Differentiating by Ability and Heterogeneous Grouping: Aren’t These Conflicting Terms?

Differentiating curriculum by ability and having children work in heterogeneous groupings are considered two important strategies in meeting learners where they are. I’ve always struggled with this, especially in math. Can both strategies be utilized simultaneously? A child entering second grade who is still counting on his fingers needs very different instruction from another who can use repeated addition to multiply 3-digit numbers by a single-digit number (in his head). How can you group these students so their learning is maximized?

First, I’m learning that not everything has to be differentiated, nor does every grouping need to be heterogeneous. Knowing the objectives and your students are key. Second, depending on the lesson or concepts being taught, one strategy may be better than the other. There are times, however, when you can do both.

As a culminating math activity, we adapted a unit where the second graders had to set about building a village. Reusing half-gallon milk cartons, brown paper bags, scrap paper, students created their homes, businesses. They had to create budgets in order to get supplies, work together to solving the problem of how lay out their own town quadrants based on very strict city codes. Throughout this unit, they were working in heterogeneous groups. As the unit progressed, we started to differentiate the math. While some were figuring out the area and perimeter of a piece of land 2 square units by 8 square units, others measured each square unit to find out their actual size (4″ by 4″) and found the area and perimeter of the same piece of land using square inches. 2 x 8 is quite different than 8 x 32. It was great to see one student count out the actual squares and to observe the other solve the problem by writing 64+64+64+64 vertically and begin to solve.

Not every math lesson or unit lends itself as well, but the same two children were able to work cooperatively to create and solve problems together, and yet were still given math learning opportunities that suited their learning needs. Differentiation and heterogeneous grouping are not mutually exclusive of each other, but they often seem that way. Hopefully, when I recognize those two strategies working together, I can make a few notes with the chance that I may replicate it elsewhere.

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