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John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy, Ed.S. @JMcCarthyEdS, Author of So All Can Learn: A practical guide to Differentiation

An education consultant with extensive teaching experience, John McCarthy supports instructional practices around Differentiation, Student Voice, Authentic Learning Experiences, Project-Based Learning, Instructional Technology, Writing, and Assessment.

His website, OpeningPaths.org, offers rich resources in many instructional areas, publications, and support areas. He currently travels across the United States working with schools and also coaching internationally. He teaches online graduate courses for Madonna University and online educator courses for Dell. See his LinkedIn profile for more details. John responds to comments on the blog and via social media such as Twitter @JMcCarthyEdS.

Posted by on in Differentiated Instruction

Why Teach and Coach Collaboration?

Collaboration is an important 21st Century skill that is of critical need for our students as the future participants of industry, entrepreneurial opportunities, education, and government. Collaboration is a valuable commodity that in its appearance seems more art than science, when the opposite is just as true.

Partnership for 21st Century Learning, an organization that addresses a variety of areas, including Education, defines Collaboration as:

  • Demonstrate ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams
  • Exercise flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal
  •  Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member

Working together for a common goal can be more challenging than it would appear. A common example is group work. One or two team members  do the work while other teammates are either not included in doing the interesting tasks; or they choose to stand aside, content to let the others do all the work, before showing up to share in the credit.

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Posted by on in Differentiated Instruction

In the past, I’ve written several articles about the myths that prevents many teachers from using Differentiation as an integral part of how they meet learner needs.

They have resonated with educators who comment and share these articles with colleagues. I often hear how the articles empowered or gave teachers permission to do more. Best of all, most express finding affirmation for what they are already doing, which is one intention of these articles: Teachers do differentiate, whether unconsciously or with deliberation.

It’s time to change the focus from the myths to the truths. What are the realities for Differentiation?

There are many. Here is the first:

Differentiation starts with learners.

The standard language for Differentiation was introduced early on by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Allan in books in 1999 and 2001. It’s a language that continues to work today, as I note in So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation.

Learner Relationship1

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Posted by on in Differentiated Instruction

Image result for chicago bulls

Defense wins games; rebounds wins championships.

As a sports fan and a former basketball coach I’ve seen this to be a truism. Take the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Michael Jordan was the leader who could will a victory from games that should have been lost. While an offensive force, he and Scottie Pippen lead a team defense that when unleashed left opposing teams in tatters. Both would consistently win Defensive honors and 3 consecutive championships from 1991 to 1993. Their second 3-peat championships from 1996 to 1998, was again driven by defensive wizardry as Dennis Rodman joined Jordan and Pippen to become a three-headed monster. Rodman dominated the boards for rebounds.

Phil Jackson, coach of the Bulls, is the other critical factor to the Bulls’ Championship success, but also for 3 championships under him by the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning and losing is a game of adjustments. Phil Jackson is a master at making adjustments throughout a game that helps his teams win.

In classrooms, teachers make adjustments every day in each lesson. Each course and/or content lesson is like a game where effective teachers make adjustments based on the continuous flow of observational data from students' progress and/or struggles. A well planned unit includes lessons that prepares for students who succeed to easily and for those who will struggle. Anticipating how students will respond, as with athletic coaching, enables the teachers to plan scaffold supports and enrichment extensions so that all students are stretched. But as with any plan, once implemented, things can and will go awry.

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Posted by on in Project-Based Learning

Multiple paths

When my kids get excited about school it’s a wonderful moment. This is especially true as they are teenagers who attended a Project Based Learning School. Those moments occured “only” (yes I’m being absolute) when the topics and outcome are connected to the world beyond school.

I share in my book, "So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide for Differentiation" that during my son’s freshmen year at Ardis New Tech High School, a Geometry-Art project focused on students creating soup bowls to be auctioned off at an event known at Empty Bowls. Local potters also craft bowls that are donated, like the students’ work, to the auction. The proceeds support the food pantries in the local area. The students learned art and Geometry concepts throughout the PBL unit. At the evening event, parents and community were invited to see the artwork and participate in a silent auction for the bowls of the local artists. Parents got first dibs on buying their child’s bowl.

The power of that experience remains today because students had a voice in their community. They understood the connections of curriculum and context with the world outside academia. As a parent, I see the growth this experience had for my child and value every opportunity that the school provides in this area. As a PBL consultant, I would like to see such experiences happen more often than the pretend scenarios that tune out students, including my own. Scenarios can be intriguing at first, but lose momentum when students realize that the work will go no where and to no one once it’s done. The results, like most traditional assignments, are submitted to the teacher for a grade—and goes no further.

Having an authentic audience and purpose has so much upside. Students engage into the work, sustained by the energy that the results are purposeful and awaited by an audience beyond the school. It snaps them out of the Checklist Mentality that I discuss in an Edutopia article. They connect the curriculum with real purpose, and not—as students perceive—just academic hoop jumping.

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Posted by on in Student Engagement



An important need and big challenge is making curriculum relevant to students so that they “want” to do the work because the content makes sense to them, and has meaning through their usage beyond the classroom walls. The value of such experiences cements learning as students have a real-world reference to recall the content when needed.

For example, students are more likely to remember their work on a fund raising campaign that raised awareness about cancer while soliciting donations that are given to cancer research. Such an experience is more powerful and lasting than approaching the same curriculum in the traditional format: memorizing the functions and structures of different cells, practicing research skills as an isolated skill for English, and completing a list of math functions without a real-world context. In the case of the fighting cancer campaign, the students developed understanding and application of all of those skills and content areas, while having a positive impact on their community.

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