How to Have Students Self - Differentiate
Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if you could just have your students self-differentiate? By this point, they tend to know when they are stuck and having trouble with a particular type of problem or if they are ready and feel prepared for each next assessment or not. Here’s the simple strategy that has helped my students in middle and high school differentiate by location on their own in a lesson.
Even when your math classes are grouped based on students’ ability, you’re still going to have varying abilities within each class. You still have to reach all of them. This method arose naturally out of necessity in my own classroom, but was such a great shift for us. I hope it helps you to differentiate following direct instruction too.
After you teach a lesson, you can think of your students in 3 different categories of understanding: Green, Yellow, and Red.
The Green students understand today’s lesson quickly and do not need further examples or modeling. Everything made sense to them, and at the moment, they need no further support from you.
There are always the in-between students. These are the students who still have a question or need one or two more examples. Once they get a little bit more support, they will feel confident fairly quickly.
These students would like more support, additional examples and modeling from you, the teacher. They need more support before they’re ever going to be able to approach a problem on their own.
Once you teach the “meat” of the lesson and go over a few examples, instead of asking, “Ok, do we all get it?, I say to the class, “Those who do understand this and you’re ready to go practice on your own, move to the back of the room. Those who still want to do the next few examples with me, you stay here, and feel free to come move up to the front.”
So, then I have everyone who needs my direct attention right with me. Those who don’t need my help at the moment are towards the back working quietly. These are the kids who normally had been sitting there thinking “ok, we GET it! Can we just go start our homework now?” Let them do just that, and later on, when the students in the front are ready to finally work independently, you can head to the back group to level up the differentiation for them. You can offer them some more challenging problems to try with you or in pairs, and they will be more ready to tackle those now that they have had a few moments to start their homework and feel like they have gotten ahead.
Once you allow for the initial split after giving notes or lecture, the groups are then fluid. Maybe after a few problems a few of the ones who are up in front getting guidance will start to feel more confident, and will be ready to quietly move to the back of the room to join the group that is getting started on practice problems independently.
Essentially, what you are changing is this:
Instead of transitioning the whole class from notes to practice time, allow each student to SELF-TRANSITION individually once they feel ready.
How to Make It Work
The kids love having the autonomy to make this decision for themselves. Given the option to choose, they almost always choose what I would have chosen for them. When they make the decision themselves, they feel proud of it.
Like any differentiating strategy, you need to have a strong, encouraging classroom culture. You need support and understanding that different kids are going to be doing different things at different times because they all have different needs. And that’s okay.
You have to change it up. Sometimes, maybe the group in the back is doing a card sort as an extension or challenge. Sometimes, they’re doing the exact same work. You don’t want them to expect that they’re always going to get their homework done sooner, etc. You have to have some variety. Sometimes I bring the front group up to the board to solve the problems right alongside me on the whiteboard together.
Most importantly, you need to keep things fluid. You don’t want kids to feel like they’re stuck in the same group from day to day, or even throughout one period. They need to be able to decide where they need to be at any given time. One lesson may be trickier, and all students need to feel comfortable lingering at the front listening for as long as they need to. Other days, someone who normally has to stay up front for additional examples may just have things “click,” and will want to head to the back in the very first group that is released to go work quietly.
This is just a small idea but it can have a big impact on your class and their learning.
If the video on this strategy is helpful for you, and you'd like more ideas from Math Giraffe, along with a free toolkit of resources to try in your own classroom, make sure you are receiving my emails here.
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