Friday, February 7, 2014

Year 4: Week 21 - The Top Third

In every classroom there’s a range of learners. The rule of thumb is to expect that you will have about three grades worth of abilities in a one-grade classroom. Some students in fourth grade will read at a fifth grade level, some at a fourth grade level and others at a third grade level. Believe it or not, many teachers deal with an even wider spread than this.

So we differentiate. That means that the teacher assigns some kids less math problems while others get more. Some students read harder books and do enrichment activities while others work at a slower pace. This description drastically over-simplifies the process of differentiated learning, but that’s the basic idea.

You may be wondering why you don’t simply put all of the most advanced students in one class and the struggling kids in another one. What you are thinking about is called tracking. There are a lot of schools that track students this way and there are many benefits. The reason that tracking is a divisive educational issues is because there are also many negative unintended consequences like social stratification and that fact the many “lower” track students get sub-par teachers and slip father behind.

I’m not going to get into this tracking debate during this post but there’s plenty written about this. A google search will provide many articles supporting both sides of this issue.

So back to the non-tracked classroom . . .

The instincts of teachers is to aim towards the bottom 2/3 of the ability levels of their classrooms. This represents the majority of the students, which is the most logical way to operate but there’s also the human factor. No one likes explaining something and seeing people be confused. A sea of sad furrowed brows induces feelings of sympathy and sadness. While it’s important that kids are confused, we like kids and we don’t like seeing them suffer is this way. So we do what we can to minimize these looks of confusion.

What about that top third of the class? When aim below their abilities, you don’t have the disturbing confused faces. Instead you get the more subtle and less obvious look of boredom, disinterest and resignation. You may know that this feeling is there and you can see it in their eyes if you look hard enough, but usually you are more focused on the confused kid, so most of the time you don’t notice.

Yes, we are doing a disservice to students who learn slower than others by teaching far beyond their abilities, but we are also doing a disservice to students who are advanced and not being challenged.

What do we do about this?

Once in a while we need to focus on that top third and give them a challenging and engaging activity and accept that there will be students in the class who will be confused and not get that much out of the lesson. I’m not advocating that we do this all of the time, but once in a while, we need to aim high.

I decided to do a composition activity with my fifth graders that aimed towards that top third of ability level and interest. The advanced kids loved the assignment. The middle level were engaged and did okay. Like I expected there were students in that bottom third who were confused and had difficulty engaging in the activity. To my surprise, there were students in that bottom third who stepped up and worked with a high level of engagement and did great work.

If you always aim safely at where you perceive students are at, you never know where they can go. Sometimes that bottom third will rise, maybe not all the way up to the top third, but rise nonetheless in ways that we don't expect, with a brow less furrowed and a mind more engaged.  

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