Differentiation in Math

How to Unlock the Mystery of Differentiation in Math

alt="2 young girls sitting at a table exploring an abacus together as a representation of differentiation in math?'
In this video I am sharing the same concepts as in the blog post, but in video format for the auditory and visual learners amongst us. If you like it, please head on over to my Youtube channel to see more.

What is Differentiation in Math?

Okay, I admit it, in some ways I consider math the most difficult subject to differentiate in.  There, the truth is out.  🥵

First let’s start with what is not differentiation in math by referring to this statement by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).  Differentiating is NOT adjusting the workload assigned based on ability levels or grading differently based on perceptions of students’ capabilities. 

So what is differentiation in math?

In “How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms”, Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a respected voice in differentiation, says differentiation is, “shaking up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learned.”

Differentiation in math means shaking things up so that everyone gets the education they deserve and need. 

According to Carol Tomlinson, the ways to ‘shake things up‘ all fit under these 4 umbrellas:

Content – what the student is expected to learn and / or how the student will access to the information they need to learn it
Process – how the student interacts with or engages with the learning in order to learn
Products – how does the students demonstrate they understand the material
Learning environment – the way the classroom operates and feels to the students.

Math is essential in the development of critical thinking skills. As you give students tasks that are challenging them at their level, they learn to think critically and problem solve independently.

Carol Dweck, who pioneered the discussion on growth mindset, has also said that differentiation is an essential strategy for the development of a growth mindset in students.

Working with a classroom of students who are developing a growth mindset means you are working with a group of engaged learners who will tackle the tough stuff.

“Nuf said!!  Let’s get started. 🫶

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Differentiation in instruction changes math from being the dreaded subject to the favourite subject!

Differentiation in Math Instruction

Speaking of a growth mindset, before I get started you might want to check in on your own mindset.  Why? You ask.  As I confessed earlier I find math challenging to differentiate.  

I encourage you to take a moment to really self-assess how you are feeling about math differentiation.  It is okay if you are not fully on board.  

Totally normal, as a matter of fact. One of the challenges for differentiation is that all people, teachers included, can be resistant to change.  If this is you, just acknowledge that, maybe spend a moment and determine why you are resistant.  

If you are resistant and aware of it, you can own that and do the work to break through that resistance when things get challenging.

All good. 😉

1. Blend whole-class, group, and individual instruction.

Students often learn from each other better than from adults, and whole class instruction

supports this, small groups allow teachers to raise and lower complexity and challenge

depending on the needs of the group, and individual instructions supports a student with

their specific concern.

2. Shake things up with various instructional strategies…

Videos, number talks, whiteboards, data collection outside, reteaching using different tools, . . .

3. Differentiation in Math by Providing Choice

  • Choice boards 
  • multiple equations on the board for students to choose from
  • completing tasks in their preferred order, choosing partners for their tasks
  • even simple things like choosing the colour of their dice all create delight
  • different manipulatives to support their calculations or other work
  • different materials for providing their answer (white boards, worksheets, workbooks)

4. Differentiation in Math Requires Ongoing Formative Assessment

Use that assessment information to plan your lessons and groupings accordingly. Some types of assessment include:

  • holding up their whiteboards in response to questions on the board
  • answers in number talks
  • math journal answers
  • student discussion
  • online activities such as Splashlearn assess your students’ work.

5. Differentiation in Math Means Incorporating Student Interest

Simple things like:

  • creating a word problem for the board that includes a student’s name and interest.
  • Having a variety of manipulatives available for students to choose from such as letting them access your counting collections.
  • Are they an active group use apps like GoNoodle (free accounts are available for teachers) for movement breaks. 
  • We also incorporated movement by skip counting to calisthenics (believe it or not they loved it!)
  • Are they a social group? Use lots of games.
  • Is there an activity you know they love to do? Incorporate it regularly. My students loved to use Versatiles . By Fridays those little kiddos were done, so it was our chill day. We had two main math rotations, Versatiles, and  Splashlearn .

