So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide To Differentiation | Intentional Differentiation and Authentic Learning | Authentic Teacher Interview 03 Part I with Author and Student Voice Advocate John McCarthy, EdS

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So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation John McCarthy

So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation

by John McCarthy, EdS

My featured guest has written a book and he speaks about differentiation Authentic Learning Experiences, Project-Based Learning, Instruction supported by Technology tools, S.T.E.A.M,  Systemic and Culture building.

What does S.T.E.A.M  stand for again, Science, Technology, Arts, Mathematics, is the E education or engineering? Sorry John, do you know?

Yes, that’s it, S.T.E.A.M  stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math

some schools who prefer the traditional S.T.E.M  without the art.

Thanks Jackie! This is my 30th year in education, I started out as a classroom teacher in High School. My first job was in the Chicago Public Schools systems ~ shout out to them!

I’ve worked in 3 different states and as well as different locations and schools that were in

  • urban
  • inner city
  • rural 
  • high poverty
  • very affluent

What’s nice about those different experiences I’ve gotten to see those different things as well as to see that there are some challenges that are the same about learning and some that are different unique to demographics.

I currently I am an educational consultant

  • teachers
  • admin
  • leadership
  • across the country

For the last several years I have been doing a lot of work internationally as well as around the country.

  • Atlanta
  • Hawaii
  • Texas
  • Minnesota
  • Egypt
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Kazakhstan
  • Australia

It always seems I always learn something from the people I am working with.

get as much

as I give back

they’re trying to do

authentic practices

Student voice

share in the US and support  what we are doing here as well.

Besides being a teacher, I worked as an administrator, County level school improvement

SW Michigan, the largest county in area. 

  • 34 school districts
  • Detroit Public Schools
  • charters and private schools

I’ve worn various hats in Education

work that I have done

project based learning

work for them

schools that have gone

High tech high

and Vision

I think that’s part of what makes you more of an expert in differentiation because of all of these different experience.


So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation John McCarthyIn my book So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation

I wrote that book, because there are a lot of good books out there about differentiated instructions. What I found was missing, and found through the work I did in differentiation across the country, I would get.

Common questions were coming up. 

Typically, the questions, the resources available

  • talked about pedagogy the abstract talk about teaching and learning
  • or mainly talked about strategies

but didn’t link them together. In addition teachers would say, 

I would love to differentiate but I don’t have the time, I have these standards, I’ve got these curriculum  I have got to cover content. This is what I might usually hear. 

I have to cover content

From my own teaching experiences, and the work that we do as teachers, we needed a way to build those connections to show that differentiation is not something that is extra it’s just something we simply do as we are doing good teaching and learning.

It’s something we simply do

As I found success at teaching teachers or administrators is that they were already differentiated instruction and we just needed to know how to do a better job with it and then we would see a lot of growth came from that.

We would see Growth

I wrote the book and several articles on my blog as well as for Edutopia from that I was able to get some really good feedback and response, from people who read it and based on that I wrote the book.

Which is a combination of looking at pedagogy connected to specifically, here’s what it looks like in every chapter. 

Each chapter has that concept based component, so you understand the reason why and the value for it and then look at real world practices in what we can do to be effective in our differentiation.

9 levels of differentation poster

that describes what it looks like for a teacher is practicing. When teachers realize they are already doing some kind of differentiation they find themselves in the first three levels and that’s a good thing! Because once you know what you are how to grow from there.

As you know good teaching means we’re always learning

So what is maybe one thing teachers are already doing today that they might not realize? I’m so curious to know where I am on? What level I’m at?

I have these conversations in a lot of workshops that I do. This is for your listeners who are educators. 

This is my question or questions?

Have you ever had a situation where a students asks a question for help?

So have you answered or helped them find the answer?

And good teachers do that. Depending the situation they either give the answer or guide the student to find the answer for themselves.

The other piece I ask is:

Do you ever give them choices? So they can choose from different tasks in what they might be doing? Most teachers will say yes, in my career I have given choices and when I see students are struggling I help them.

Intuitive Differentiation

If we do just that we’re not being efficient. To be efficient we need to do 

Intentional Differentiation

We do intentional differentiation in the pre-planning, when we are planning instruction for lesson. 

We look at data and know where students are at. Any teacher I could ask them, think about an important lesson you are going to teach in the next 7-10 days. Picture that lesson. One you know students who are going to struggle and there are going to be students who already know the answers already. 

When they picture the student who is going to struggle and the one who knows. 

