Equalizing Mathematics through Differentiated Instruction


Rigorous learning opportunities, conceptual understanding, increased fluency. These are all underlying goals for mathematics teaching and learning in the 21st century and mathematics teachers are challenged daily to meet these goals with all students, regardless of the students’ prior instructional experiences or current mathematical understandings. To meet these challenges, teachers are expected to be able to facilitate the development of all students’ mathematical content knowledge while supporting the unique learning needs of all students.

Given these learning goals and the unique students’ needs, it goes without question that we need to level the playing field for access and opportunities for success for all students. This equalization is not meant to lessen or reduce the rigor of any learning opportunity, rather it means to create ways in which all students have opportunities to meet and/or exceed learning expectations in mathematics by equalizing assessments, equalizing the classroom environment, equalizing students’ access to the mathematics, and equalizing our instruction.

Equalizing Mathematics through Differentiated InstructionOne way to reach this level of equalization is through finding ways to effectively, efficiently, and seamlessly integrate methods of differentiation into all aspects of teaching and learning. While the concept and practice of differentiation is not something new, what we will focus specifically on throughout this course is utilizing differentiation to bring about the equalization of teaching and learning mathematics for all students.

Teachers who have made the decision to use a differentiated approach in their classroom may ask, ‘how do I know I am being faithful to the model and its underlying philosophy?’ Although this is not a simple checklist that can be filled out, there are five consistent and underlying principles that should be in place:

  1. Setting up a welcoming and safe classroom environment: Understanding that all students will be doing the same things, at the same time, because everyone has unique personal, emotional and academic attributes that will dictate personal learning, while at the same time, each student feels equally valued and fairly treated.
  2. Ensuring that the curriculum is taught at the highest quality level: Curriculum must focus on the concepts, principles, big ideas, essential understandings, and questions for core disciplines that is engaging, challenging, standards-based and authentic (Tomlinson, 2005, Erickson, 2002, and Wiggins & McTighe, 2001, 2005). The heart of a high-quality curriculum within a differentiated classroom will focus on lesson planning around what students need to know, understand, and be able to do as a result of their learning experiences rather than in isolation (ASCD, 2007). To accomplish this, the alignment of State Standards and Common Core Standards (CCS) must align directly with curriculum lessons and associated assessments to ensure the curriculum is taught at the highest quality level.
  3. Ongoing assessments for readiness, interest, and learning profile: Once teachers have identified what students should know, understand, and be able to do, teachers are ready to make their plans for instruction. Some students will be ready with minimal support, whereas other students may need a lot of structure and scaffolding due to gaps in their background or learning differences. Pre-assessments will then become a vital tool to be utilized. Once a unit of study has begun, some students may advance quickly, while others may have varying levels of competency in knowledge, understanding, and skills throughout the learning process. Thus, the importance of formal and informal assessment of student reading, interest, and learning styles will become critical for student success (ASCD, 2007).
  4. Designing respectful differentiated activities: Each activity must be engaging and appropriately challenging for the students. The goal is to make each task exciting and appealing than the student’ won’t care what other students are doing! (ASCD, 2007). Activities are equally respectful and should lead students toward common learning goals. For instance, it is not respectful to “award advanced students with more work; differentiation is called for, not more of the same.” (ASCD, 2007, p. 16). It is also not respectful to “relegate struggling learners to a steady drill and practice”, and instead, varied activities differentiated so every child is challenged! (ASCD, 2007, p. 16). (Download attachment below for more information regarding Respectful Tasks.)
  5. Practicing flexible grouping: Flexible grouping refers to classroom practices that ensure that over time, students will experience a wide range of differentiation option and grouping configurations. It does NOT mean students will always work in groups OR that students will always work in the SAME group when they do. “Sometimes students will work in groups assigned to their readiness level, sometimes, their interest, and other times, according to their own personal learning styles.” (ASCD, 2007, p. 18).

Teach & Kids Learn (TKL) offers a course titled “Equalizing Mathematics through Differentiated Instruction, Grades K-12“.

The focus of this course is intended to provide specific strategies, techniques, and resources for teachers to effectively differentiate instruction to equalize the mathematics teaching and learning in their classroom, thus supporting mathematics achievement for all.