6. Have students create their own learning goals.

Hold students accountable for their own learning. As well as setting goals for themselves (after you have taught them how, of course), confer with them to set goals, or just make this a part of their math journal.

7. Ask each other for help – Really this is just student-led collaboration.

One of my classroom mantras is that everyone in the class is a teacher. Nothing solidifies a concept like having to teach it to someone else. With this understanding, it is fair to have gifted students help other students. 

Just don’t abuse it, and make certain you have enriched activities for the stronger students as well. 

Also, operate from the mindset that everyone has something to offer. I remember one very mischievous little boy with a kind and friendly heart repeatedly stopping mid-stride to help someone with a concern. 

These concerns usually weren’t academic, they were other concerns such as signing on to the laptop or finding something that dropped on the floor.  

Another little girl listened intently to everyone’s prayer requests, and she prayed with such sincere thoughtfulness. 
However, valuing all gifts levelled the playing field, and so those who were strong academically were not the only people offering their gifts to the class.

alt="Ripped paper back ground, 3 children working with  shapes in the bottom of the image. Text overlay reads, Differentiation in Math Classroom. Small Groups Work"

8. Small groups work.

At first glance this may look redundant with item number 1, however, this is about recognizing what a small group can look like. 

Whether you have decided to divide into daily small groups for center time, or whether it is you visiting groups when they play a game as 2, 3 or 4 students. Homogenous small groups are more time-efficient for meeting the tailored needs of each student than one on one conferencing.

9. Incorporate Technology

Many teachers think that using technology in math is automatically games, but that is not the truth.  Free apps such as The Math Learning Centre, are designed more for improving criticial thinking than to provide the type of rewards kind do. I should add, I have experimented with this app online, but I have never used it as a teacher. But it does come recommended by Edutopia.

Use wisdom with technology. Assess the quality of the app, limit time onmit, and stay on top of what the accompanying assessments tell you.

alt="crumpled paper background with eucalyptus stems in the bottom left and upper right hand corner. Text overlay says Use Technology wisely - it can enhance learning' but don't let it distract them.
Relationships are so key to everyone, and especially to kiddos still developing social emotional skills.
Technology is important as long as we are selective, recognize it is not meant to be a teacher, and monitor the use of it.

10. Appropriate Gamification is a Part of Differentiation in Math

This does, to some degree, overlap with number 9 directly above. 

But not entirely.

Not all games are digital games, but most of the research supporting games is referring to digital games. The research supports games that are high quality digital games that highlight the development of a growth mindset not just accomplishment. 

Earlier I mentioned Splashlearn (which is free, and I have used it in my classroom) and Khan Academy Kids which is free (My husband uses this in the classroom and I have used it with homeschool students.)

These are both effective options that many students find very engaging. I have even had ELL students and those with significant global delays find Splashlearn engaging and accessible. 

However, despite the lack of research I, personally,  have also found traditional, hands on board games to be very effective in building automaticity in math facts. 

Not only do these games put math into a real life context supporting the understanding of why we need to learn math, they create engagement and can develop automaticity if correctly implemented and supervised.

They also build community, and allow students to practice social emotional skills in a way that online games do not.

They’re a twofer. 👏  Or is that a threefer.  

Not quite certain.  

Research supports the use of digital games in the classroom. Although at the early primary level I prefer hands one interactive games, there is a place for digital learning as well. They support differentiation in many ways, and they create engagement. Find the digital resources offered in my store here.

So, what is differentiation in math?

Differentiation in math is an opportunity to dig in and have some real fun in your class.

Bring out the tools, play some games.

Explore numbers and dig into counting collections.

Practice social-emotional skills.

Work in small groups, even if all of your class is in the same range of academic ability (not likely), just because they are fun. And you get to know your students better.

What I am saying here is that differentiation can be approached as an overwhelming have to, or as an opportunity to have some fun.

I hope you choose to perceive it as the latter!

Next week I will be sharing multiple practical tools and resources that bring math to life.  

I hope you join me there! 

Share a strategy for differentiation that you have tried, or one that you are going to try in the comments below.

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