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Learn to Differentiate Instruction in Math

By Elizabeth Wistrom

How can a teacher manage instruction with so many different ability levels all in one math classroom? The answer is differentiation! Here, we will explore the idea of differentiation in education and share several methods which are easily implemented in the classroom setting.

With a typical class size of 25 students, a teacher is bound to encounter a variety of abilities - especially when it comes to math skills. Differentiating math instruction is one of the strategies teachers can use to ensure that the needs of each and every child are met in a manner which is neither time consuming nor cost prohibitive.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Education expert Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson provides the following definition:

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson "Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction."

Using the opportunities for differentiation presented by Dr. Tomlinson in her definition, we can identify a variety of strategies which may be easily incorporated into both regular and special education classes - regardless of subject area. For teachers new to the concept, however, differentiating is one of the easiest ways to get started.

Content Strategies

Content refers to the material which is actually being taught. In a classroom striving for differentiated instruction, content selection is driven specifically by the student's level of both skill and interest. For students who excel in their mathematical abilities, differentiated content can often be delivered by compacting the curriculum - or allowing the student to work through material at a quicker pace by spending less or no time on skills they already possess and more time learning new or different material. For some subjects, like mathematics, this learning can be self-paced as well as self-directed. The student conferences with the teacher when questions arise, and the teacher monitors progress through individualized assessments.

For students who struggle, and require a slower pace of instruction or repeated practice for mastery, flexible grouping offers anteacher helping students medium medium  opportunity for teachers to deliver content that is geared toward mastery of the skill. Today, most packaged curriculum programs offer alternative materials for remediation as well as enrichment which can then be used in the small group setting. The Internet also provides an unending source of material which can be used for the same reasons. While these flexible groupings are most often based on ability levels or prior knowledge, they can also be based on interest. For instance, the teacher might offer small group instruction for several children interested in learning more about the practical applications for statistics in the world of sports just as easily as providing small group instruction for several children needing a extra practice in calculating percentages.

Process Strategies

The purpose of process strategies is to differentiate the development of critical thinking skills. For math, Cognitively Guided Instructional Theory provides the perfect framework for differentiating the content and the process for the students in your classroom. As a natural by-product of the approach, students work at levels matching their academic ability through the use of story problems. For example, the teacher can begin with a very generic story problem such as:

Mary has ___ apples in her basket. She adds ___ more apples to her basket. How many apples does Mary have now in her basket?

For students at one level, the problem might look like this:

Mary has 6 apples in her basket. She adds 4 more apples to her basket. How many apples does Mary have now in her basket?

For students at another level in the classroom,. the problem might look like this:

Mary has 75 apples in her basket. She adds 124 more apples to her basket. How many apples does Mary have now in her basket?

Everyone in the classroom is working on the same, but differentiated, problem. The teacher may then use either whole group of flexible small groups instruction time to encourage a student-led discussion about solution strategies.

Products Strategies

Products strategies allow students to demonstrate what they have learned in a manner which best fits their style of learning and level of ability. Examples of activities which can be used when using differentiating in math instruction include:

  • Presenting a report
  • Creating a model
  • Identifying, replicating or extending a pattern
  • Drawing a picture
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions through discussion
  • Classifying or ordering
  • Interpreting data
  • Creating and testing a hypothesis
  • Journaling a process

While differentiating math instruction does require additional planning by the teacher, the benefits it provides are numerous. Not only do teachers gain a better understanding of the exact knowledge each child possess, they are able to improve the quality of instruction by tailoring it to target a student's specific needs.


Photo of Dr. Tomlinson courtesy of Retrieved May 6, 2010

Tomlinson, Dr. Carol Ann. What is Differentiated Instruction? Reading Rockets. Retrieved May 6, 2010.