Picture those students and why don’t we plan it now? Do it today? Pause after the podcast.

List that lesson.

What are the types of struggles will you anticipate? What supports can you put in place? What enrichments or alternative assignments can you provide the students so they don’t have to regurgitate.

Once we plan it and get to teach the lessons,

The key lessons I call those Crossroad Lessons that have to make an impact

When we teach it live and you are teaching the lesson, then we go back to intuitive differentiation because even after we plan and anticipate what could be a challenge and we address those but then new challenges rise up and you address those in the moment.

Once teachers recognize they already differentiate in the classroom in the moment, then there’s no excuse for why we can’t do a better job or be effective at it, it’s not that differentiation doesn’t exist or it is some big learning piece we have to figure out. Let’s do it more effectively.

Cool! I am just picturing teaching fractions in 4th grade, kids who are struggling and kids who are ready to move on. 

Fractions is a great example and in my book I think in chapter 9 examples of what one teacher created to address fractions with her students.

Just understanding parts and functions of fractions. She created what we called a 

Tiered activity

that addresses students based upon their skill level, where you create an activity where you want all your kids to be able to succeed. Then she pictures some of her kids that she realized kids are going to struggle either with the 

  • language
  • some of the tasks

She created a 2nd version with parts and functions and fractions to address it in a different way. Using a

  • lowering reading level
  • accessible
  • leraning preferences

How we teach concepts or skills in different ways

In her activity there were 6 choices

  • 6 tasks
  • do them in a group

One task was 

  • draw a picture of 2/3 what does that looks
  • different group of kids
  • draw a picture of 1/3 + 2/3 there are different ways you can draw it
  • Definition: define what’s the top number what’s the bottom number

Questions like that, it came at the concept in different ways all the kids had to do all the tasks so even if it was approach they didn’t quite understand they did work collaboratively parts they always connected with.

That’s the great thing with that lesson she created instead of walking in with one task, because of the reading level of it.

I got this awesome group task game right before the SBAC’s last year that was like this Escape From Emoji Island that was a lot like that. It had ways for the teams to work on the project differently. They had to come up with the team leader, it worked really good because they could each work on their own part and could go at their own pace, and then when they were ready to come up they all had to come together. But they could split up the tasks so each kid could work on his own. IDK if I am explaining it well.

When you talk about kids working in groups. This gets to a great connections on how differentiated instruction supports authentic learning experiences. One area I work with is I do some work for the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

Partnership for 21st Century Learning

It’s an organization that works to promote 21st century learning skills before they graduate high school so they are more able to navigate 

college and careers

which are directions that learners will go into

  • communication
  • collaboration skills

Are skills that are very important today because they tie strongly to differentiation mixed skill levels being able to communicate effectively on challenging tasks is a way that everyone benefits.

We have to explicitly teach those skills

How do we teach those skills?

When we talk about collaboration we might ask what are good

  • collaboration skills?
  • communication skills?

For example when you are talking face to face with people? How do you know that they are listening? That’s an important skill to have. When we are interacting can we see from their body language?

Are they

  • focused on us
  • focused on something else?
  • do they ask questions

responding to what the other person is saying as opposed to just saying something that is out in left field. So those are really important. 

All skills that we teach in school require a level of differentiation we agree that all learners work and learn at different paces. What are the approaches we need to bear.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why do we even have to have specific age for kids. Shouldn’t you be where the students are comfortable or the parents. That’s kind of a different topic.

Also, I was thinking in when I was working with 2nd graders, I like to do a lot of manipulatives. I would put them in heterogenous groups where there were mixed levels there would always be one high student at each table, and we would set the timer, it was kind of a PAX game, IDK if you know the Good Behavior Game, so we would have a task at each table everyone had to complete.

Usually we were building towers or trains, learning how to add 24 +10 made 34 each kid had to make sure they had enough manips to make a tower and there were stacks of ten so they could see 10 black plus 10 red  counting by tens, that reminded me a lot of what you were talking about to. 

What about when you were first talking about it you were saying strategies that teachers, the real world practice of what we could do. I guess that was what you were talking about. Is there anything you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned.

Multi-age Classrooms

Interesting you talk about a couple of really cool things.

There are several schools that I work in that the classes are multi-age. 

