Improving Growth Mindset in Math Through Differentiation for Students in Grades 2-4

Area(s) of Focus: math, well being, curriculum
Division(s): Primary, Junior
Level(s): Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4

This project aimed to develop increased confidence in differentiated math teaching instruction among our teaching staff by providing focused professional development aimed at increasing teachers' ability to differentiate their math instruction.

Our project asked, “How might focused professional development in differentiating math instruction result in a change in growth mindset for students in grades 2-5?”

Team Members

  • Anita Hayhoe

    Toronto District School Board

  • Heather Francis

    Toronto District School Board

  • Kwang Pak

    Toronto District School Board

  • Pauline Crosby

    Toronto District School Board

  • Florence Papia

    Toronto District School Board

Professional Learning Goals

  • Improved teachers’ capacity in differentiating math instruction by providing a variety of supports (professional development, resources, technology)
  • Improved teachers’ understanding and confidence in differentiated instruction  to support the learning needs of all their students
  • Facilitated opportunities for teachers to practise various strategies for accommodating and modifying the math curriculum to support the learning needs of all students
  • Increased communication between teachers about planning for differentiated instruction in the delivery of math concepts and skills
  • Increased the practice of teacher self-reflection around how to improve instruction in math concepts and skills
  • Improved teacher use and application of manipulatives to improve student understanding of various math concepts and skills
  • Identified students who are disengaged in math activities and developed lessons specifically to encourage engagement

Activities and Resources

Through our project, Grade 2 to Grade 4 teachers, as well as the teachers on the grant team,  participated in half-day PD on March 23, 2018 and May 3, 2018. Our school’s TDSB Learning Coach worked with our team to plan and facilitate the PD sessions.

The March 23 PD focused on what differentiated instruction is, how it looks when incorporating it into math learning, as well as when it can happen, planned or as needed. Several examples were demonstrated such as and Stickler. The teachers spent time discussing how to plan for differentiated instruction and what it might look like in their specific context.

The May 3 PD was less formally structured, and was more flexible to teacher input and questions. It opened with an opportunity for an informal community circle where teachers shared what differentiated instruction strategies they had tried since the first PD session. The Learning Coach introduced the concepts of open tasks and parallel tasks as strategies for differentiated instruction. Time was given for grade-level partners to work together to construct some open or parallel tasks for their upcoming math unit.

Three members of our team facilitated some professional learning during a staff meeting. We provided an introduction to differentiated instruction and reviewed the growth mindset theory. Staff were provided with opportunities to reflect on their learning through an electronic survey.

Throughout our division meetings, we provided opportunities to explore the use of technologies that will support differentiated learning, such as Mindomo, Google Classroom, Google Voice, and Read and Write for Chrome.

Both teachers and students in grades 2 to 4 were provided surveys (electronic and paper). In March, an initial online survey was provided for staff to complete anonymously. Each teacher was also provided with an initial survey to give to their students to complete. In May, a second online survey was provided for staff to complete anonymously. In addition, each teacher was also provided with a second survey to give to their students to complete.

The resources that we used, which were instrumental in achieving our goals, were:

  • TDSB Learning Coach, Farah Rahemtula. We couldn’t have done it without her! She provided the opportunity to apply for the grant, supported us through the application process, provided guidance in planning the two PD sessions, helped facilitate the PD sessions, and allowed us access to her library of resources.
  • Marian Small books (Good Questions, More Good Questions and Big Ideas from Dr. Small)
  • The support of our principal, Sandra Buie, and our vice principal, Barbara Dixon. Both went out of their way to support our project by providing the initial time for our team to apply for the grant. They also allowed us to adapt timetables and provided the use of a conference room, projector and supplies for the PD sessions.

Unexpected Challenges

We ran into several obstacles:

  • Due to the demands of teaching, it was challenging to make co-ordinated time for planning, meeting as a grant team, and working on next steps
  • Due to time constraints, busy schedules and unforeseen circumstances, we faced obstacles with our initial goal of community circles, using ISP teachers as mentors and consulting with Gianna Helling from the Ministry of Education on this project
  • We had a serious problem procuring enough supply teachers and we also had two supply teachers who picked up jobs, but did not show up for the job. As a result, we had to rearrange schedules at the last minute and use some of our team members as supply teachers. As a result, some of our team members were not able to attend parts of the PD sessions.
  • We ran into logistical issues with how the grant funds were distributed. Specifically, the instructions to the team leader were to place the monies in a personal bank account, created for this purpose. The TDSB was not aware of this request and there was confusion about how the TDSB was to be reimbursed for expenses, such as supply teachers. The office administrator at our school spent considerable time on the phone addressing this issue. Eventually the TDSB issued a special code to be used in conjunction with expenses related to TLC Grant Projects.
  • Our mentor was unable to help us because he was part of a different board. Having an assigned mentor who was employed by a different school board presented challenges at times when obstacles we faced were specific to issues related to our school board, such as accounting and supply teachers.
  • Not all teachers completed the staff surveys or handed in to us the student surveys
  • Due to time constraints and busy schedules, there was not enough time to fully reflect on new insights and learning.
  • Our project was not connected with other math initiatives occurring within our school. There were PD opportunities for varying members of  staff with RMS, Spatial Reasoning, Global Competencies in Mathematics, as well as our project. Due to a lack of communication and busy schedules, teachers did not see how all these initiatives were connected.
  • A new member joined our team in January. Her culminating project for a professional course she was taking aligned with our grant project so the team decided to bring her aboard. This strengthened our team and broadened our perspective, however it added to costs for supply teacher coverage and increased the challenges of co-ordinating schedules.
  • We planned to use some of the grant money purchasing manipulatives, however, through the RMS initiative, money was made available to our school for this resource. Instead, we decided to spend the remaining balance on professional development books and resources that would assist teachers at our school with differentiation.
  • Because the student surveys were done anonymously and we relied on classroom teachers administering the survey instead of doing it ourselves, we had a different number of students who completed the survey in March versus May. This makes it a bit more challenging to interpret the results of the survey.
  • Only five out of seven teachers completed the initial survey and the final survey. This created a challenge when it came to interpreting results based on the surveys. There may be several factors for this. Teachers are very busy. Some classroom computers are older and slow, so teachers do not check their emails as frequently. Some teachers are less comfortable with technology, such as Google Forms. Two of the teachers are long-term occasional teachers who were only able to attend one of the two PD sessions due to supply teachers not showing up.
  • We initially planned to look at student marks in math and compare the February report card to the June report card. However, we found out that the due date for the final report was May 31. June report cards marks are not available yet, so we were unable to complete this part of the project assessment.

