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Telling is Not Teaching

In an earlier blog post (http://jponline.com/jp-blog-click here and look for Not All Students Getting the Same, But all Students Getting What They Need) we defined differentiation:

“The definition begins with this: Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need. Approaching all learners the same academically doesn't work. We have to start where each child is in his learning process in order to authentically meet his academic needs and help him grow. With a classroom full of children at different stages of learning, this certainly sounds overwhelming, I know-but it is doable if you prepare appropriately.”

Today, we are going to take a look at an effective and proven strategy: Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR Model).  Briefly, it is a method of teaching that shifts responsibility with the learning process from teacher to student—from the teacher being fully responsible for performing a task to the student assuming responsibility.  The GRR model “emphasizes instruction that mentors students into becoming capable thinkers and learners when handling the tasks with which they have not yet developed expertise.”(Buehl, D. (2005). Scaffolding. Reading Room.)

Strategy for Reading Blogs

Before we take a look at the GRR Model, let’s take a moment to look at the way we read blogs.  More times than not, just like professional development training, we are passive participants. We are reading, but not always with a focus.  Here are three questions you can ask yourself:

  • Do I do this in my classroom?
  • Would all students have a better opportunity to learn if I did?
  • How can I apply this in my classroom?

Back to the GRR Model

As teachers, we are at our best when we guide learners to new or deeper understandings. Although there is a role for direct explanation and modeling; telling students over and over, or louder and slower does not result in understanding. In other words…telling does not result in learning. Students should be guided toward understanding.

The GRR Model allows teachers to provide instructional support to children while they are learning important reading, writing, math and other content area skills. Here is how:

  • Using the gradual release model teachers first model and describe the use of a strategy,
  • The students then practice applying the strategy while the teacher guides instruction , provides feedback and,
  • Finally students move into the stage where they are able to collaboratively and  independently apply the strategy in new situations (Morrow, Gambrell & Pressley, 2003)


The Gradual Release of Responsibility model of instruction suggests that cognitive work should shift slowly and intentionally from teacher as model, to joint responsibility between teacher and student, to independent practice and application by the learner.

  • Focus Lesson: Teachers establish the lesson’s purpose and model their own thinking to illustrate for students how to approach the new learning.
  • Guided Instruction – Teachers strategically use questions and assessment-informed prompts, cues, direct explanations, and modeling to guide students to increasingly complex thinking and facilitate students’ increased responsibility for task completion.
  • Productive group work – collaboration – Teachers design and supervise tasks that enable students to consolidate their thinking and understanding – and that require students to generate individual products that can provide formative assessment and information.
  • Independent tasks – Teachers design and supervised tasks that require students to apply information they have been taught to create new and authentic products. This phase of the instructional framework is ideal for the "spiral review" (distributed practice over time) that so many educators know their students need, and it is a way to build students' confidence by allowing them to demonstrate their expanding competence.

What it is NOT

The sudden release of responsibility is not telling students facts or information.  TELLING is not TEACHING.  For example, if a teacher is reviewing student work on a math problem, they WOULD NOT ask, “What steps did you leave out?” If they are using the GRR Model, they WOULD teach the steps, model the steps and then working with the student guide him or her through the steps. By the time students assume responsibility for using the steps, the teacher and students are confident of mastery.


No one would assert that differentiation is easy! Ensuring that the basic instruction is sound and effective is a huge factor that can make differentiation easier. Effective instruction can PREVENT errors from ever starting and can therefore limit the amount of differentiation needed.

It is not about the work. It is about the people!

Back in 1981 I began a job as the director of a community based youth program.  I was young, 25.  Looking back I was influenced by several generous people.  Senator Don Halperin, Leonard Dunston, Roz Preudhomme, and Barry Glick just to name a few.  With the exception of Don, who passed away, I am still in touch with them.  One reason? They are great at building relationships!  They reach out and make people feel comfortable and part of their group.  The effect they have on things goes far beyond their groups because of this skill.

Think back.  Think of a leader, a manager, or a co-worker you admire. Someone who had an impact on your development. Someone who others liked to be around or follow.  Chances are that person was great at creating and maintaining relationships.

We need to make people WANT to do follow

Dale Carnegie understood the importance of relationships. He wrote, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”  And, “There is only one way… to get anybody to do anything. And that is by making the other person want to do it.” Combine these two pieces of advice and you have the beginnings of a plan on how to build relationships.

