Learning to “leave” the classroom : Differentiating School Programming

I was challenged to select and share a “tool” for assisting with differentiation within a classroom. I planned on writing about an Aurasma technology app I’ve used successfully in the past and then I thought about writing about collaboration as a resource. However, more and more the concept of “what is the purpose of school?” and the concept of the  traditional “classroom” taught by a “teacher” have been pulling at my thoughts. I believe the physical concept of “school” as a place in which learning occurs should be a significant tool for differentiation that must be examined, questioned and challenged, if as Educators, we are to foster creativity in our students and hope to meet the diverse range of needs for all our students. My “tool” is providing a multitude of alternative pathways and experiences for learning beyond the classroom. Thus, differentiating our programming and how students can choose to learn within the framework of “school”.

I have taught Art and Humanities in a windowless classroom for the past six years. My students and I try to spice it up by painting the walls and cupboards. I’ve added a couch, stools and a fuzzy carpet to provide alternate spaces for focus and collaboration. Students take ownership by choosing the layout of the tables and decorating the room with their visible learning. We have had flexible seating arrangements that shift based on the challenge at hand and we move and filter into the school spaces such as hallways or the forum. However, what what I am realizing more each day, is that I can make a room as physically flexible as possible and provide a multitude of tools and accessibility to technology as possible…but it is not enough. What I believe truly needs to change is how our schools provide pathways to learning for our students. What I mean by pathways is options for students to decide how they learn best. No longer must school be a building where students must drive or walk to in order to “receive” their learning from a “teacher”. Instead, students can meet at a community hall, online, a library, a farmer’s field or perhaps an Art gallery and not just for field trips. Why not take a Fine Arts stream, if learning through the Arts is how he or she learns best? To differentiate better, we must look at our school design and differentiate beyond classroom instruction.


Any “tool” introduced into a classroom for differentiation purposes does not matter if “what” is being taught and “how” curriculum is being taught does not differentiate also. We are teaching human beings and to meet the needs of all learners we need to provide a multitude of experiences to learn. Seth Godin, in his Ted X Talk “Stop Stealing Dreams” says, educators should be creating “précised, focused education. Instead of massed, batched stuff […] we should make 10,000 kinds of education.”

Students are often placed in large groups, clustered by age and grade level and then shifted around like cattle when a bell rings? (I know, bad expression, but is it far from the truth?) We continue to group students in such a factory style based on age and learning grades and then hope that the “teacher” can do it all. The idea of going to “English” class for a period of 60 minutes, a bell rings and then the group scuttles off to “Math” class for 60 minutes…repeat this process, each day for 13 years…feels wrong. I think the rotating, standardized, automated, unconnected curriculum needs to change. We need to differentiate our programming.

Learning should be cross-curricular, meaningful and authentic to the learner. Why can’t a student complete concepts quicker than others and move on to another challenge of interest? Or have a year long (or longer) learning passion project? Why can’t a student graduate years earlier if they have demonstrated the required outcomes? Instead they have to fill out so many hours to achieve a diploma…

So, if my “tool” is multiple pathways for learning…how do we achieve this?

I think the only way, is if Educators step up and choose to create programs based on the passions of students, teacher interests and with community connections. We need to break the “status quo” and take the risk of creating a variety of programs never done before and essentially break out of the silo classroom. We need administration to trust in their teachers to take risks and allow for failure. Richard Gaudio, a Rocky View Learning Specialist, commented during a group conversation last week, on daring to do something different. “You need to be passionate about what you do. This is our job and you have to live it…so create what you are passionate about and make it want you want it to be.”

building futures 2

A great example of providing an alternative-learning pathway, is the “Building Futures Project” currently running in Rocky View Schools. McKee Homes (a local Airdrie builder) and Rocky View Schools partnered together, to create an authentic, hands on learning experience for Grade 10 students. Thirty-two students from Airdrie’s three High Schools electively signed up for this program. They will learn all the required Alberta curriculum cores (Math, Science, Social, English, CALM) off campus, on a construction site, connected with the fundamentals of building a house from the ground up. Through hands-on experiences and learning directly with experienced trade workers, these students might finish the year with more credits then if they had taken a “regular” Grade 10 school year. Their classroom is “a garage” but also the site itself while still connecting with Croxford High for various events. What a fantastic, experiential learning opportunity.

buildingfutures3When I visited the “Building Futures Project” open house celebration, I chatted with a previous student about her experiences in the program. She expressed that she was not necessarily interested in the trades, but simply wanted an experience different from school. She stated, “I just don’t know how I will be able to go back into a regular classroom next year.”  That sentiment has echoed in the back of my mind, ever since.

Teachers need to take initiative and differentiate how we offer learning. Differentiation and “what” we are teaching go hand in hand or even better are woven together. I believe we should be providing multiple options for students, such as the “Building Futures Program” beyond online learning and the traditional classroom. What about a Fine Arts pathway or an Engineering focused pathway? We need real life experiences and authentic meaningful connections. We can and should differentiate our programming and develop new learning pathways not just within a classroom. We need teachers daring to break out of the “classroom” model where subjects and students are segregated based on age or level.

What’s holding differentiating of programming back?

Re-evaluating what learning needs to be and determining the purpose of schools are questions that don’t have easy answers. The “why” of what we are hoping students learn needs to be the focus. Once we begin to provide a multitude of pathways for students to choose how they learn, the overwhelming idea of “one” teacher trying to “meet the needs of all learners” should be less overwhelming. Students could be more engaged if they can carve their own path instead of following a pre-determined destiny of courses. Why not involve students in designing their learning?

Is changing the traditional model of Education simple? No. For to provide a diverse selection of ways students can choose to learn, well, it “involves potentially re-conceptualizing every aspect of educational practice encompassing organizational structures, educator training, curriculum design, pedagogy, and assessment–ultimately the very essence of what education is fundamentally about.” (Kelly, 2012). Not an easy feat, but worth it if we are always asking ourselves, “What is best for the learner?”

Evaluating and challenging what “school” could be, might open up a whole “tool kit” of options for teachers and students alike. Differentiate programming…just think about the possibilities! Overwhelming, yes. Yet, think about all of the “what ifs?” and life becomes much more exciting.

We create the box we live in. So let’s start breaking down some walls.



Kelly, Robert. (2012). “Educating for Creativity: A Global Conversation.” Brush Education Inc. Canada.

TedxYouth. (Oct 16, 2012). “STOP STEALING DREAMS: Seth Godin at TEDxYouth@BFS”. Retrieved from (youtube=http://youtu.be/sXpbONjV1Jc).

Turner, Mark. (2014) All Images of “Building Futures Program.”

*Interested in shaping Alberta Curriculum? Sign up for Prototyping Teams on this link:


*A side note on the argument school is supposed to prepare students for Higher Education, I highly suggest checking out this video and webiste by Stanford’s d.school, as they explore the possibilities of the future of University.   http://www.stanford2025.com/axis-flip


2 thoughts on “Learning to “leave” the classroom : Differentiating School Programming

  1. Pingback: Learning with Augmented Reality | alisonlearns

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