Saturday / April 13

How Walkthroughs Hurt Differentiation Efforts


For teachers, there is nothing worse than receiving a write-up that is riddled with unchecked boxes, zeros, or vague comments after an unannounced walkthrough by an evaluator.

These write-ups are especially ill received by teachers who work diligently to differentiate instruction for their students yet their informal observation paperwork says doesn’t account for this effort.

Many teachers have shared that they feel “defeated” after a walkthrough, and, in turn, “give up” on differentiating instruction. If they are going to get a “zero” even when they are attempting to differentiate, then why try at all?

Why the confusion?

Attempting to spot differentiation during a walkthrough is an exercise in futility, as differentiation is not readily observable.

I can walk into a classroom and see student groups working on various tasks and assume that I see differentiated instruction. Or, conversely, I can walk into a classroom and see all students working on the same task and presume this means the lesson was not differentiated.

However, I don’t know actually know whether or not my assumptions are accurate because, for something to qualify as differentiation, evidence (qualitative and quantitative) must have been considered. For teachers, this occurs during the planning phase of instruction.

A common response from evaluators who include differentiation as an item to look for on a walkthrough even though it is difficult to accurately assess is, “That’s why we check the box for not-evident. That’s not a bad thing…”

Except, to the teachers receiving these reports, “not evident” often feels like a strike. And, any measure that is perceived by teachers as punitive should be avoided. It is vital that our teachers feel confident about their work. In fact, how effective teachers feel is directly correlated with how much their students grow (Collective Efficacy: How Educator’s Beliefs Impact Student Learning, Donohoo). Receiving a walkthrough report that highlights deficiencies surely doesn’t do anything to increase teachers’ feelings of effectiveness.

But accountability is a reality.

Many administrators are well aware of the flaws in their informal observation methods, and at the same time, they are accountable for ensuring and reporting about specific practices that are occurring in classrooms.

This is important and I am not suggesting that attempts to verify that best practices are occurring in our classroom be eliminated. Instead, what I recommend is that we employ better systems to gather this information.

My first choice for informal observations would be conversation-based: evaluators confer with students and/or teachers to get a better sense of what is happening in a classroom.

However, practically speaking, I know this isn’t always possible.

Therefore, my second suggestion (as illustrated in the chart below) is to use walkthroughs that include student voice to highlight instructional practices that are indicative of differentiation, rather than identifying what is not evident.

Differentiation Look-For Tool

Check the boxes of any evident items.


(The teacher or student would need to explain why this work is targeted for the student. See questions of walkthrough questionsbelow)

Varied texts (titles and/or levels)
Different class work or homework


Teaching Up: all students are working on the same high-level task with different entry points or scaffolding (i.e. complex performance task in math where students are using different problem solving strategies and/or tools and varying amounts of support from peers or teacher)
Goal setting and feedback: students have learning goals and receive feedback from teacher related to goal
Pacing: students are at different points working toward mastering the same standard or skill and are actively tracking progress
Metacognitive strategies: i.e. some students taking notes and other students taking photos with an iPad
Affective strategies: i.e. some students working with a partner, some working alone, and some working in a small group)
Questioning differs among students (type, kind, level)


o  Students are creating a variety of products aligned with the learning intention (i.e. one student is writing a paper and one student is filming a documentary)


Learning Environment
Flexible seating arrangements: may include non-classroom space: hallway, large closet, etc.
Student interaction: i.e. some students interacting with each other, some students interacting with others virtually, some students working independently)
Technology: some students use technology to access content, some students use technology to create, some students not using technology

Include student voice

Ask students this question… Instead of this one…
What is your learning goal?

Student should cite a relevant skill or concept

  • Example: I am learning to add rational numbers.
  • Non-example: To finish this assignment.
What is the learning/lesson objective?
Where are you on your path to reach your goal? How have you been tracking your success?

Student should cite elements of the learning intentions (standards).

  • Examples: I have mastered adding positive and negative integers, but I am still working on adding positive and negative fractions.
  • I monitor my progress toward my learning goal with ongoing feedback from my teacher.
  • Non-examples: I don’t know.  My teachers tells me. I check our online reporting system.
What are you working on?
Can you tell me about the roles your group mates and you have?

Student should cite their specific contributions to the task/goal of collaboration. Students should have different roles that equally allow them to engage with the learning intentions.

What is your group doing?

Questions or comments about this post? Share below or connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Written by

Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach. You can find out more about Lisa by visiting and by connecting with her on Twitter @lisa_westman.

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