Monday, March 27, 2017

To Each According To His Need

   One class.  Three groups.  Three different classwork assignments.

This group gets two questions.

This group gets three questions.

This group gets five plus a challenge.

Here's what I'm wondering:
  • Is this differentiation?
  • What does it mean to differentiate?
  • As a general rule, is it bad practice to put kids in ability-based groups or give them ability-based assignments?
  • Are there situations where ability-based groups or assignments are appropriate?

     I believe there are times when an ability-based skills group is appropriate.  If there are five students in the class having difficulty multiplying multi-digit numbers, collecting them in one place for some further instruction makes sense to me, at least more sense than going back over the skill with the entire class.  Homework assignments might also look different for different students.  Those same five students shouldn't be working on a page of multi-digit multiplication problems at home until the skill is secure.
     In the above example, the three worksheets certainly are different, but I believe there's a better way to achieve a differentiation objective.  Here's my suggestion:

1.  Start everyone off on equal footing with just the table and a notice and wonder prompt.  This will provide time for everyone to take a breath and process the information.

What do you notice?  What are you wondering?

2.  Have students write their own questions.  Stealing vocabulary from our ILA teachers, we can ask the kids to come up with both thin questions and thick questions.  Or, from Vacca's work on Question-Answer Relationships, questions that are right there and think-and-search.

This was from a different prompt, but you get the idea.  And here's a catch: you have to be able to solve the questions you write!  

3.  Post an assortment of questions.  Let the kids decide which ones they want to solve.  But be sure to vet them first!

Again, these questions were generated from a different prompt.  They vary in difficulty.

    This model has many benefits.  For one thing, it eliminates the stigma of being in the group that got only two questions.  It also transfers ownership of the question-asking from the teacher (or teacher's manual) to the students.  Of course you can learn a lot about students from the way they solve problems, but you can also learn a lot about them from the questions they write as well as from the questions they elect to solve.  Will a bright student take the easy way out?  Will a struggler try to punch above his weight?  Yes, and these choices are very telling.
     The reality is that students in any given classroom will have a wide range of abilities and needs.  We want to preserve a sense of whole class community, and we also want to make sure each individual student is receiving what they need and working at tasks that engage them in an appropriate productive struggle.  It's a very difficult balance to maintain.  Enlisting the help of our students may make it just a little easier.


  1. Another great idea! Giving students choice is so powerful.

    What do you do when you have students who show proficiency before the lesson or unit? Those who have conceptual and procedural understanding?

    1. Thanks Laura. You ask a great question. I like how you've separated proficiency and conceptual and procedural understanding, because some students know how to follow rules and procedures their parents (or others) have taught them but have no understanding why those rules and procedures actually work. They show well, but poke them a little and it all falls apart. So before letting them off the hook we need to really know what they know. That said, our curriculum (Everyday Math) does have great ideas for enrichment activities, tasks and projects that are tied to the unit. So I encourage our teachers to stop there first when looking for ways to engage those "high fliers." I also like to shop at Open Middle and the Georgia Math Frameworks. But it's important to remember that those kids can't just be left to their own devices while we work with the others on grade-level material. It's important to check in with them, and then also provide as many opportunities for whole class experiences (3-act tasks, estimation180, counting circles, number talks, etc) as possible.

  2. Thank you for responding. I'm a huge fan of all of the above. 😊