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Teachers Need Differentiation, Too: How Universally Designed, Hybrid Professional Development Can Help

by Rachel Currie-Rubin and Peggy Coyne
 | Dec 12, 2014

Imagine this hypothetical though common situation: “Elizabeth” is a reading teacher who works with individual students and small groups in kindergarten through fifth grade. “Derek” is a literacy coach in the same school. He works with teachers to help build their understanding of effective literacy instruction by providing professional development (PD) and modeling lessons. Their principal provided them with the opportunity to enroll in a hybrid professional development opportunity focused on reading comprehension.

Derek entered with extensive background knowledge. He thought this PD would help him gather more ideas to help teachers implement effective practices. Elizabeth was new to teaching reading, and she was interested in finding ways to engage reluctant readers.

Both were highly skeptical one experience would meet their varied needs.

“I want to understand how to help teachers plan for all readers in their classroom, while Elizabeth wants to engage her students. I can’t see how this one PD opportunity is going to be right for both of us,” Derek explained upfront.

Sound like a familiar situation?

In any PD environment, individual variability is the norm. When PD is designed to convey information to a mythical “average” teacher, it does not address the reality that teachers have a variety of instructional strengths and needs, different mindsets and expectations, and even a variety of demands from standards and regulations.

We provide opportunities for educators to take questionnaires before, during, and after sessions to ensure they are learning, they feel supported, and they are engaged. However, when teachers are ready to move beyond initial introductions to content, they have a variety of ways they prefer to learn. While some teachers want additional readings to understand concepts, others may want to see samples of classroom implementation. Still others may feel they need more context to understand how certain practices fit into their school context and structures.

We find during face-to-face PD, teachers experience implementation dips, which occur when they attempt to adopt new practices. It takes, on average, 20 separate instances of practice before a teacher masters a skill, yet teachers are not likely to persevere unless they see success with students, according to Allison Gulamhussein’s 2013 report “Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability.”

In face-to-face PD, little or no time is spent implementing new strategies. It is often only after educators leave that they are able to do so. In those cases, teachers often want additional support and learning opportunities.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a teaching and learning framework developed at CAST ( that addresses learner variability by helping educators choose flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments.

The ultimate goal is to develop highly engaged and expert learners. Professional development designed from the outset for a range of learners can provide educators with opportunities to focus on their specific teaching strengths, needs, and motivations.

Technology is core to the implementation of UDL. Online and hybrid PD have offered a new way of addressing the variability of educators, of helping them take charge of their learning, and of allowing for time for experimentation.

Think again about Elizabeth and Derek, a compilation of real teachers we have worked with. They enrolled in a hybrid model and engaged in face-to-face sessions focused on determining their goals for improving their practice and developing an implementation plan. The online sessions provided them with the content needed to understand how the reading comprehension instructional practices presented were related to their goals.

They were connected with a facilitator online who they would follow up with face to face. The facilitator explained she was there to offer support and suggestions, to guide their learning experience, and to help them to achieve their goals.

Elizabeth and Derek engaged in pre-course surveys to help illuminate their goals to their facilitator, who could provide support and guidance in choosing materials throughout the course. Elizabeth, for example, wrote that she was most interested in finding ways to engage her reluctant readers in the use of reading comprehension strategies.

As they began the online course, each week contained a clear goal. Week 1, for example, required students to show their understanding of how affect can impact learning. Elizabeth gravitated toward videos depicting lessons in action while she tried out some of the techniques with her first-graders. Derek gravitated toward reading comprehension and theory articles to help him explain to his teachers how to plan for the variability of readers.

During discussions, Elizabeth and Derek found they both wanted to help teachers find ways to provide learners with more choice. Elizabeth described how she used the videos as inspiration to implement aspects of the UDL framework into her practice. Derek excitedly responded with other ways she could provide choice based on research he read. Both lamented they did not have consistent ways of measuring engagement, and their facilitator responded with ideas of rubrics and metrics to use.

As they began implementation, Elizabeth recognized neither she nor Derek provided their students with the array of learning options they themselves experienced in the online course. Elizabeth noted she wanted to add more videos and images to her reading lessons to engage her students. Derek thought adding more options for expressing understanding including online and face-to-face discussions as well as blog posts could help him better understand what teachers were learning from his model lessons.

Online and hybrid models of PD offer opportunities for educators to take charge of their learning and engage in supported learning and experimentation. Given the flexibility provided by technology, these opportunities provide a model that contains clear goals, multiple options for acquiring information and expressing what is learned.

No doubt, emerging technologies will continue to change the face of professional development and will only serve to extend our abilities to address the inherent individual variability of adult learners.

Rachel Currie-Rubin ( is the director of Online Learning at CAST. She has a background in language and literacy and psychoeducational assessment. Peggy Coyne (, an ILA member since 1998, is a research scientist at CAST, where she specializes in integrating literacy and UDL.

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