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Differentiating Math Instruction Through Tiered Lessons

Gifted Education and Support

In response to the movement toward inclusion in classrooms, Rebecca Pierce and Cheryll Adams from Ball State University outlined how teachers can reach all the students in their classrooms: when they are academically diverse; have special needs; are ESL learners; or, have some combination of any or all of these factors.

Differentiation is an organized, yet flexible way of proactively adjusting teaching and learning to meet students where they are and help all students achieve maximum growth as learners (Tomlinson, 1999). Instruction may be differentiated in content/input, process/sense-making, or product/output according to the students’ readiness, interest, or learning style. Content refers to the material that is being presented. Process activities help students practice or make sense out of the content, while product refers to the outcome of the lesson or unit, such as a test, project, or paper. Readiness refers to prior knowledge and a student’s current skill and proficiency with the material presented in the lesson.

The article provides two critical rules that thwart chaos and preserve sanity. The first is “Use six-inch voices,” meaning that students should modulate their speaking level so that their voices can only be heard six inches away. The second rule is “Ask three before me.” If students need assistance completing a task or come to a stumbling block in a lesson and you are not available, they should find three other students to ask before they may interrupt you. If their three peers cannot answer the question, the student has permission to interrupt you. Anchoring or “sponge” activities are provided for students to use when they are waiting for you to assist them before they can go any further or at the beginning of the class period to get them ready to work.

Tiered Lessons
A tiered lesson is a differentiation strategy that addresses a particular standard, key concept, and generalization, but allows several pathways for students to arrive at an understanding of these components based on their interests, readiness, or learning profiles. When developing a tiered lesson, the following eight steps have been provided:

  1. Identify the grade level and subject for which you will write the lesson.
  2. Identify the standard (national, state, district, etc.) you are targeting. A common mistake for those just beginning to tier is to develop three great activities and then try to force-fit them into a tiered lesson.
  3. Identify the key concept and generalization. The key concept follows from the standard. Ask yourself, “What big idea am I targeting?” The generalization follows from the concept chosen. Ask, “What do I want the students to know at the end of the lesson, regardless of their placement in the tiers?”
  4. Be sure students have the background necessary to be successful in the lesson. What scaffolding is necessary? What must you have already covered or what must the student have already learned? Are there other skills that must be taught first?
  5. Determine in which part of the lesson (content, process, product) you will tier. You may choose to tier the content (what you want the students to learn), the process (the way students make sense out of the content), or the product (the outcome at the end of a lesson, lesson set, or unit—often a project).
  6. Determine the type of tiering you will do: readiness, interest, or learning profile. Readiness is based on the ability levels of the students. Giving a pretest is a good way to assess readiness. Students’ interest in a topic is generally gauged through an interest survey, while the learning profile may be determined through various learning style inventories.
  7. Based on your choices above, determine how many tiers you will need and develop the lesson. When tiering according to readiness, you may have three tiers: below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level. If you choose to tier in interest or learning profile, you may control the number of tiers by limiting choices or using only a few different learning styles. Differentiation means doing something different—qualitatively different. Make sure you keep this in mind when tiering the lessons. Second, be sure that students are doing challenging, respectful, and developmentally appropriate work within each tier. In other words, no group should be given “busywork.”
  8. Finally, develop the assessment component to the lesson. The assessment can be formative, summative, or a combination of both. You may use some means of recording observations of the various groups, such as flip cards or sticky notes. You could develop a rubric for each tier based on the particular product that is created. You may give a formal paper-and-pencil test. Whatever it is, choose your assessment based on your needs and your lesson design.

Time, energy, and patience are required to learn to differentiate instruction effectively in an academically diverse classroom (especially during these challenging times throughout the ongoing pandemic!). In addition, you need administrative and peer support, as well as professional development over extended periods of time.

For more information on tiering, contact the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development, Ball State University (BSU).


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