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Shifting your teaching to give different students what they need in order to learn: this week’s blog is on differentiation and comes from Math teacher Joanna. It was originally published on her personal blog - for more writing about her time in Zithulele, visit

Hello again, dear friends!

This post is an unashamed entry in the teacher-nerd column. I'm reflecting on some of the nitty-gritty problems of practice that I've been tackling over the past few months. Feel free to skip if your interest in education is more macroscopic!

Differentiation* in grade 6 - 9 Maths

*Not that we should be teaching differentiation to these grades at all! It's in the Grade 12 curriculum! [Adam inserts a maths-teacher-nerd joke]

** Actually, it refers to giving different students what they need in order to learn depending on their current ability level (amongst many other things).

One of the aspects of my new job is teaching Maths and English to grade 6 to 9 students. Every afternoon, after school, between 40 and 70 students walk to us from their various school campuses, which are all within a 5 km radius of headquarters. They are fed amagwinya (delicate fist-sized puffs of fried dough which retail at R2) and then pack themselves into our classroom and the community centre for an hour of Maths and an hour of English.

It is a voluntary programme, so any child who pitches up and keeps pitching up on a regular basis is welcome in our classes.

Of course, with four or five schools in our "catchment area", all of which have their own unique challenges, strengths and weaknesses, this means that we get classes of students who are staggeringly diverse in ability, and unified only by their incredible thirst for attention and learning - in that order!

The differentiation strategies which always seemed like "nice to haves" at my former model-C school in the wealthy suburbs have now taken on a certain flavour of urgency. We aren't operating anywhere close to "grade level", but even with the modified hack-'n-slash curriculum we use, the classes are crying out for effective differentiation strategies which will stretch the strongest kids, who are striking out boldly for grade appropriate content, and support the weakest kids, who are trying desperately to stay afloat amongst fairly basic computations.

Our strengths:

  • We have two to three teachers (of mixed experience, but all solid with kids and the basic computational work we're busy with) in each classroom. This leaves us with a generally favourable teacher:student ratio.

  • We have an isiXhosa speaking Maths teacher!

  • We have kids who are begging for more work, in and out of the classroom.

  • We have access to computers, printing facilities, and classrooms. We have enough writing books for all the students, as well as basic classroom supplies like a whiteboard and so on.

  • We have occasional access to offline tablets and laptops. There are enough for at least 1:2 students, but we share them amongst several programmes and subjects, so they can't be an every day solution for everyone.

  • We are flexible thinkers, and have enough financial flexiblilty to implement thrifty but reasonable solutions, if we can come up with them.

Our problems:

  • Most students have a very low general level of Maths skills.

  • Internet is too limited and expensive to be provided to all students during class, except as a special occasion.

  • Perfect attendance never happens - students have too many other responsibilities at home.

  • Students have extremely limited computer skills.

  • Students have fairly limited access to English as a medium of instruction.

  • We don't have textbooks for students.

  • Lack of pedagogical experience and deep content knowledge amongst teachers.

  • 3 - 5pm is a bad time of day for learning when you're 10!

The biggest problem of all is that our kids hate and fear mistakes. Asking questions, writing down the wrong thing, or even trying a question on their own are all major hurdles, only approached with extreme reluctance.

While our team is tackling this enormous elephant in the room in various different ways, one of the things I have been working on is creating and adapting the materials we use in class to use some of our strengths to address some of our problems. As you can imagine, this is a process fraught with many, many experiments, disasters and re-evaluations!

Nearly five months later, we've finally got into a rhythm with one particular type of material that seems to be working for us.

Levelled Exercise Cards

I'm on about my 10th iteration of these since the beginning of the year, but they do seem to be working. Each colour card represents a different level or skill within a certain topic (you're looking at the fractions, decimals and exponents sets below).

Each colour set consists of 4x5 unique question sets, all testing the same thing, on the same level, but with sufficient cosmetic differences to make them look different (at least to grade 6 - 9s!). So at a given table, each child gets what appears to be different set of questions, which largely eliminates the "knowledge sharing" in which one child actually understands, and the rest just copy so that they can get nice ticks in their books.

Once the child has finished the question set which is based on the brief 10 - 15 minute input session, she comes to one of the teachers in the classroom, who marks her work. Since all the cards are pretty much the same from a teacher's perspective, it means that it is relatively easy, even for a novice, to mark, pick up common errors, repeated mistakes and so on, which can then be addressed in the group or with individuals.

If the child got the majority of the questions right, she can go on to the next colour and harder questions. If she needs more practice, she gets a different version of the same card, or even another version of a previous, easier card - not that she necessarily knows how her next exercise has been selected!

Each child's progress through the levelled exercises appropriate to his grade is recorded on a classlist, and then at the end of the topic we have a couple of "catch up" lessons, where the students can go back and try their incomplete exercises again.

What works about this system:

  • Students have to work on their own, but they can still assist each other because they are all seeing similar types of problems.

  • Students can progress at their own pace and spend loads of time mastering foundational concepts if necessary.

  • It encourages teachers to keep "lessons" short and leave plenty of time for students to get on with their own work, because the work is worthwhile and structured.

  • Teachers mark a few key questions from each child and give immediate feedback, rather than grading millions and millions of books after the fact.

  • It is easy to keep track of who is keeping up, and who isn't.

  • Some of the levels in each topic can be used for multiple grades.

  • It is useful for novice teachers when they are preparing, as they can see what types of examples or concepts need to be addressed during the formal part of the lesson, and where those ideas will progress to in the next lesson or next grade.

  • It's cheap - the cards are sturdy enough to be reused for multiple grades and several years (I think).

  • It's low tech and works even when the electricity is down or we have to do an outside lesson for logistical reasons.

What needs work about this system:

  • It is extremely labour intensive to set up - the printing, cutting and pasting of the cards takes hours.

  • It requires quite a lot of expertise (understanding the curriculum across multiple grades, understanding of conceptual building blocks etc...) to set up, before you even get to the printing stage.

  • It relies (at least in this exact model) on having at least two teachers in the classroom, both of whom are competent to mark, spot errors, and explain misconceptions.

  • There still isn't enough time for the kids who are struggling to fully master each concept.

  • It is difficult to come up with enough at the top end to keep the top kids moving forwards.

This last problem has been partially addressed by introducing Independent Worksheets paired with a rewards chart (essentially optional homework). This is probably our next big hurdle to overcome because at the moment it is just producing an unreasonable amount of teacher labour (sigh, too many kids want to do the optional homework). We will need to rethink it in the new term, and maybe get some tech solutions involved at this end. However, I think this is definitely another blog post for another time.

Well done if you've made it this far through a distinctly teacher-nerdy post! As a reward, here is a cute lamb taking a nap in our front garden:

And to my fellow teacher-nerds out there, please do let me know if you have any suggestions, modifications or experiences to share that might contribute to the next iteration of the great differentiation experiment!

Until next time


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