the teacher imparts knowledge, and the students regurgitate) the students only understand the curriculum on a basic level. In that environment, differentiation would be tough. Differentiation needs a different classroom model in order to work, and I think that ChiTech, with its focus on real-world project application and experiences, is operating on a model that allows for differentiation and better learning in general. Section three of my book (Reimagining Schools) discusses this is detail.

On a similar topic, does technology or STEM education provide any separate challenges?

We tend to look at STEM as a completely different subject. That mindset is aligned to the old-school model of education. STEM is really an extension of problem-solving. And, it’s really hard to isolate “technology education” these days — it’s everywhere, and part of our everyday lives. We can’t just say we’re focusing on solving the tech industry, because almost every industry is already a tech industry, or is becoming a tech industry.

To learn more about differentiation and its place in education, check out Lisa’s book.