When you have that, it might seem really challenging, but there are so many benefits there, there are some situations that work with here in Michigan that are branchlike





7/8 together

teachers who teaches 5/6 and 7/8

band to teach

It’s interesting how the teachers are able to move students around based on what they need. You hear conversations where they say we have this kid who is 1/2 who should be in the grade 3 environment. It’s such an amazing experiences

Montessori programs

Actually my kids went to a k-8 Montessori, my daughter started in 4th grade and I think my son started in 6th grade. 

I think that was a powerful experience because the teacher who understood the Montessori program. 

The other piece is you talked about students working in mixed skill level groups. That’s such a powerful experience as long as we teach in the process that the students know how to communicate effectively. The just know how to participate in assigned class.


teachers will put students into these experiences but they don’t spend the time for the skill set for effective communication and collaboration.

You are an experienced teacher so let me ask when groups get dysfunctional who typically has to solve the problem?

The teacher. 

When the teacher’s solving the problem they haven’t learned how to collaborate effectively. They just know how to participate in assigned tasks. They don’t know work out the problems themselves. I’ve done a lot of work around that in how we get students to become independent as a team and navigate through that.

I’m passionate about student voice and differentation is about student voice and so more we can empower students to advocate for themselves and successfully navigate how to work with other groups. That’s a support group for them. 

There are PBL schools you may have heard of the New Tech Network

organizations that do project based learning in the schools, visit a number of them and I have trained a couple of their staffs. When I visit their schools one of the non-negotiables is that students work in teams which is a great differentiation tools if done well because in teams they have each other for support.

When I ask the students what the one thing you like most about this PBL school from a traditional school that they come from?

most of them say the top answer is

I like working with my peers because I can get answers more quickly rather then wait to hear back from the teacher

When it’s done well and we teach students to work together effectively and to collaborate effectively. 

tool to differentiate

done well

teacher’s not just standing in the front managing the lessons but walking around and supporting each team based on what they need.

differentiation Once we get around  and get our skill set around

intuitive differentiation

intentional differentiation

It just opens the doors how it can apply to everything we can do. 

In my book I do address authenticity in one of my chapters and different strategies we can use as long as we hold that core baseline of intuitive and intentional differentiation.

Can you give us an example of one strategy?

For intuitive intentional differentiation or authentic learning?

For authentic learning?

We talked a bit about project based learning, and …

Authentic Learning

Do you want to explain to listeners what Project Based Learning is in case they don’t know?

Project Based Learning when done well is a unit we’re gonna teach where there is an authentic audience at the end of the unit. By the time we complete this unit we’re gonna apply these skills that we need to learn in the curriculum in a way for an authentic audience will find value what we are doing.

PBL Project Based Learning

PBL (Project Based Learning) can be daunting to a lot of groups. So there is authentic learning in lessons as well. That is where I am going. So an important strategy for authentic lessons for which differentiation can support.

Authentic Purpose/ Relevant Purposeful Learning

We need to give students an authentic purpose for why they are learning fractions.

What’s the benefit of fractions?

For example, one teacher what she did was she brought a cake into the classroom. I can’t remember must have been 4th graders and they were looking at the cake, and she was cutting the cake and to ask questions like what fraction of the cake are you cutting up?

The kids were able to actually see something they love as much as cake and look at how  they divide it up and the language that connects to that. That would be an example of authentic connection to concepts would make sense to students which we call

differentiation by interest

at the same time that is something that is real. To go deeper beyond that, what if cutting the cake was just a model lesson that we did with the students. 

The bigger idea for fractions

If they really understand fractions, what if we did a  bake sale for a cause?

We’re gonna collect donations, we could put the money towards needs at the school, but what if we do it for hunger? Or homeless shelters?

We may or may not visit the shelter, we’re gonna bring the organizers and talk to the kids. Talk to the kids before the unit, and say we’re so excited you are going to raise money for food to use for the shelter?! We’re excited to see to see what you come up with!

The kids get that, they know who they have to work with, and now the plan is they’re going to have perhaps, families are gonna bake cakes and donate and bring them in. They are going to sell, not sell the whole cakes but sell slices at 

  • lunch
  • parent teacher conferences coming up
  • curriculum night 
  • family literacy night.

So what is going to happen they’re going to practice! And the teacher is going to model this is how we cut the cake into fractions. And we know which cakes are going to provide 

  • 8 slices
  • 16 slices

developmentally appropriate for what they are working on. They work out those pieces and then as someone purchases slices they have to keep a running record of what fraction of the cake is sold so far. Now we have a reason for them to learn fractions because they have this event just like at the store you have to know how to count change that’s leftover.

I like this for 2 reasons! One when you are baking that cake how many fractions are you going to use following the recipe? My big one is pizza, I can’t even think fractions, I almost always revert to a  pizza?

