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The Challenge of Effective Differentiated Learning

One question we often get at DreamBox is: “How does DreamBox determine the most important lesson to teach next for a specific student?”  This question is a natural one, given that the personalized learning power of DreamBox is that we present every student with multiple lessons within his or her “just right” level of achievable challenge.

This question also stems from the realistic challenges of differentiating instruction in the classroom.  As Tomlinson and Imbeau note, differentiation requires that “Teachers should continually ask, ‘What does this student need at this moment in order to be able to progress with this key content, and what do I need to do to make that happen?’”  In reality, there is not enough time or energy for a teacher to teach, assess, analyze, plan and adjust for every single student every single day.  DreamBox is designed to help, but we also need to recognize that learning isn’t a linear process.

There’s no single answer. In the classroom or on DreamBox, there is rarely – if ever – a single most important next lesson for an individual student.  In fact, developing fluency and conceptual understanding are strengthened when students are simultaneously engaging with mathematical ideas across multiple contexts.  Many elementary mathematical concepts are related, as seen in the Common Core Domains and Clusters or in Cathy Fosnot’s Landscapes of Learning.  Because there’s no one “most important” next lesson for an individual student, there’s also no specific “perfect next lesson” for a whole classroom of students.  Part of the challenge of a differentiated classroom is deciding what needs to happen in class tomorrow, and there are too many influences and variables that limit the flexibility a teacher needs in order to truly differentiate for students.

Choice and coherent connections. To enable and empower differentiated learning, DreamBox’s Intelligent Adaptive Learning™ engine provides students with a few possible choices for what they should learn next.  These options provide each student with some element of choice, while also ensuring every student encounters consistent learning progressions and sees lessons that are coherently connected.

Here’s an example: It’s possible that a 1st grader could be working on place value ideas at a 2nd grade level but gets temporarily ‘stuck’ because the lessons are beyond her level of achievable challenge.  In DreamBox, she doesn’t just stop her progress entirely; she has other lessons to choose from that DreamBox is recommending.  These other lessons might be focused on early multiplication and skip counting or addition and subtraction.  By completing these lessons, she is likely to experience greater success when she returns to the place value lessons because she has developed a better understanding of the multiplicative and additive structures that inform place value.

Raising achievement for all students. This example is just one way that DreamBox presents students with multiple lesson options that teach coherently related concepts and are offered to students in consistent learning progressions. Our interactive tools are built from the ground up so that DreamBox teachers can write lessons that adapt based on students’ intuitive solution strategies.  Therefore we’re able to uniquely differentiate based on what each student is thinking and trying out.  This type of differentiation and engagement ensures students are learning lessons that are “just right” for them.  We provide usable data and reporting for teachers to inform their differentiation in the classroom because we are partners in helping raise achievement for all students.

Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom
by C.A. Tomlinson & M.B. Imbeau, ASCD, © 2010, pp. 13-14

Tim Hudson