Marie was the kind of pre-service teacher who believed that, in her future classroom, anything would be possible — and who made you believe it, too.

Marie was the kind of pre-service teacher who believed that, in her future classroom, anything would be possible — and who made you believe it, too. We taught Marie in a class on differentiated instruction during her last semester of coursework before she began her teaching career. The following fall, she invited us to spend some time in her school so we could watch her new classroom in action.

What we encountered during our visit was a thoughtfully developed learning environment where kids came first and learning happened through a partnership between student and teacher. At the end of that day, we eagerly asked Marie what she’d done during the first few months of school to develop the climate we’d seen. Marie’s answers serve as a guide to all educators who hope to create classrooms and schools where students take ownership of their learning — and like it that way.

What we encountered during our visit was a thoughtfully developed learning environment where kids came first and learning happened through a partnership between student and teacher.

Developing a Growth Mindset

Marie began by telling us a story about her own childhood. Although she was a successful student, her greatest fear was that her teachers and peers would discover she wasn’t smart. Marie thought of being smart as something you either were or weren’t, and there was nothing you could do about it. When given a choice for an assignment, she always selected the option on which she was most likely to get an A. On the rare occasions she didn’t do well on a task, she gave up immediately, blaming the task as badly designed or saying she hadn’t really tried.

It wasn’t until Marie got to college that she realized researcher Carol Dweck (2006) had given a name to this type of thinking: a “fixed mindset.” People with this mindset see intelligence as a static trait that can’t be changed, while those with a “growth” mindset see it as a trait that can be developed through learning as a result of effort. While those with fixed mindsets don’t believe in the potential for people to grow and therefore see mistakes as failures, those with growth mindsets view their mistakes as opportunities to improve.

As a pre-service teacher, Marie saw a connection between a teacher’s mindset and the kind of classroom environment she was likely to create. Through lots of reflection and self-talk, Marie changed her own mindset. She entered the classroom with a strong belief that a student’s present lack of particular knowledge and skills isn’t tantamount to a limited potential for learning.

At the beginning of the school year, Marie shared her own story with her students and read short selections from Dweck’s (2006) book, Mindset: The new psychology of success, to the class. She encouraged them to think about which mindset they had and the relationship between their mindsets and their attitudes towards challenges and mistakes. The class decided to outlaw the phrase, “I can’t do this,” agreeing they’d have to add the word “yet” to the end of that phrase to use it in their room. As the year went on, Marie would give students lots of opportunities to self-assess and reflect on their growth in key skills and understanding. Students recorded these reflections and stored work they felt reflected their most important growth in an Evolution of Thought Portfolio. When we visited Marie’s classroom, we heard one boy whisper to a frustrated friend working on a project, “It sounds like you’re in the grips of a fixed mindset, but you can do this.”

Marie also recognized that each of her students would enter a given lesson at many different starting points with respect to her objectives. She had equally high expectations for the growth of every student but knew her students needed different kinds of challenges and supports to grow beyond where they began. Marie used differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 2001) to maximize the capacity of each learner.

Inviting Students into a Vision

Because her class included students with varied interests, needs and ways they liked to learn, Marie’s instruction was responsive to those differences. This meant that, while virtually all students worked to meet the same learning objectives or move beyond them, they might do so through different but equally challenging versions of a task, at different paces or through different modes of expression. Since Marie knew a differentiated classroom would be new to many of her students, she introduced the idea to the class directly a few weeks into the school year, after their mindset discussion.

While there are many ways she could have done this, Marie decided to use an activity called “Graphing Me” (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010). She chose a number of skills, both academic and non-academic, and wrote them on one axis of a simple bar graph she’d drawn on the board. On the other axis, she wrote descriptors like “outstanding,” “on my way there,” and “still needs some work.” She then completed her graph for the class, explaining that while she was a fairly good cook and a great writer, she still struggled with spelling sometimes and was not a strong swimmer. Her students graphed their own skills in a similar way and then hung their graphs around the room. Everyone walked around to see what their peers had drawn.

Because her class included students with varied interests, needs and ways they liked to learn, Marie’s instruction was responsive to those differences.

This activity allowed students to see their peers more clearly. Students whom the class viewed as the ones who never struggled had areas in which they needed to grow just like everyone else. Students whom their peers saw as frequently struggling had plenty of skills that were already strong. As the students discussed what they had learned about their peers through the activity, they began encouraging each other to work on improving what they decided to call their “growth areas,” offering to provide help in their own areas of strength when the need arose during the year. Marie said this was the day her class became a community.

This activity also caused students to notice that no one had exactly the same strengths and growth areas. When Marie asked the class how she should teach them since this was the case, a student called out, “Maybe this means you can’t always teach us all the same way. If you did, how would we each grow where we needed to?” Another said, “I think we should tell you more about our other growth areas so you know how to teach us better.” As students gained experience working on tasks in ways that were different from their peers, they came to understand that fairness meant everyone getting what they needed to grow, rather than everyone getting the same thing at the same time.

Managing a Flexible Classroom

Marie’s classroom was structured enough to run smoothly but was flexible enough to make room for instruction tailored to varied student needs. This kind of flexible-structured learning environment was necessary for instruction that emphasized students making meaning of content and solving problems, rather than rote learning. Marie also saw it as an essential part of a differentiated classroom, where students are active participants in work that is inquiry-based, done independently or in small groups, or accomplished at varied paces. Although some teachers think students will only behave appropriately in highly structured settings, Marie knew behavior issues would be significantly reduced in a setting where students were not asked to do work that was consistently too hard or too easy for them and where they felt like partners in making the classroom work.

At the beginning of the year, Marie spent lots of time teaching and practicing classroom routines, including how to access materials independently. She enlisted the help of her students to be full participants in the running of the classroom, and as a result, her students saw the classroom as theirs. Every aspect of its physical set-up was designed to support learning. One corner with five desks was an independent study area for individual work, while another had several armchairs where students could spread out. Marie taught the class three different desk arrangements which supported whole-class, small group, or individual work, and the students were responsible for rearranging desks quietly and efficiently as they transitioned between tasks. “Hint cards” with reminders of how to complete tasks or processes students may have forgotten covered a bulletin board. Rather than asking Marie for help, students referenced these cards independently during individual and small group work.

As she designed learning activities, Marie proactively planned for the management challenges that might come with them. For example, when an activity called for small group work, Marie assigned students the role of noise monitor. She also gave each group a set of green, yellow and red plastic cups, asking them to display one cup as their group worked to represent working successfully, having a question but still working, or being completely stuck. This allowed Marie to monitor group progress and prioritize giving support.

The classroom we’ve described here might have been full of high school seniors, but it wasn’t. Marie taught third grade. Her student-centered classroom demonstrates the kind of environment in which students see themselves as active learners responsible for their own growth.



Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001).  How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.).  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. & Imbeau, M. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. Before joining the University of Virginia’s faculty, she served as a public school teacher for 21 years. She is the author of over 200 books, book chapters, articles and other professional development materials, including the recent book Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2013) co-authored with Tonya R. Moon.
Hilary Dack is a doctoral student in Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, where she specializes in differentiated instruction and concept-based curriculum and instruction. Before pursuing a doctoral degree, she taught middle school language arts, social studies and English as a second language. She earned a J.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and M.Ed. in gifted education from the University of Virginia.