Honoring Diversity: What, why, and how?

by Amy Withers and Charlene Marchese

The Math for All team has been reading Carol Ann Tomlinson’s Everybody’s Classroom for the past few months. There are many connections between Tomlinson’s work and our work in Math for All, as well as some key takeaways that deepen our understanding of making math accessible to all students. In this blog post, we explore what honoring diversity means to us and, building on Tomlinson’s work, take a deep dive into a flexible mathematics classroom environment that can enhance our ability to honor students’ diversity as learners.

What is honoring diversity?

If there is one constant in teaching, it’s that nothing stays the same. Programs change, mandates change, the way we assess students may change. And certainly, our students change from year to year. Each year’s students represent a new group of minds that learn in unique ways. This is a gift! Honoring diversity means that we get to know these new students, all of their strengths and areas for growth, and we welcome them into our classrooms. We learn to build upon each child’s strengths in order to bolster the areas in which they need to grow. As we begin to get to know our students, it’s important that we:

  1. don’t hold expectations for how each person will learn, even when we hold the same expectations for what students will learn.
  2. work to understand the connections between differentiating for how students learn and the classroom environment and culture we create and maintain.

What does honoring diversity look like in the classroom/school community?

In our view, honoring diversity in our classrooms requires what may, at first, seem like a dichotomy between structure and flexibility. Structure (and some predictability) is a necessary foundation for an efficient, effectively run classroom, and allows all students to feel safe. There are many routines that form this critical base: housekeeping routines, management routines, instructional routines, and content routines such as math reasoning routines. In addition, a successful classroom is built upon strong relationships and trust. We believe that trust is especially important in mathematics classrooms as some students may be fearful of the subject matter. Students need to feel respected, understood, and trusted to do their best in school. Teachers need the same—both from their students and from their colleagues.

At Math for All, we emphasize the importance of knowing each student holistically. We do this by building neurodevelopmental profiles of students, using the neurodevelopmental framework to inventory students’ strengths and areas for growth. We then analyze the math tasks we ask students to engage in, and work to remove any barriers to those tasks while building on students’ strengths. The student profiles allow us to know and understand each student in our classroom as a whole person, to build trust with students by recognizing and meeting their needs to learn mathematics, and to strengthen our connections to students. This forms the foundation of a successful mathematics classroom.

A strong structural foundation and detailed understanding of and relationship with students is what allows for flexibility within the classroom—and flexibility is key to successful differentiation. As Tomlinson says, “the more things that are going well in a classroom, the more powerful differentiation is likely to be—and conversely ” (p. 17). Flexibility means that we are able to make adjustments to many facets of the math classroom that allow success for all students. Tomlinson presents several key classroom features to consider when creating a differentiated classroom: time, space, student groupings, materials, working modes, student goals, and modes of expressing learnings. She argues that a flexible approach toward establishing these facets allows each student to find success. Let’s take a look at a few of these features (student groupings, materials, and space) specifically in relation to mathematics. Below, we’ve highlighted several of the key features and show how a flexible approach to each can support math learning.

Classroom feature
How it might be used flexibly in mathematics class
Why it can support math learning
Student Grouping
Students who struggle with understanding fractions may be grouped together for targeted teacher support. Allows for “just-in-time” instruction for specific students. Targets specific content, which could be prerequisite or grade-level topics that they will need in order to continue to deeply study the content of the unit.
Students may be grouped heterogeneously on a daily basis, allowing each to bring their own expertise of mathematical skills and concepts and questions to the group, thereby enriching the experience of all members. Allows students to hear different voices and perspectives. Builds a classroom culture that confirms all voices are important and everyone is a contributor.
Students may have the choice to work independently, with a partner, or with a group for a task/project/lesson. Students may have a choice of where they work—on the floor, in flexible seating, in a quiet area. Provides students with agency over their learning environment.
Manipulative materials are visible and always accessible.

Manipulatives are a tool to think with for all students, not only those who struggle or are young learners.

Allows for student agency over the materials they would like to use rather than the material being decided by the teacher.

Materials—including manipulatives such as color tiles and cubes as well as large paper, markers, glue, scissors, graph paper, colored pencils, and tracing paper—are all readily available and accessible. Students have agency over how they engage with a task by using manipulatives, visualizing by making sketches or math models or creating a symbolic solution. The teacher focuses students on the connection between the three options, valuing each student’s contribution and how each “sees” the math.
Space (Seating)
Classroom seating has many options: a place for a student to work and think quietly, a place for two or more students to work together with space to create math, a place for the teacher to work with a small group, with space for students’ work and a whiteboard for all to see. Students have agency over their working space as it allows for different modes of working.

Why is honoring diversity important?

Think about a mathematical classroom environment that you experienced as a student: Did the classroom meet your learning needs? If so, how? And if not, why not? We believe that meeting the needs of all students, not just the needs of our students with IEP’s, honors diversity. Each student adds to the diversity of the classroom, and we all benefit from that diversity. A true mathematical community learns from one another, builds upon the ideas of each member of the community, and welcomes new ways of problem solving, all within a classroom that has a foundation built upon structure and flexibility. Creating a classroom culture that moves beyond specific learning styles to one that is flexible allows the teacher to pivot in instructional approaches, groupings, and materials, to meet the immediate needs of individual students quickly and efficiently.

How can you build upon your classroom culture to further honor diversity?

How do you start? First, let’s recognize and celebrate that there are so many things that we are tending to as classroom teachers, and there are many things we already are doing to honor diversity. We hope that reading this blog also has been an opportunity to take stock of where you might strengthen your foundation while also recognizing where you can increase your flexibility. Focus on one or two things at a time and then build on them as you go. Reflect on what features of your classroom are more flexible. Can you take a feature that is somewhat flexible and make it more so? For example, where are your math manipulatives located? Are they in a closet and only pulled out on the days a lesson specifically calls for them? To make this feature more flexible, bring them out, give students an opportunity to explore and solve problems with them and then find an accessible place to store them and give students permission to access and use them whenever they feel they will be helpful. Now we are beginning to put a flexible classroom into practice. How about grouping students? Is there a way to group students where they have a voice over how they are working? Change it up and reflect on how student learning was effected. Then begin your next school year implementing these two features and any other changes that would result in more flexibility for you and your students.


Tomlinson, C. A. (2022). Everybody’s classroom: Differentiating for the shared and unique needs of diverse students. Teachers College Press.

The contents of this blog post were developed under a grant from the Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0  

Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.

Our Newsletter Provides Ideas for Making High-Quality Mathematics Instruction Accessible to All Students

Comments are closed.
Skip to content