Let's start with the when, since one of the most common concerns about differentiating instruction is the limited time that exists during a lesson to make it happen. We'll get to the how also, because differentiation strategies are not universally effective, but first we should make sure we can carve out time during the lesson to differentiate.
If we try to take time to work one-on-one with every struggling student in the class, it is likely time will run out and the lesson will not proceed as planned. Just for the record, differentiated instruction is not individualized instruction, and it should not require anyone to be a one-on-one tutor and a classroom teacher simultaneously.
Differentiating really means two things. You are collecting information and adjusting your instruction based on that information. Both of those things are physical activities that take up time and need to be incorporated into a lesson in order to differentiate.
Chances are, you have students who struggle, and students who outpace the majority of the class with ease. Both groups need your attention, or else the strugglers will fall continuously behind and the other group will get bored. The thing about math is it is many subjects in one. It is hard to justify the statement, "This student really struggles in math." What part of math? "This student really excels in math." Oh? I want to know what aspects of math are this student's true strengths. It is actully quite rare that a student struggles and/or excels in all aspects of mathematics.
I had an identified gifted 8th grader one year who could have performed well in a high school algebra II class, but when it came to geometry and geometric proofs, he fell apart. He really struggled! It took him bursting into tears out in the hallway with me one day, after I called him out on refusing to participate in a small group activity, to admit to me, "I don't do well with shapes!!" It was such a shocker, because this student exceeded expectations in almost every academic field. Yet here he was, sobbing out in the hall over internal and external angles of polygons. I had to really be a cheerleader for this student and put in extra effort for him, because I felt I had failed him. I had not collected enough information to acknowledge his self-perceived weaknesses in geometry. And here I was, taking up valuable class time to extract that little tidbit of valuable information out in the hallway.
Here's one thing I wish I had done with him that you can do with your students. Keep a class roster handy and take notes as you observe your students working. Notice I said "roster" and not "log book." A roster is just a list of students with some room to record information on to the right of each student's name. And by information I don't mean paragraphs or even sentences. I just mean information. For example, as students embark on independent or small group work, grab your roster and wander around, and when you see a student struggling with something you think they should have mastered by now, put an "S" by their name (or, say, a "B" for beginning). For students that are on task and are demonstrating intended understanding, just put a visible dot, or a check mark. For students that seem to be outpacing their peers, or are demonstrating exceptional understanding, put an "E" by their name (for "extending"). You can use as many different letters or symbols as you want, but if you keep your list handy, and do this quick 2-minute "walk-around" every day, by the end of the week you will have some pretty valuable information about who in your class might need some differentiated instruction. Be sure not to interrupt your two minutes-- or you might not have time to visit every student. If students are asking for your help, you can always say, "I'll be with you in just a few minutes, but in the meantime, have you asked a neighbor for help?"
Once you have that information, perhaps combined with other evidence, such as further observations and student work, you can begin to address the needs of the students who indicate they are consistently either outpacing or are outpaced by their peers.
Carefully managing instructional time.
It is so easy to let that hour fly by. I'm just going to bullet some common pitfalls, both from personal experience and from observation, that tend to eat up time when teaching, and inhibit differentiation.
- Mini-lessons that are not mini enough. That's right-- most Everyday Math lessons begin with not one, but two short introductions. Mental Math and the Math Message are both meant to be short exercises to help students prepare for the primary content of the lesson. It is easy, during either Mental Math or the Math Message, to find one's self going off on a tangent and drawing out these short segments into major segments. Mental math is exactly what it says it is-- mental math, and it is not really a time to make sure everybody has the correct answer and understands everything. Take note of who has it and who doesn't, but then move on. And the math message, while an opportunity to introduce a new topic, is not necessarily a time to explain the topic to the whole class. They will have time to ask each other questions and gain better understanding during the Focus of the lesson. Mini-lessons are not time for unexpected teachable moments, however tempting they may be. Which brings us to the next bullet..
- Teachable moments that could wait. Sometimes a student asks a question or shares a delightful "ah-ha" moment, and you just want to harness that thirst for knowledge and divulge into an epic and glorious discussion about the true meaning of mathematics. Sometimes, it is just inevitable, and such teachable moments can yield profound learning opportunities.. But they can also be big distractions, and can cause a rather awkward break in the intended rhythm of a mathematics lesson. Be careful not to open the door to an untimely distraction.
