Is Differentiating Math Instruction Really that Scary?

Differentiation. There I said it. It’s a popular word in education these days. “Are you differentiating to meet the needs of all your learners?” “How are you differentiating for this student?” “Did you differentiate this lesson?”

If you’ve been hiding from the differentiation police… then today’s the day that we demystify differentiation.

Differentiation is the act of creating custom learning experiences for your varied learners. This sounds like a big job! It also sounds like a lot of work, and it can be, but it doesn’t always have to be. Differentiation doesn’t have to mean 4 different lesson plans, 8 different handouts, and 5 different exit tickets. It doesn’t have to mean hours of prep work or grading. It just means that some kids are getting slightly different work.

Think of your students who never finish the classwork. Those who often get 50% of the problems wrong. Those who don’t know where to start.

Think of your students who always finish early. Those who never get a grade below 99%. Those who are finished almost before you hand out all the assignments and leave you wondering “now what am I going to have you do?”

These are the students you’re differentiating for, and it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Let’s say you’re working on a lesson where you’re teaching solving multi-step equations. You’re going to do a few examples on the board, and then release the class to work on a problem set of 14 questions (textbook, worksheet, doesn’t matter).

You know there are 3 students in the room who never fully grasped solving 2 step equations – and you wonder how they will ever access this work? The answer is: differentiation. Their set of problems should be modified just a little bit. They should start with a few 1 and 2 step equations, just to try to clarify whatever they’re missing there, and then move on to a portion of the work the rest of the class is doing.

Ask those 3 students to sit together at a separate table. They will all work on the same differentiated task. Encourage them to use their notes, or an anchor chart, or an exemplar you provide them to help get them started.

An exemplar answer will help struggling students to get started. Including an exemplar on worksheets, or in the form of an anchor chart in the classroom is a great way to help kids help themselves.

Ideally, their work would be self-checking so that they know they’re on the right track. You can do this with activities like riddles, crossword puzzles, color matching activities, mazes, etc. Alternatively, you can place a copy of the answer key in a folder in the middle of the table so they can check their work when they’re done.

Riddles make a great self-checking activity that builds confidence! As students answer the problems, their solutions spell the answer to the riddle, confirming that their answers are correct.

You’ll want to start with this group. Sit with them and get them started, ensure they are on the right track before you circulate to other groups. Check in with them frequently; ensure that you come back when they move on to the multi step problems.

Meanwhile, your “on-track” students will be working on the set of multi-step problems you planned for today. However, there are 5 students in this group who always finish early and need enrichment work. For these 5 students, you can add additional problems to their practice set. They can do the same problems as the rest of the class, but an additional 6 challenge problems can be added to the end of their problem set. Perhaps these problems are multi-step problems with fractions, or parenthesis and combining like terms on both sides of the equal sign. Perhaps word problems where they have to write the multi step equation and solve it.

Again, these “early finishers” can form their own group; they will have each other to check in with if they get stuck. Again, they can have self-checking work, or an answer key in a folder in the center of the table.

While this sounds like a lot of work, it doesn’t have to be. Let’s say you have a worksheet that you intend to use. You can easily modify that worksheet using the snip tool on your computer. (Some call it a screen grab, or screen capture. Whatever it’s called on your computer, use it! It’s a teacher’s best friend 🙂 Snip the problems for differentiation and add them to the worksheet. You can snip problems from the internet, or from a digital copy of your text book, and insert them into the worksheet. You can size and arrange them to cover up the problems that you don’t want your lower group to do. Or add them to the end of the worksheet (or another page) for your extension work.

If you’re using a textbook, you can differentiate by assigning different problems. Let’s say you want the class to complete page 137, numbers 1-14. Type that on a piece of paper and hand it out to the groups that are doing that. For the group that needs remediation, their instructions might say: page 132, #2-4, page 134, #6 & 7 and page 137, number 1-6. Again, type and print those instructions and hand it out the respective groups. The same goes for the extension group; their instructions might say: page 137, #1-14 and page 138, numbers 18, 22 and 26.

Neither of these strategies take a terribly long time to implement, and both give students individualized work that meets their needs.

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You can find self checking activities such as riddles, color matching activities, mazes, matching activities and more at my TPT store! Math Lab Classroom

You can also find worksheets with exemplars at Math Lab Classroom.

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