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Offering student choice and voice with playlist based instruction

In November of 2017, I led a workshop on using content playlists to create choice, voice and urgency for students while making it easier for teachers to meet their learners where they’re at. The session was packed, and educators and administrators of all levels of experience were there to learn about content playlists. It was humbling, but I was also surprised by how many people hadn’t heard of playlist-based instruction.

Blair Mishleau presenting at NWEA

Blair Mishleau presenting at NWEA

In essence, playlists give students choice over when, how and what they do to reach an academic objective. For example, an objective might be focused on identifying the stages of plot. In a traditional lesson, the teacher might read a short story and map out the stages of plot. Then, students would complete an example with her. Finally, the students would do an example on their own. Students have two choices: follow the teacher’s directions verbatim, or choose to misbehave. That’s not much of a choice at all.

Traditional Instruction

Thinking through this same lesson, the objective can stay the same, but the way students get there can be choice-rich, and reflect each student’s current academic needs, interests, and even how their day is going. Instead of watching the teacher explain stages of plot, students could choose from different activities that explain it (for example, a Flocabulary video, a written example that highlights the stages with annotations, a short video the teacher recorded that explains it, or a student tutor who can explain it in-person).

Then, they might have a series of tasks in their playlist that are tailored to their academic needs. These could be based on their current Lexile level, previous assessment performance, or their personal learning profile. Some assessment partners, like NWEA and iReady, also offer just-right content based on student assessment scores. These can be baked into playlists to ensure content is at student’s zone of proximal development.

Playlist-based instruction

There are some great digital tools available that make planning playlist-based instruction easy. For example, I created a Workspace-based playlist while writing my Master’s degree capstone. Hāpara Workspace enables you to link to a variety of resources, so you can easily differentiate based on student needs, or choices.

Hāpara Workspace example

Some folks may think that playlist-based instruction must be solely or mostly on computers, which luckily isn’t the case. There are some great examples of playlists that are 100% offline.

The best part of using playlists is that, by-and-large, it can be done without a large change in the teacher’s workload. Some of the activities can be reused, and the process can be done very efficiently once the teacher has grown comfortable with it. In doing so, the teacher is differentiating, giving students choice + voice, and spending more time doing what’s most important – checking in with students, leading small-group instruction, and building relationships. Not being the sole content deliverer in the room.

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