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6 Ways to use Math Centers to Differentiate Instruction

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If you are familiar with education, schools, or teachers, you have probably heard of stations, centers, or rotations. No matter what you call them, the idea of breaking up a large group of students into smaller groups is not new. The idea of centers and rotations come from the need for structure in classrooms with expanding class sizes and fewer adults in the room. Centers also provide teachers with a wonderful opportunity to differentiate instruction as they work with different groups of students throughout the day.

I simply don’t know how teachers were able to teach all the various levels of students they had before centers came on the scene. The ability to group students, work with small groups, and have them independently reinforcing their skills at other centers is amazing! If you aren’t utilizing centers for mathematics already, what is holding you back?

Mathematics is the perfect fit for centers or rotations because it allows teachers to work in small-groups without neglecting the other students in the room. Smaller group sizes mean a better chance to differentiate or individualize teaching to best fit that groups learning style. You might be wondering what differentiated mathematics centers can look like besides self-directed worksheets, but don’t worry! Whether you are new at using centers or a seasoned pro, you will find something you can use immediately in this list of 6 Ways to use Math Centers to Differentiate Instruction!

Strategically Group Students

Start things off the right way by grouping students in meaningful, purposeful ways. This is definitely THE most important part of creating a successful center rotation experience! Students do best when placed with other students around the same ability level, if not a bit higher or lower.

It is best not to pair students who are at opposite ends of the skill/knowledge spectrum. While it might make sense that students who are further along in their skill development could help students who are not, resist the urge. The toll this type of grouping can take on classroom culture is not worth the risk. Think about grouping first, and you will thank yourself later!

Click here to read how I group students for math instruction.

Plan for Hands-On Learning

As you plan for your centers, plan on them being hands-on. In other words, get the students doing something. Just sitting and filling out a worksheet may not be the best option for centers. Working with story problems is my favorite way to accomplish this. Whatever the story is mentioning, I try to have it at the center. Items like apples, gum, baskets may show up, for example. You would be amazed at how much more students retain when using their hands-on physical objects!

I love using number puzzles in centers because they are so hands-on!

Include Manipulatives in Centers

As mentioned above, the best way to cement an idea in a student’s head is to make it hands-on. There are tons of cards, flipbooks, dice, and other manipulatives that can be used to enhance student learning in centers. It is best to have the instructions, pieces, and everything needed to work with that particular manipulative in one tub or container, so students can grab, read, and go!

Centers Should be for Practicing the Math Concepts

When you are thinking about creating centers, make sure you are creating centers around practicing skills that have already been introduced. Do not expect to be able to introduce new skills in student-directed stations. This goes for games, activities, or any other activity you might be using as a center. Expect to teach students the skill/game/activity first, then they can reinforce those concepts independently during their center rotations.

Offer Options and Student Choice

Part of the joy of centers is the ability to have multiple options at each center. I usually group my students into a color group, and then all of their materials are that color. For example, my red group would pull out the red folder and complete the activities inside, and my blue group would pull out the blue folder.

I also have multiple versions of the same activities, with suggestions of different colors to grab if something seems too easy or too difficult. If a student in my red group thinks something is too easy, they would pull out something from the pink folder. If they think it’s too difficult, they would pull out something from the orange folder. I have these posted at the centers, and allow the students to differentiate for themselves for the most part. It’s self-directed learning at it’s finest!

Have a Back-Up Plan Just in Case

I can not stress this enough! Always plan for the “I’m done, now what?” kiddos. No matter how many different activities you plan, there WILL be a student who finishes early, and they WILL interrupt you at your teaching center to ask you what to do. Having an activity (or two or three) prepped and ready will allow you to simply point it out or hand it to the student quickly. This means the least amount of disruption to your actual teaching time, which as we all know is priceless!

I simply don’t know how teachers were able to teach all the various levels of students they had before centers came on the scene. The ability to group students, work with small groups, and have them independently reinforcing their skills at other centers is amazing! If you aren’t utilizing centers for mathematics already, what is holding you back? If you are, what do you love about it? Do you already use one of these 6 Ways to use Math Centers to Differentiate Instruction? Let me know below!


6 Ways to use Math Centers to Differentiate Instruction

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