In our continuing series of blog posts on creating math centers in the classroom, I began thinking about the idea of differentiated instruction in a center-based classroom. Differentiated instruction as explained by Carol Ann Tomlinson is “adjusting lessons for students’ based on factors such as individual learning styles and levels of readiness” (1). In other words, differentiated instruction is an approach that may help adapt instruction to the mathematics of students.
When differentiating instruction I wondered what are the determining factors in distinguish for specific students, how do I know the types of differentiation that are the best fit for students, and how do I present concepts with rigor to students whose levels of readiness are low or high? Using centers in the classroom can help with these questions by allowing for the design of lessons based on a students’ prior knowledge and a students’ level of readiness.
One of the suggested ways of differentiating within a classroom is to differentiate the content students receive. Currently, for many classes, the content taught is prescribed by standards and pacing guides that are determined by the school district and state educational standards. Standards and pacing guides lead to educating all students the same content precisely the same way. However, wouldn’t think some students may be unfamiliar or unprepared for the concepts in a lesson, some may have partial understanding in advance, and some may already be familiar with the content before the lesson even begins. Doesn’t this mean this discrepancy could create a system where students do not receive instruction that is beneficial to their education?
Since we can never honestly know what is precisely happening in another person’s head, we can only infer what a child may be thinking when working through mathematical situations. However, with experiences from working with many children, couldn’t a teacher build models of what they believe their student’s thinking is during these situations? Our understanding of a child’s development of number along with models of the students’ mathematics could allow differentiated instruction based on the child’s knowledge while presenting additive, subtractive, multiplicative and fractional situations.
Looking at first grade Common Core Standards in Mathematics children are to add and subtract within 20, demonstrating fluency for addition and subtraction within 10 (1.OA.C.6), use addition and subtraction within 20 to solve word problems (1.OA.A.1), and add within 100, including adding a two-digit number and a one-digit number, and adding a two-digit number and a multiple of 10 (1.NBT.C.4). When designing centers to address such standards, it is essential that the underlying structures remain constant. The teacher can make adjustments to the specific content, based on the students’ mathematics. These adjustments may include granting or limiting access or to concrete material available for student use, adjusting the values of the numbers presented in the situations, and purposefully posing suggestions and questions all based on the student’s mathematics. The adjustments allow the planning of a center that is designed for all students while differentiating for a wide variety of levels in student thinking. Next week we will present examples of how a teacher can do this.
(1) Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.