But also, that’s sort of where this whole Authentic Teacher things came from is I would make these math challenges in my Facebook group, like Mr. Beyer is sending me to the store to get staples and he said 1/2″ but the staples only come in 3/8″ or 5/16″ so did I get the right one? Do I have to go back to the store? etc.

This is a great example, I think it really explains to our listeners exactly what we are talking about and why it is so important to kids this it is a – practical guide for differentiation it’s a practical guide to find relevance that they can relate to. I love the part about bringing in the people from the organization. Sorry for making you come up with that off the cuff? 

I know it’s way longer then I thought it would be.

I love these conversations. The only point of emphasis that I would say about the example I gave is that having the authentic audience be someone beyond the parents/ school.

Having that organization that the kids are going to be donating the money in their name or towards that organization is really powerful for the students.

Often when we tell students the audience is

  • themselves
  • teachers
  • parents
  • another class 

this is the game called school.  There is nothing new to them. BUT when you bring in that outside group. They don’t know these people/organization but they know that are counting on them to be successful. The students are more willing to step up for that reason.

That authenticity for that reason allows us to show how the skills they are using to the world beyond school. 

As opposed that these skills are going to help you some day, then already you’ve lost them, they’ve tuned out. That means it doesn’t apply now.


I would add, one of the articles that I wrote is how do you identify and audience. Which is essentially

  • what are your learning outcomes?
  • what do you want your students to understand?

So lets say they’ve learned the outcomes.

  • what’s an audience that could benefit?

There are perhaps three ways an audience could benefit

  • awareness
  • educate
  • advocate – to get people based upon what you have shared on to take action to participate in some way
  • to solve a problem

The example I gave you about the problem of the homeless shelter and the cakes, that’s advocacy

  • kids get done creating these cakes and
  • having kids figure out the fractions for people to buy slices
  • money can go to feed the homeless
  • getting people to purchase the cake

This is great because my tag line for the Authentic Teacher is Education for the 21st Century Learner because kids need to know how, if you have a business today you don’t hire a PR firm, you get on YouTube and make a presentation, you are going to be speaking in front of audiences and that’s the future all these kids are going into and they are going to need all these presentation skills. This is such an excellent example of how to incorporate 21st century skills. 


You mentions importance of communication for social media/future, and it’s funny you say that because I work in a school district in Texarkana. If you haven’t heard of that place before it’s a city that sits in two states

Texas and Arkansas

When you go there both sides of the city are wonderful places to go and visit and check out. There is a perception in Texarkana that the side to go to, the better side is Texas side.

I was there on my birthday, cause I wanna cupcake. There is a cupcake store next to the restaurant. I am in the bakery waiting my turn, and I go their Facebook page, because I wonder what kind of reviews they have there, and I got on yelp and its says this store did not exist. 

I’m sure you understand

I’m standing in the store with my GPS

It doesn’t say this store exists, but it does say all these stores that exist on the TEXAS side. 

I go back on the Arkansas to the project I am working on and they said, we have so many stores on the Arkansas side doesn’t get business and they right there created this massive project around social media marketing and found 6 businesses and developed a social media marketing plan and the businesses themselves got to pick the ones they want.

NICE! I think this is so important because even yesterday when I was creating my show notes for the Organic Gardener Podcast and I was using the Yoast Plugin which tells you about your SEO and it’s giving me all the errors: 

You need transition words and you have 3 cases where subheadings have more than 300 words and more then one case where 3 sentences in a row start with the same word which in my case is “I” and I think these are the skills students are going to need in the future. 

I know one thing after using the Yoast software it hardly takes me anything to fix my Show Notes because I am so used to adding a Subheading now and thinking about changing the sentence starters etc. To get the little Yoast thing to go to a green light instead of a red light so I don’t have too many words between subheadings.

I’m sorry I know I said it would only be 20 minutes. Do you want to tell listeners how to connect with you?

My website is

blog page where I have a couple links

goes to my book 

So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation John McCarthy

So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation

resources that reference my book elsewhere

You can also contact me thought Instagram and Twitter


I love responding to people, if you follow me, educators follow me, I follow them back. Thank you for inviting me to be on the podcast. 

Well, thank you and maybe you will come back a year from now and we will be celebrating 100 episodes? I’ve always found podcasting is a great way to meet my peeps and people who think like I do and already I met you! Thank you so much because I feel like we are interested in transforming education in the same way. 

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