The role of Ponyboy Curtis will by played by the Mathematics Department Head.

“English teachers differentiate all the time. Why don’t math teachers?”

I’ve heard this more than once. It irks me for a couple of reasons.

First, I’m not convinced that most English teachers do differentiate. After all, students still read The Outsiders in English 8. I read The Outsiders in English 8. The year was 1987. Do the math. Twenty. Five. Years. Are we to believe that this same group of educators have been too busy in the last quarter of a century meeting the diverse needs of all of their learners to find time to pick a different novel? During this time, Tom Cruise, who starred in the movie adaptation, found time to get married and divorced– three times! Google outsiders essay. Three million five hundred ninety thousand results. I’m  just sayin’.

Second, if differentiated instruction is more common in English class than it is in math class, it may be because it is easier. Some teachers of English 8 may simply assign an alternate book to read based on reading level. What can teachers of Math 8 simply do?

I’ve seen samples of those Outsiders essays. I’m no English teacher, but some of them wouldn’t look out of place in a Grade 3 classroom. Others could easily have been written by a first-year university student. In fact, Google search results suggest that maybe they were.

The Greasers’ reaction to “No WiFi”

In English Language Arts, from Grade 1 to 12, students brainstorm, draft, revise, edit, and publish. In short, they write. What is the equivalent in Mathematics?¹ Complete this sentence: In Mathematics, from Kindergarten to Calculus, students…

It’s not so easy, is it? Two-thirds of the Three Rs can be verbs. English gets to read and to write. Math gets a noun. Differentiating narrow nouns–numbers to 10 000 in Grade 4, integers in Grade 8, logarithms in Grade 12–is difficult. What verb could math teachers have?

The answer, I think, is to problem-solve. The BC mathematics curriculum document supports this: “Learning through problem-solving should be the focus of mathematics at all grade levels.” However, school mathematics is often taught in such a way that students do not encounter problem-solving on a regular basis. Sadly, to practice might be more accurate of students’ math classroom experiences. This is not mathematics.

Yeah, but it’s a nice bus.

Regardless of how or if English teachers differentiate, one size fits all math instruction is not acceptable. I am in no way letting my fellow math teachers off the hook. I am, however, suggesting that questions like “Why don’t math teachers differentiate like English teachers?” are not accurate or helpful. We’re not so different after all.

Pushback, as always, is welcome but must be expressed in the form of a five-paragraph essay.

Stay gold.

¹ I’m having a “Scrambled Eggs” moment. If you believe I have plagiarized this part, won’t you please, please help me?

7 Replies to “The role of Ponyboy Curtis will by played by the Mathematics Department Head.”

  1. Hi Chris,

    Never you see you in the office anymore, so thought that I would put in my 2¢ here …

    Agree with everything you’ve said but would like to ‘push’ with the notion of “practice”. Are we actually practicing when we assign the same types of questions over and over again hoping that our students will recognize the procedural solution in very possible scenario? or … are we actually drilling then?

    Recently viewed a clip with Van de Walle distinguishing “practice” from “drill”. Practice = using the “thinking” in a variety of scenarios to resolve the “problem”, allowing students to use strategies they have derived themselves. Drill = doing the same “teacher telling how” procedure over and over and over again in the assigned questions.

    Semantics??? I don’t think so …. maybe when we distinguish between the two we’ll be able to differentiate our instruction … everyone recognizes that we need to “repeat” the thinking that goes on with the activities = practice; “repeating” actions through rote memorization = drill.

    Does this essay work :o)

  2. Thanks for commenting Selina. Maybe I’ll see you in the office after my WDTK World Tour comes to an end? I like using the term meaningful practice. It acknowledges the need for what you/Van de Walle call practice and implies that there are other forms of practice that are not meaningful (i.e., drill). Full marks for your ideas, but I count only three paragraphs in your five-paragraph essay.

  3. “In mathematics, from Kindergarten to Calculus students…” compute. Which is sad. What if we made the unifying verb for the math classroom something like, “explain”, or “argue”, or “write”. That seems to be much closer to what grown-up mathematicians actually do, and it reveals a deeper unity that connects math and the humanities.

  4. It’s true, differentiation’s a breeze for us English teachers!…. especially when you have a pillar of five-paragraph essays (still to be graded! gathering dust and irrelevance) gently subsiding into a box formerly occupied by a class set of Lord of the Flies your students have been reading at a glacial pace since October. That’s when differentiation comes to the rescue in the form of the diorama, poster, skit, or coolest still, the rap, as a means of assessing the students’ abilities to discern and communicate the darkness at the heart of humanity…. No matter that no-one in his or her right mind would respond to finishing reading a novel by willingly constructing a representation of the central conflict and the main characters out of pipe-cleaners, toilet roll tubes and uncooked pasta.
    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put the finishing touches on my differentiated poetry project: rewrite Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est in a) Pig Latin b) Swedish chef c) Gangsta! d) Don Cherry. Ask special permission to render the poem in the form of a cake ( nut and gluten-free please!)

    In the interests of frank and open disclosure, I should make it clear that I have inflicted much, much worse on students in the past

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