Differentiating Instruction Through Multiple Approaches

Program Standard 3

3. Differentiation – The teacher acquires and uses specific knowledge about students’ cultural, individual intellectual and social development and uses that knowledge to adjust their practice by employing strategies that advance student learning.

3.3 Element – Demonstrating Flexibility and Responsiveness in Persisting to Support Students

3.3 Example of Proficient – Teacher persists in seeking approaches for students who have difficulty learning, drawing on a broad repertoire of strategies.

Boaler (2016) emphasizes, “The new evidence from brain research tells us that everyone, with the right teaching and messages, can be successful in math, and everyone can achieve at the highest levels in school” (p. 4). During my coursework at Seattle Pacific University, I read the book Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler and it opened my mind and changed my approach to math both as a learner and as an instructor. I used to assume that if I didn’t understand a math concept in the way it was being taught that I was incapable of learning it. Reading this book helped me see that each learner just needs to find the approach that makes sense to them. This book helped me develop confidence in my own math practice and to see how important it is to engender persistence and self-assurance in students. In order to be successful at math, learners need to explore multiple approaches to the same concept and determine which one works best for them. As educators, it is our responsibility to present students with multiple strategies for solving a problem and the growth mindset messages to encourage them to explore, make mistakes, and find their own path to mastering different skills.

During my coursework at SPU, differentiation came up frequently and I always pictured it taking form in the classroom through small group instruction or small group stations. While small group instruction is an integral part of differentiated instruction, it also requires multiple other strategies to be fully realized. What I have come to understand during student teaching is that providing differentiated instruction requires a multi-tiered approach that starts with how whole group instruction is presented. During my student teaching experience, I taught a group of 4th-grade students for math instruction. When the class got to the unit on multi-digit multiplication, many of the students were struggling to understand the concept. The curriculum had students first learning the partial products method, then the standard algorithm method, and finally the area model method. After the first day of instruction in this sequence, I could tell that the majority of students were not understanding the concept. During the second day of instruction on multi-digit multiplication, I not only introduced the two remaining methods but also drew connections between each method of solving the problem. This allowed students to see that each different way of solving a problem was actually doing the same function. At the end of class that day, the students engaged in a discussion about the different methods for solving multi-digit multiplication and were prompted to self-reflect and determine which one made the most sense to them.

After all three strategies were presented and students had the opportunity to reflect on the strategy that worked best for them, student learning gained momentum. I remember one student in particular who was struggling with multi-digit multiplication after the first day of instruction, but she lit up after the area model method was introduced. I sat with her the previous day and went over how to find all the equations for the partial products method but it was just not working for her. No matter how many different ways I explained this method, it did not make sense to her. However, after the area model method was introduced, I sat with her again and she was able to independently solve equations. This experience in the classroom helped me more fully understand how differentiated instruction starts with a foundation of providing students with multiple strategies for approaching concepts. Then once students have the tools that they need, small group instruction can be used to further scaffold and evaluate student learning. Jo Boaler (2016) asserts, “This is the time when it is most critical that teachers and parents introduce mathematics as a flexible conceptual subject that is all about thinking and sense making” (p. 35). Providing students with multiple approaches and encouraging them to reflect on their own learning, helps students understand that mastery of math concepts is an individual journey that each learner needs to take. I can continue to elevate my practice by integrating self-reflection as a daily practice in math class. This routine will help students to take control of their own learning and figure what works for them.