ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Becoming Better Listeners

Post written by Melinda Moran

At its heart, differentiation is about knowing your students—not only where they are relative to learning goals, but also who they are as learners, or better yet, as people. Because our students are really people "under construction," differentiation is most successful when we continually update our notions of who our kids are.

Ironically, technology—that cold and distant medium—can facilitate this teacher–student connection, the power of which is recognized by both teacher instinct and research (Sabol & Pianta, 2012; Reyes, Brackett, Rivers, White, & Salovey, 2012). Technology can help teachers keep abreast of their students' developing selves, recognize patterns in their shifting interests, and make visible that which is often hidden. Concretely, technology can support the following practices:

1. Keep searchable, digital notes.

When we talk about differentiation, a common concern expressed, especially by secondary teachers, is that they simply have too many students to know "that well." Because memory is limited and the cognitive load is great, teachers can only retain so much information, especially when it comes so quickly and frequently during the school day. For instance, I may make a mental note when a nonreader starts carrying around a copy of Lord of the Rings, but that data quickly gets crowded by other thoughts—the copies I need to make before third block, that parent call at lunch, the groceries that I need to pick up—and my student's new literary interest gets bounced from my brain.

Thankfully, technology exists to relieve us of problems such as these. With online applications such as Evernote, teachers can type or speak quick notes into a smartphone, tablet, or computer and sync data across devices. Observations stay alive in this digital, searchable format, instead of ending up in a notebook or file folder, where data goes to die. Classroom patterns can be more easily spotted and readily translated into modified instruction.

2. Ask questions frequently and meaningfully.

I recently observed a district meeting in which instructional leaders tried to unpack the characteristics of high-functioning schools. They overwhelmingly agreed on one thing: Students should believe "my teacher knows me." The lead administrator then shared the results of a climate survey in which teachers rated themselves very high on teacher–student interaction, whereas students rated them very low.

Teachers generally pride themselves on knowing their students. This confidence sometimes manifests itself in statements such as, "I've been teaching 8th graders for a long time, so I know what they're like." An assertion such as this is a red flag to step back and reflect. Ask yourself "What assumptions am I making? Based on what evidence? What else could I know? What questions could I ask?"

Technology can help us engage in more systematic inquiry about our students. Online applications such as Socrative and Google Forms enable teachers to ask open-ended questions to which students can reply privately. Teachers can easily download the results into sortable, searchable spreadsheets. Digital exit tickets, then, can illuminate not only what students know and don't know about the content, but also what they know and don't know about themselves.

3. Let students tell their stories.

In a recent NPR story, a teacher revealed that she didn't know one of her students was homeless until he recorded his story for StoryCorpsU, a youth development offshoot of StoryCorps, a nonprofit that provides public recording booths where anyone can drop in to record and share personal stories.

The technology that allows us to share who we are through our stories is not new. Scholars recorded the stories of Holocaust survivors as far back as 1946 (, and it has been 10 years since StoryCorps placed its first StoryBooth in New York City's Grand Central Station. What technology can do, with applications such as Vocaroo or Photo Booth, is to digitize and preserve those stories. What technology cannot do is convince us that these personal questions are worth asking. For example, StoryCorpsU trains students to inquire about their past (What's the most exciting thing you've done?), their present (Tell me a story about your name.), and their future (What do you think your life will be like when you get older?).

Who's to say that conversation can't, in part, be digital?



Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., & Salovey, P. (2012). Classroom emotional climate, student engagement, and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(3), 700–12.

Sabol, T. J., & Pianta, R. C. (2012). Recent trends in research on teacher–child relationships. Attachment and Human Development, 14(3), 213–31.

StoryCorps. Listening is an act of love: A StoryCorps special. (2013, November 28). Online video clip. StoryCorps Official Site. Accessed on April 1, 2014.

Melinda Moran is a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction at the University of Virginia, where she coteaches a course in differentiation with Carol Ann Tomlinson. This article originally appeared in ASCD Express.

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