3 Bridges Graphic

Differentiation without Sacrificing Content: The Three Bridges Approach

Most teachers start a new school year with difficult choices. A new crop of 25 or so students is entering our class. Who is on grade level? Who is several years behind? If we focus on differentiation, how will we cover the curriculum?
Faced with these challenges, many teachers opt to simply follow the text. “As long as I’ve presented the material,” the thinking goes, “students are responsible for the rest.” Education leaders have long promoted differentiation as a solution to one-size-fits-all education. Unfortunately, teachers are left to figure out how to cover the grade level content while still meeting the needs of each student.

Three Bridges Design for Learning

Too often, as educators, we focus solely on grade level standards, the end of the learning journey. Rarely are we able to even identify each students’ starting point, let alone tailor instruction to each student. To truly meet students’ needs, though, we have to view curriculum as a bridge between the two points. If we meet all students where they are, those who start behind will never cover lost ground. If we only focus on the destination, many students will become lost and frustrated.
When we see our role as ‘bridge-builder,’ the question remains: What bridge should we build? I’ve found that most bridges fall into one of three categories:

  • Personalized – Identify students’ abilities and needs. Provide instruction targeted to their level. This type of differentiation usually involves an adaptive learning platform, such as Khan Academy or No Red Ink.
  • Scope-and-Sequence – Create a curriculum map that covers each grade-level standard in sequence.
  • Low-floor/High Ceiling – Use games, projects, and creative problem-solving to build conceptual understanding. Challenge advanced students while being accessible to students with fewer basic skills.

Many classes rely exclusively on the “Scope-and-sequence” approach, in which every student learns the same thing every day. Despite the limitations of teaching every child the same thing at the same time, this is the accepted norm, and is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Doing away with traditional sequencing entirely and replacing it with personalized learning and hands-on tasks, would drive most educators into a panic.
The ‘Three Bridges’ approach, however, can build upon the traditional approach in order to support a variety of learners. Using all three bridges makes planning and differentiation more manageable. Here’s a breakdown of what’s involved in each of the three approaches.

Bridge 1: Personalized Learning

With a personalized approach, students begin their learning journey at their ability level. Once in place, this type of differentiation requires minimal maintenance. Teachers save time planning and grading, and can use this time to plan hands-on experiences. Teachers accustomed to lecturing can gain experience as a guide-by-the-side.
Personalized platforms provide teachers and administrators with data on student productivity and progress. This information can help in planning the other two bridges.

Getting Started

Once personalized learning has been put into place, it requires little maintenance. However, getting started can take some time. Students will need devices with internet access, as well as login information. Teachers unaccustomed to using technology in their classroom may need training, and picking the right platform is crucial. Students will also need training on using computers in school, including digital citizenship.


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Bridge 2: Inquiry-Based Learning 

Many progressive educators have embraced low-floor/high-ceiling tasks. Instead of deciding between teaching students and standards, the answer becomes: do both! Hands-on tasks allow students to get different benefits from the same activity. These tasks include projects, problems, and games. Students engage in collaborative learning and higher order thinking, while having fun.

Make Learning Active

In theory, hands-on activities meet students where they are, yet still push them to meet grade-level standards. It can be hard to measure the impact of this approach, though. Hands-on learning also requires a high level of teacher expertise. Teachers must support students in productive discourse and be comfortable facilitating.
Since students use various strategies, teachers must be able to assess work without use of a teachers manual. Teachers also need to be familiar with standards across several grade levels. Here are some example tasks from Jo Boaler’s site, YouCubed.org
As you move to a hands-on approach, starting with personalized learning can help. The data generated will help you better understand student difficulties. Facilitating work on a platform can be a good introduction to being a guide-by-the-side.

Bridge 3: Content Coverage 

This is the approach many teachers are most comfortable with, and it does expose students to important content. When students are not prepared for grade level content, though, this creates challenges. In theory,  differentiation of process should help all students access grade level content. In many subjects, though, each skill builds upon previous skills. Once students fall behind, exposing them to grade-level standards does little to fill the gaps they began the year with. Even with formative assessment, we mostly just chip away at the tip of the iceberg.

Grade level standards: the tip of the iceberg

Yearly and Unit Planning

By combining scope-and-sequence with personalized learning, teachers can better meet student needs. This insight into student strengths and gaps can help in planning whole class instruction. Scaffolding strategies can provide access to the content for an even wider range of students.
When teachers take the time to adapt their scope-and-sequence to each class, they typically spend more time on review early in the year. Once gaps from prior grade levels have filled, we can move more quickly through grade-level content. 
Room to Discover helps teachers and schools with all aspects of student-centered learning, including personalized and hands-on learning. Let’s talk about how 3-Bridges Learning can increase achievement and engagement in your school or district. Reach out via our Contact Page or e-mail  info@roomtodiscover.com, to schedule a consultation.


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