Some 60 years later, we are still exploring and expanding our understanding and use of relationships. It is an essential skill for the leader of today where teamwork, collaboration, shared decision-making and worker buy-in are all valued and encouraged.  In his book, “Leading in a Culture of Change,” Michael Fullan lists relationship building as one of the five primary elements to creating and managing effective change.  He also notes that “The single factor common to every successful change initiative is that relationships improve.”

Positive relationships make us want to give more-they make us want more in a positive way, always setting the bar higher.  They help establish an environment where people want to share information and help each other—it helps create a sense of moral purpose (another of the Fullan’s five primary elements).

Three Strategies for Relationship Building:

Scott Edinger, author of the “The Inspiring Leader” suggests three strategies to help build relationships:

  1. Give people your undivided attention. Look them in the eye when you are speaking with each other. Don’t multi-task or check your phone for messages. Let people know that during that time, no matter how short or long, they have your undivided attention—that what they are saying has importance.  That they are important.
  2. Be aware that emotions are contagious. Whether for good or for bad, how you are feeling, your mood, affects those around you—this is especially true when you are the boss. Be aware of this, be aware of your moods and make them work for you and for the people you lead.
  3. Develop your sense of extraversion. If you’re a leader, you simply have to develop the ability to reach out to others, engage them in discussion, and actively provide feedback. If this does not come easy to you, you can practice and plan. Think of different opportunities for relationship building, of specific people. Think what you want to do and say. The more you do it, the easier it will become. The reaction you get from the people to whom you are reaching out will fuel your efforts.  It is great feeling creating relationships.

Scott Edinger offers this final bit of advice: “As leaders, by definition, we do our work through other people, and yet how easy it is to lose sight of that, to focus on the amount of work — the tasks, the output, the jobs to be completed. The irony is, the more you focus on the quality of those connections, the greater your quantity of output is likely to be.”

Culture and the Transit Strike

Back in the late 70’s, I lived in Brooklyn, New York and worked in Manhattan.  This meant getting up around 6:00 AM and catching a bus at around 6:45 AM and then a train at around 7:30 AM to get to work at 9:00 AM.  Each morning I saw the same people at the same bus stop and the same group at the same train station.  More often than not, I saw the same people on the train as well. We traveled each day, five days a week, in silence. People read books, read newspapers-did everything but talk to each other. As a matter of fact, most people did everything they could to AVOID speaking with others.   Communication was pretty much non-verbal—looks, a push, etc.

The Strike

In 1980 Transit workers went on strike, so no bus or train service was available. Most people in Brooklyn that worked in Manhattan secured lifts to the Brooklyn Bridge (via taxi, car pooling, etc.) and then walked across the bridge to Manhattan.  I saw the same people that each day I saw on the bus or the train, but there was something different. People were exchanging hellos; they were having conversations about the strike; about the challenges of getting to work; and even exchanging information about families and plans for the day. What had changed?

The culture had changed, but how?  It was clear that if the strike had never happened, people would still not be talking to each other despite a lot of common elements. We all lived in Brooklyn.  We all worked in Manhattan. We all traveled on the same buses and trains.  So what was it that transformed these non-communicative people into a group that did speak with each other? It was a common challenge that drew us together.  The interruption in our lives from our normal routine and the challenge of coping without mass transit changed the culture of our group.  It pulled us together first to complain, and then to joke, and finally to cope and solve.

Uniting People

Is a crisis the only way to bring people together? Is a common enemy the only way to create a group? No! This is where a leader’s vision comes into play.  Leaders must present their staff with a message that mobilizes them. Involves them. Makes them feel vital. Energizes them. Values them.  It should challenge them to raise the bar, to exceed what they perceive as their limits.  Encourages them to create and share information that will make them successful. Makes clear to them the benefits for both teachers and their students. And, leaders must provide them with a road map on how to achieve this vision.

Do leaders have to do this alone? Should they do it in a vacuum? No. One of the reasons why we want to bring our people together and create a positive culture is to draw on their input, experience and strength.  If leaders are successful in creating a positive culture, the mission, the change, takes on a life of its own—the mission moves from being the leader’s to being the group’s.

What Did I Learn?

