Differentiate Instruction with Learning Centers
What does "differentiated" look like in practice? Recently, I was reworking my math program to accommodate block scheduling and almost immediately faced a dilemma: What should I do for students who complete their work ahead of the pack? Assign a towering stack of word problems to keep them busy until everyone is finished?
Busywork was not the answer. Instead, I established learning centers to provide an enriching math experience for all my students. As I developed the program, I identified, mostly through trial and error, three key strategies for creating effective differentiated learning centers to extend and enrich learning.
Know your students.
- Be cognizant of the range of abilities among your students and plan activities accordingly. For example, when reinforcing estimation and measurement skills, I include hands-on activities such as having students plan a vacation by estimating travel distances on a map and calculating and measuring the actual distances using scale and proportion. I differentiate this activity by asking students to research the destination and create a brochure using appropriate software tools. Expanded further, students read about the culture of their destination and create a sample menu complete with prices of unique foods offered at their vacation destination. Students interested in becoming a travel agent or chef can present how this type of career involves math.
- Provide concrete and varied examples of acceptable work. Every student should be able to look at an activity and say to themselves, "Hey, I can do that!"
- Scaffold reading support for struggling students by providing instruction in a variety of ways—written and verbal. Work with the reading specialist if you need help.
Involve your students.
- Give students structured choices. Allow them to choose the center they want to complete first. Organize center activities based on students' expressed interest as well as their ability levels.
- Ask students to establish goals for each center. For example, students who want to learn PowerPoint may want to have a center activity that calls on them to create a PowerPoint presentation to teach a skill to or share information with classmates.
Consider time frames and assessments.
- Encourage students to monitor and assess their own time on task. Some students may be able to finish only one center activity; others may be able to finish more than one center in the time frame allowed.
- Include formative assessment tools, such as portfolios and rubrics. For example, when students learn about calculating averages, they design paper airplanes in small groups, fly the planes, and average the distances. With this activity, students create a portfolio that includes identifying basic geometric concepts, drawing and calculating area of an ideal landing strip for their planes, and self-assessing their own designs. The scoring rubric is presented before students begin the project so that they know what is expected.
- Always share the accomplishments of the students!
Establishing differentiated learning centers can be challenging. If it's early in the school year, teachers are not yet familiar with the pace at which the students work or their learning strengths and weaknesses. But well-planned learning centers developed with student input offer students an opportunity to reinforce, enrich, and enhance learning. They also help establish a strong foundation for instruction throughout the year.
Sandra Vorensky is a middle school math teacher at Edgar Middle School in Metuchen, New Jersey. E-mail SBVORENSKY@metboe.k12.nj.us