- Too many students taking turns demonstrating in front of the class. It feels great to have a student demonstrate for the entire class how he or she solved a problem, and that student certainly benefits from the experience. The problem is, it is very time-consuming. Sometimes, it can even be counter-effective, because the student might present in a confusing way. But one thing that almost guarantees you will lose teaching and/or learning time is when multiple students take turns presenting to the class. Keep in mind that when one student is presenting, everyone else is expected to listen and maintain attention for the duration-- which can be a major challenge for some students. If two or three students present, then the time "sitting and getting" is doubled or tripled, and chances students will "check out" multiplies also. After the first or second student has presented, the rest of the class has most likely lost interest. It is only interactive for the few students who presented. In most cases, it might be best to have a student present, ask a few others to summarize what was said, and move on to the next part of the lesson.
- General "sit-and-get" style teacher talk. Some of my middle school students used to get frustrated with me when I set them to work collaboratively to solve problems. "Why can't you just explain it to us?" they would ask. "Because that would be boring! Where is your sense of adventure?" I would say in response. I was telling the truth. I am long-winded, and when I explain stuff, it takes a while. Also, students hear only my explanation, which is stated in my own words, expressed only as I understand it. I learned this from experience; I am a boring and less effective teacher when I put my energy into explaining. And then I have wasted a good portion of my lesson only connecting with the few of my students who understand my way of thinking. The "sit-and-get" style of teaching is really the anti-differentiation way. For now, I suggest not going too far down that road for K-6 instruction.
Infusing differentiation into your lesson.
Now is when we will begin to merge the how in with the when. Really, the best answer to "when to differentiate" is... Always. Just remember that when you are collecting information (formative evaluation/ assessment), you are beginning the process of differentiating. And you are always collecting information, by simply listening to your students when they share their thinking with you, and observing them as they work together. Once you have that information, the next step is to address the learning needs of your students accordingly. Let's go back to the bullets to explore ways of doing this.
- Meet with a group of struggling or accelerated learners. During the mental math, the Focus, or the practice portions of your lesson, you can assemble a group to work with you while others work in their own groups or pairs. Practicing this with your students is important, because your entire class will need to cooperate in order for you to be able to devote attention to a group of high-needs students. It can be just a five minute activity, or it can be for a longer period of time, but the value in working with three to five students can be significant. Such groups do not need to be entirely arranged by ability, either. Maybe two of four students in your group are struggling, and two are not. That way, the strugglers are working alongside peers that can help guide them. Also, it helps to rotate a variety of students in and out of these groups, so individuals do not alienated. Mix it up and try doing it just two or three times a week, to allow students to also work with their peers in pairs and in groups without the teacher always immediately present.
- Substitute portions of the lesson with enrichment or readiness activities. Everyday Math provides some decent activities with the vast majority of its lessons (Open Response lessons do not have these, as the OR lessons are designed to be collaborative problem solving experiences for all students), that might be appropriate for your students. These enrichment and readiness activities are found on the page opposite the beginning of each lesson in your Teacher's Lesson Guide. There is also an extra practice activity.
- Extend or scaffold a math box or journal assignment. In a small group or independently, certain problems can be extended or scaffolded based on a student's demonstrated ability. Asking a student or group of students to "try this," while working might be just what that student or group of students needed to stay engaged or to grasp a concept.
- Offer extensions/ extra practice activities as optional homework or classwork. I am not a fan of assigning extra work to students who struggle or excel, but sometimes when given an opportunity to take home an extra practice assignment or an extra challenge, either in place of a regular home link/ homework assignment or on a night when no homework is assigned, students will jump at the opportunity.
- Explain your thinking! Whether a student has solved a problem early or is struggling to find a way to solve a problem, having him or her take turns sharing their thinking with a partner might be a helpful exercise. Both struggling students and consistently high-performing students can benefit from this. Struggling students can benefit from both working through their own thoughts and also listening to a partner explain his or her thinking. Students who solved the problem swiftly with ease might benefit by being forced to slow down their thinking and deconstruct their strategy in a way they are not used to, and also by listening to a partner share his or her own thinking.
- Try a 'help table' during independent work time. Leave a table vacant with three or four seats open, and a space for you (preferably where you can see most of your students). Let them know that anyone who is really having trouble can come work with you at the 'help table.' If the table fills up and a line forms, it may be time for some re-teaching or another activity to students understand relevant concepts.