If we don’t provide positive messages that people can rally around, we run the risk of that vacuum being filled by negative issues—lack of resources, resistance to a new instructional program, etc.  These may bring people together, but it won’t help you achieve.  Take some time to reflect on the issues that are important to your vision and have appeal to your staff and introduce them to each other. Make them a focus in your daily discussions, in your correspondence and even when you speak with your students.

See the difference!

YOU Know What You Mean, but Do They?

So often you hear people speak about the importance of communication in change management and school improvement.  How it is important to share information, share your vision, share your strategies.  What is also important is the language we use to accomplish these actions. Communication is only communication if we "speak the same language." We know what we mean when we say something, but do the people we are talking to, also know?

What do we mean by "speak the same language?"  

In most cases--granted not always--we work with people that speak the same language as us.  We, therefore, assume everyone has the same definition for terms and words.   There are words we use every day and their meaning is so ingrained in our minds, we often don't even consider someone else might have a different definition or understanding.

Think about it this way, two people can travel down the same route and see different things.  It can be the same with words and terms. People see concepts through their own "lens" and yes, there can be overlap, but there can also be differences. These differences can cause a hiccup when you are trying to lead people.

Choice of words and establishing a common understanding of those words is especially important when leaders are trying to get across their vision to others. Leaders need to excite people, enthuse them, get them to follow them, but most importantly,  to motivate them.

How You Can Do It

I was visiting with a principal during one of our regular coaching visits.  She was speaking about one of the priorities she had established for her school and for her teachers that year.  They were working on student engagement.  She, we will call her Ms. Smith, was making it the focus of her classroom visits--both formal and informal.  It all sounded very good.   Ms. Smith, a conscientious leader, had identified a focus area, informed her staff and had a strategy for reinforcing her message.  She was ready to implement.

I had three questions for Ms. Smith:

  • Have you defined student engagement for yourself and for your staff?
  • Can you tell me what does engagement mean to you and what does it mean to your teachers?
  • Had she shared with her staff why student engagement was important and how it would benefit them as teachers?

She paused, and you could see her going through a mental checklist, and she responded, “No.”

It sounds simple, but many projects fall apart because of something simple—in this case, defining a term.  In the classroom, we call that a common language of instruction.

The principal and I began dissecting the term engagement. If someone walked into one of her classrooms and looked for student engagement:

  • What would  it look like?
  • What would teachers be doing?
  • What would students be doing?

It is important when getting a concept across to keep it as concrete as possible.  Sharing with your staff what something looks like and what behaviors people would be exhibiting make it easier to grasp.  It also makes it clear to let people know your expectations.

Next up was WHY student engagement was something teachers should be interested in.  What was in it for them and their students? Ms. Smith came up with two points:

  • Engaged students demonstrate increased performance
  • Engaged students are less likely to be a disruption

Don't be Afraid to Ask for Input

Now armed with her vision for student engagement, Ms. Smith met with her staff and led them through the same process that was modeled during the coaching session.

When we ask people to accept a new idea or to change, we ask them to trust us. Trust comes a little easier when the are part of the process determining the change. The trick here is to provide a strong scaffold for them to build on-providing a clear explanation of your vision-while at the same time being open to hear their ideas.  More importantly than just hearing, being flexible enough to use their input to arrive at a common understanding. Such a process not only helps create common understanding, but builds relationships as well.

Share your Expectations 

The next step was to plan how to relay the  information to her staff BEFORE the next round of classroom visits take place.  In this case, there was a school-wide meeting with the staff .  Ms. Smith and some teacher leaders presented what was agreed upon during the discussion process.   The message came from both Ms. Smith, the principal, AND from peers.  It sent the message that there was a united front--it wasn't a top down decision.

Also, it let everyone know expectations when it came to classroom visits and student engagement. Strong leaders know the goal is not to catch someone doing something wrong, but to reinforce things they are doing right or to help them do something better; thus we want people to know what we are looking for and what they are responsible for—we want them to buy in.   (Quick note:  approaching the classroom visits as a form of supportive supervision rather than something punitive, helps create a positive climate where people are willing to change and take risks.)