Enhancing Student Learning and Development

We do believe that increasing teachers’ knowledge, experience and comfort level with differentiated instruction will benefit students’ math learning, and ensure that the struggling students, as well as the confident students, are supported.

However, we struggled with our data, which does not unequivocally support this belief. We administered anonymous student surveys in March and in May. It  would appear that students that never liked math increased by 7 per cent, from 2 per cent to 9 per cent.  But at the same time, students who most of the time or always liked math increased by 6 per cent, from 70 per cent to 76 per cent. According to our survey, the majority of our students enjoy math. However, it is concerning that there is an increase in the number of students who never like math since we are assuming the students who never like math are also those who struggle the most with it.

Even more concerning is the answer students gave us when we asked if they feel confident when doing math activities. The number of students who never feel confident increased by 3 per cent from 5 per cent to 8 percent.  The number of students who feel confident most of the time or always fell by 5 per cent from 78 per cent to 73 per cent.

Finally, we asked students to respond to the statement “I am good at math.” Those who responded “never” rose from 2 per cent to 9 per cent. Those who answered “most of the time” or “always” fell from 81 per cent to 71 per cent, the biggest drop.

There may be several reasons for these results. It could be that students’ confidence and self-image in math did fall. It could be that students were working on a math strand they felt confident in in March, and on a different math strand they felt challenged by in May. It could reflect that we did not survey the same number of students in March as in May. In March, we surveyed 88 students and in May we only surveyed 79 students.  Teachers were responsible to give the surveys to their classes and return them to the project team. The surveys may have been administered on a day that many students were away in May. Additionally, it could be that students in grades 2 to 4 are not yet mature enough to track their own development in math and are answering our questions based on how they feel that day, not comparing their progress since March. It could be that students in grades 2 to 4 had difficulty understanding the more abstract nature of the scale we used.

The teacher surveys were more positive and demonstrated self-reported growth in knowledge and confidence among the teachers involved in the PD sessions. When asked to rate on a five-point scale “How knowledgeable do you feel about  differentiated instruction in math?,” teacher responses increased from 80 per cent reporting level 3 or below in March to 100 per cent reporting level 3 or higher, with 40 per cent rating level 4 or 5.  When asked “How knowledgeable do you feel about growth mindset in math?,” the responses were fairly similar from March to May. When asked “How often do you incorporate differentiated instruction  in math tasks/activities?,” the responses increased from 60 per cent reporting level 3 and only 40 per cent reporting level 4 or 5 in March to 80 per cent reporting level 4 and 20 per cent reporting level 5 in May. When asked “How often do you discuss or refer to growth mindset theory with students during math instruction?,” teacher responses stayed relatively the same, but with a slight increase in May.

What the results of the teacher survey showed us is that teachers are feeling more confident in planning for differentiated instruction in class, and are beginning to incorporate it into their lesson planning. We also learned that while teachers are aware of growth mindset theory and use it in math class, there is stagnant growth in its use. One reason for this might be that the PD sessions focused mainly on differentiated instruction, and only touched on growth mindset theory, so teachers grew more in knowledge and experience with differentiated instruction. Although we only touched on growth mindset theory in the PD sessions, our school had some intensive PD around growth mindset theory last year, so teachers are already familiar with it and have had practice using it in their math classes.





We will be presenting our results with our staff in June at a staff meeting. We are also sending our report to the superintendent in September. Teachers who have been part of the Professional Development and part of the Grant Team can be used as mentors for other staff who want to incorporate more differentiated instruction into their math program.

Working in consultation with the administration, we using the results of our project to plan for future PD.

Project Evaluation

Overall, we believe the project was a success. We were excited to see that the teachers who completed the survey reported growth in their understanding and use of differentiated instruction in math class between March and May, after attending two PD sessions on differentiated instruction in math. Resources that we purchased will provide school-wide support for differentiated learning that would benefit many classes and students.

If we were repeating this project, we would change how the student surveys were scaled to avoid student misunderstandings of terms such as “sometimes.” We would have each teacher identify a marker student, and assign them a number to be able to see growth for those marker students.   We would provide teachers with a choice of an electronic or paper survey and hand deliver them to hopefully increase the response rate.

If we were given the opportunity of repeating this project, we would link to other school initiatives to ensure that teachers could see how all these initiatives are interconnected and not separate leading to personal growth, student confidence and increased student achievement.

Resources Used

Marian Small books (Good Questions, More Good Questions and Big Ideas from Dr. Small)