Three Bridges Design for Learning Balances Differentiation and Content Coverage

The Three-Bridges Design for Learning

When I started teaching, I actually thought that differentiation was a waste of time. It was only out of necessity that I eventually embraced student-centered learning.

It was my first year teaching math. And my students were so behind on grade-level content, I couldn’t even use the textbook.

Fortunately, one day a colleague showed me Khan Academy. With a little hesitation, I tried it out with my students the next day.

It was amazing.

For the first time, I knew what the kids could actually do. Each student was getting the instructional content they needed, and the best part was, they were starting out with what they could do, not on what the curriculum pacing guide told them they had to do.

I had discovered personalized learning.

But it was about more than just having kids work on personalized content. The kids were getting the support they needed to grow. Not only was I finding out about students’ weaknesses in math, but I had the insights I needed to start addressing issues.

The amazing part was this: by turning over some of my class time to personalized learning, and having some students work on problems that were below grade level…eventually those same students could handle the grade-level content.

Step 1: From Curriculum Coverage to Personalized Learning

But no revolution comes without its troubles. When I made this shift away from “covering” curriculum to personalized learning, the response from parents was mixed. 

Half the parents were crazy about it. “My child finally enjoy math class,” parents would say. “They’re not frustrated or fighting about homework.” 

Others, though, had their concerns. “I’m not paying tuition to have my kid stare at a screen all day?” “What are you, the teacher, doing while the kids are on the computer?”

These parents had an image of zombified students sitting in rows on computers. So I invited them to come see for themselves. When they visited the class, they saw kids working in teams and collaborating to solve problems. Soon almost all of them had come around.

Despite a few bumps in the road, I was sold. Personalized learning was an innovative way to help all of my students move through the progression of skills important to my content area, which at the time, was math.

And when the standardized scores came back it was clear to everyone – this wasn’t just some crazy experiment. My students had learned A LOT of math.

Step 2: From Personalized Learning to Inquiry-Based Learning

But I also knew that there were limitations to the personalized learning approach. Personalized Learning is not as much about application. It lacks the engaging, hands-on activities of inquiry-based learning. 

Sometimes, kids need to have debates and discussions in class. They can learn a lot, for example, by building a big model of a cube and filling it up with smaller cubes. They learn about volume, but they learn non-academic skills as well. 

So I split class time between personalized and inquiry-based learning.  This was the right balance for me. Having kids move at their own pace on instructional content while still having access to common, inquiry-based tasks.

The First Bridge: A Major Realization

When I first began consulting with schools and districts, my impulse was to say, “Do what I did – get rid of the textbook!” 

But this was a mistake. This message wasn’t resonating with teachers. Why not? It was too disconnected from their day-to-day reality, with pressure to follow a curriculum and help kids meet standards.

I realized that curriculum coverage wasn’t something to eliminate. It is the first bridge of learning, and it’s an essential starting point for many teachers.

Three-Bridges Design for Learning: An Overview

After reflecting on my experience teaching and consulting it became clear that I had stumbled upon my core philosophy of education.

It was based on this line of thinking:

If the job of learning is to meet learning objectives, these are the three ways to make it happen:

1. Educators can lay out a path of topics that all students need to know by the end of the year. We can teach kids this content, organized into a rigorous curriculum, at the same pace. Students take tests to show if they’ve learned this or not. This is the bridge of curriculum coverage.

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2. Alternatively, we can present students with a progression of skills. Each student can begin at their own place in this progression based on what they already know. We can present students with differentiated content based on their current knowledge and abilities. All students have a different metric of success. Measure success by progress, not end point. This is bridge of Personalized Learning.

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3. Lastly, we can create activities that all students can access, regardless of their starting point.  We can approach these activities with the expectation that everyone will have different outcomes. For example, we might do a project where kids take on different roles, such as the scribe, the reporter, the researcher, and so. Each student will do and learn something slightly different. Together, the kids will work together to explore interesting questions. This is the bridge of inquiry-based learning.

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Challenges of the 3 Bridges: FAQ

What Is 3-Bridges Design?

The 3-Bridges Design for Learning balances the need for standards with the needs of individual learners. We recognize that our current system relies on a fixed pace, content coverage approach, but we also know that each student’s needs are unique. Our goal is not to eliminate lectures and textbooks, but to balance traditional and progressive models of instruction.

Imagine being asked to supervise a marathon. Some runners are near the finish line, while others have just begun the race. Many of those who are behind also move at slower paces. One has a broken leg. Another is fit but doesn’t seem terribly interested in running. You’ve been asked to ensure all runners cross the finish line at the same time. Certainly, scaffolding will help, but it will leave many issues unaddressed.

How Does 3-Bridges Learning Work?

In a 3-Bridges classroom, instructional time is divided among the 3-Bridges. Many schools use close to 100% of instructional time for content coverage. For such schools, we advocate setting aside 10-20% of instructional time for personalized learning.

Provided the technology is available, adding personalized learning is relatively straightforward. PL helps schools understand student needs and increase student ownership and motivation. It also introduces teachers to facilitative teaching, but without the complexities of inquiry-based learning.

The next step is to incorporate a weekly inquiry-based learning activity. The exact progression, though, varies by school and teacher. Eventually, the balance may shift to an equal measure of each bridge. Some highly effective 3-Bridges teachers rely only rarely on direct instruction.

When implemented effectively, the 3-Bridges Design for Learning supports student-centered and authentic learning. It allows educators to build upon their current strengths, and acknowledges the day-to-day realities of the classroom.

Do the Three Bridges exist in isolation?

No, the Three Bridges can be combined and overlap. For example, a class might begin by making sure it has a clear curriculum and pacing guide, followed with fidelity. Following the curriculum efficiently might free up a teacher to use 10% of her time for personalized learning.

Alternatively, a teacher might start using personalized learning but then realize he’d also like his students to have more interactive, discussion-based learning experiences. So, he might begin to integrate inquiry-based learning into this classroom, too.

I’ve heard of Personalized Learning and Inquiry-Based Learning turning into a mess when teachers try it. Why does that happen?
It all comes down to asking ourselves: What is our goal? What are we trying to do in the classroom?

We run into problems when we don’t understand which model we are really trying to use. For example, some teachers may try to put personalized learning into a content coverage context without acknowledging different objectives. In other words, they will use online platforms, but lock all kids into the same content, hence not allowing it to be “personalized.” Or, they might allow kids to explore the content differentiated to their abilities, but then measure all students on the same grade-level learning standards.

Another example can happen through inquiry-based learning. Teachers may want to teach specific standards through an inquiry-based learning approach. With students taking on different roles in the activities, it can be hard to assess students all on the same standards. In other words, it’s a variable outcome approach.

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