At the end of our discussion, we had

  • Defined what Ms.Smith meant by student engagement (clarified her vision)
  • Created a plan of how to work alongside her staff to develop a  working definition (secure input and buy-in)
  • Determined why it was important (What is the benefit)
  • Created a strategy on how to provide everyone with what it would look like and what was going to be looked for during her classroom visits (Supportive Supervision resulting in securing the desired outcome-student engagement)

Everyone was on the same page and set for success!

Not All Students Getting the Same, But All Students Getting What They Need

If you have ever worked with children, whether as a parent, a teacher or a coach, you know that meeting a child at their level of success is essential to an effective learning experience.  What does this have to do with differentiated instruction? Let’s see.

Differentiated Defined

The definition begins with this: Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need. Approaching all learners the same academically doesn't work. We have to start where each child is in his learning process in order to authentically meet his academic needs and help him grow. With a classroom full of children at different stages of learning, this certainly sounds overwhelming, I know-but it is doable if you prepare appropriately.

Essential to this process are pre-assessments and ongoing assessments. These assessments provide information and feedback to both the teacher and the student. 

You may be thinking, “You want me to do what!!! But I have 30 students!  How can I possibly do it? Where do I begin? I don’t have time for that amount of planning! How CAN I do this?????”

The idea of differentiating instruction can be overwhelming, but it can be done.  In this post, we will begin with an explanation of what it is. Later posts will address the how.

What it is and What it is not

First, let’s clarify what we are talking about by looking at what differentiation is Not and, then, what it IS. Teaching and Non- teaching examples, when presenting a new concept help to eliminate confusion on the part of the learner. How would we truly know what joy is if we had never experienced sorrow?  How we would know if something were soft, if we had never felt something that was hard? Teaching and Not Teaching examples should always be used when introducing new concepts to students- adult or child.

What it is not

Differentiated Instruction is not:

  • Assigning more work at the same level to high-achieving students.
  • Requiring students to teach material they have mastered to others who have not mastered it.
  • Giving all students the same work most of the time.
  • Grouping students into cooperative learning groups that do not provide for individual accountability or do not focus on work that is new to all students.
  • Focusing on student weaknesses, ignoring student strengths.
  • Using only the differences in student responses to the same class assignment to provide differentiation. Class assignments are only ONE way to monitor student progress and assess student needs.

What it is

Differentiated Instruction is:

  • Providing multiple assignments within each unit, tailored for students of different levels of achievement. Some students might receive an assignment to write 3 sentences about a topic, another group, however, could be provided a graphic organizer with sentence stems to complete
  • Allowing students to choose, with the teacher's guidance, ways to learn and how to demonstrate what they have learned. We can provide choices that include: art, writing, speaking, or group presentations
  • Permitting students to opt out of material they already know and progress at their own pace through new material.

Why Differentiate?

Differentiation, when implemented well, will help prevent children from making errors during the learning process. If while teaching a new concept we did not have to stop teaching to correct students’ mistakes, we would gain immeasurable academic time to actually instruct!  In addition, stopping to correct student errors often causes other students to go off task.  Differentiated Instruction reduces the need to stop and correct. 

We also know those children who do not do well instructionally are also often those same children who have behavioral issues. Good instruction—and differentiated instruction is good instruction-reduces behavioral issues.

In Charlotte Danielson’s work, differentiating instruction is referred to as "flexibility and responsiveness". These terms are further defined as the “teacher’s skill in making adjustments in a lesson to respond to changing conditions.” When a lesson is well-planned, and possible mistakes are actually planned for ahead of time, there may be no need for changes during the course of the lesson itself. Shifting the approach in midstream is not always necessary: In fact, with experience comes skill in accurately predicting how lessons will go and being prepared for different possible scenarios. But even the most skilled and best prepared teachers will occasionally find either the lesson is not proceeding as they would like or a teachable moment has presented itself. They are ready for such situations. Furthermore, teachers committed to the learning of all students persist in their attempts to engage them in learning even when confronted with initial setbacks.


Differentiated Instruction is an effective tool in the meeting the needs of learners. Teachers are often overwhelmed with the feeling that they have to do it all and do it right away.  It is not a question of doing it all and doing it now. The important thing is to start.  Starting means:

  • Assessing and planning
  • Reflecting on what happened in the classroom
  • Observing how students responded (collecting data)
  • Adjusting instruction as needed moving forward

Applying what you learn to your instruction will not only affect how your students learn, but how you teach.

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