The Challenge of Effective Differentiated Learning


My name is Joseph Trahan. I am a Curriculum Designer for DreamBox Learning. I know a lot of teachers and schools across the country are focused on Differentiated Instruction. Here’s a bit of my experience with differentiation, maybe you’ll find it helpful.

I taught as an algebra teacher for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. At this time, the county was moving more 8th grade students into algebra. Algebra had been a 9th grade course but we were reading reports on the benefits of 8th grade algebra. My school, along with many others in the area, segues accordingly. Of course, this would prove difficult for many students coming into the 8th grade who are not at the top of their game in mathematics at least academically.

I was asked to teach a few sections of a course called “Algebra Support”. This was a class for the edge students who we thought were just barely ready for this level of mathematics. These 20 students would take two math classes each day, algebra and algebra support. My first thought was which will be worse, asking the students that already struggle in math to take twice as much as their classmates or to be the teacher who tries to motivate this group for 90 minutes each day? I made a resolution. I was going to make this class worth my time and the students’ time.

I not only wanted these students to improve in math. I wanted them to like math. Worksheets and practice tests have never achieved this goal. For this course to be taken seriously, it had to exploratory and engaging just like our best math courses. I wanted to give these students the message that they could be leaders in mathematics and lovers of mathematics. Instead of using our time to review the math concepts that we had already covered in algebra, I took these students ahead of the curriculum. We took our time to investigate concepts to the length and depth that felt natural without the constraints of calendars and tests. I made a rule that the way I taught algebra support had to be in response to the needs of this small group of students and it had to be different from what I knew they would end up seeing in their algebra class. I usually challenge these students to create their own story problems for the class. We explore what made problems easy, what made them difficult, what made them impossible and what were the different methods to solve these problems. We encourage each other to make the most clever, most challenging or the silliest questions. What were my results? My students had a sense that this algebra support class was designed for them. This wasn’t just differentiation. We were building a community of thinkers.

I taught algebra support for the six years I worked at that school. At least three of my students rose to the top of their algebra class. And when I asked after the first semester if any of them wanted to drop their support class, all of them said they’d rather stay for the rest of the year. Many of my students said that it was the favorite class of the day. As you might guess, it became mine as well.

Joseph Trahan
Curriculum Designer
Dreambox Learning