Working with a student who is bored in math? Quickly finishing lessons? Needs something more? Here are three ways you can get started differentiating math lessons and projects.
This is the easiest, cheapest win.
Gifted students are, by definition, ready for thinking and content beyond their current grade level. Research from several different states found between 11% to 30% of students were performing at least one year beyond their current grade in math! Many of your students are ready for next year’s (and maybe the next next year’s) content.
The simplest way to differentiate is to simply move students ahead faster. If Judith is ready for the next lesson, unit, or grade’s content, then give it to her!
This is cheap (you don’t have to buy a new program or attend special professional development) and simple (no one has to plan extra, fancy lessons).
Most folks accomplish acceleration in math by having a student go to a different class just for math. Judith is in 4th grade, but ready for 5th-grade math? She can walk over to Mr. Ramirez’s 5th-grade math class and then return to 4th grade. Simple.
This gets tricky when next year’s math is at middle-school, but you teach elementary. Here’s how teachers I’ve met accomplish this:
- If you have a critical mass of students ready for next year’s math, one teacher takes those advanced students (their other students are dispersed to the other classes for math), they teach next year’s lessons, and then everyone returns to their regular class after math.
- If your middle school is close enough, students can go there for math, and then return. I know several schools for whom this works out nicely. Kids just walk across the street to the other school for an hour.
Deciding not to go the simple route of accelerating? The next possibility is to extend the grade level’s lessons. Basically, you’re going to develop more advanced versions of your current lessons and teach them to a small group you’ve identified through pre-assessment. (😓 See why acceleration is the simple route? I’m already starting to sweat!)
- 🚫 You’re never giving any students both lessons. Advanced students don’t do twice the work. They just need the extended lesson.
- 🚫 We’re not just giving harder work. We want “interesting”, not merely “challenging”.
I’ve written a whole article about how I ran multiple, differentiated math groups in my own classroom. It was indeed a lot of work!
A few resources:
- Here are some of my favorite ideas and resources that demonstrate how to get students thinking in math, rather than just doing harder calculations.
- We can also extend students’ learning through larger math projects that push students’ thinking up Bloom’s Taxonomy. These are, frankly, an enormous amount of work to create take years to dial in. I have a collection of math projects here.
- An extended math lesson might use a different model of instruction. My favorites:
So option two is to extend: stay with your typical content, but push the thinking higher.
Finally, we can enrich. This means we pull ideas in from outside of the typical curriculum. This might mean math-y art, or engineering challenges, or roller coaster design, and so on.
⚠️ Beware: Enrichment can give gifted programs a bad name. Too often I see folks take the easy way out and use enrichment as an excuse for playing games and coloring in worksheets. Enrichment should not be fluff! It must be built on high-levels of thinking.
My personal favorite way of enriching in math is to bring in authentic math curiosities that have boggled the minds of real mathematicians.
Next Step: Watch Someone At Work
Nothing will help you more than getting into another classroom for twenty minutes to see a differentiated classroom in action. I was fortunate to have a bunch of experts around me who I could observe and ask for advice.
🚫 Watch out for folks who give advice, but have never actually run multiple groups or written great math projects! I see a lot of hand waving and vague advice. Make sure you’re seeing this stuff in action. Make sure you get every step written out.