Thursday, August 20, 2009

Veteran teacher defends group work against working at your own rate

From a discussion I had with a teacher at

Why not simply allow each student to work through a math curriculum at his/her own rate? As a student, I attended a classes like this (in regular public schools, with large class sizes) and they were highly successful classes, precisely because they engaged each student at his or her level.

The idea of providing a curriculum that challenges and/or meets the needs of all students sounds to me like differentiated instruction (DI), which has become a major focus of professional development and curriculum design in the last few years. Carol Tomlinson is one of the more popular authors on the subject. I've been sent to three or four workshops on it in the past three or four years - and the general ed teachers I work with have been required to attend with me.

DI comes in flavors. There's DI intended to cater to different learning styles to ensure that kinesthetic learners don't have to rely on auditory or visual processes alone. There's DI intended to address the level at which students get challenged. The math lesson may be on probability; the curriculum we use will provide the teacher with a variety of tasks (of varying difficulty) that can be used with their students.

Both the math and the reading curriculum my district uses in the elementary grades build DI into each lesson.

Rate is a different issue. The adoption of a spiral concept in curriculum design makes *rate* seem like a problematic concept. Instruction is cyclical: we may spend a couple of weeks working on learning and using central tendencies in statistics with the fourth or fifth graders, then the curriculum moves to addition of improper fractions for a week, then it spends some time reinforcing student knowledge of geometric shapes and their properties, and a few weeks later it cycles back around to central tendencies.

Chances are good that the second and third graders are working on exactly the same concepts (though with simpler problems) if their teachers are on track with the pacing guides.

If a student came to me at any grade level (I've taught K-12) and said that they understood chapter 11 and had finished the work in it, and they asked me if they could go on to chapter 12 WITHOUT the rest of the class, I'd say no. [Emphasis mine] The reasons are simple. I need that student to participate in cooperative learning and group activities for the sake of the other students (whom they can help in ways that I can't) and for their own sake (because being a peer tutor has been show to produce a more secure set of skills in a student).

It's not that there is material to cover and the student could finish early, it's that there are standards (content standards) to meet. I'm happy if the kid can excede the standards for central tendencies; I'm not happy for the kid to move on to geometry while the rest of the class is still in statistics. In addition to math skills, I have to think about the student's social skills - their ability to work with with others.

DI can and should lead to engaging each student at their level. But it doesn't (and shouldn't) lead to anyone finishing the year's math curriculum sometime in March...

I know a lot of talented math buffs (the subjects of my forthcoming book) who are extremely frustrated by the practices you describe (which are unique to the U.S., and certain schools in Canada, Britain and Australia). They are severely under-challenged, especially with today's Reform Math (where the actual math is much, much easier than it used to be), hate working in groups, and resent being asked to teach math to other students. We are at risk of marginalizing (and under-preparing with respect to students from other countries) the next generation of potential mathematicians.

To this particular concern, GC did not reply.

How concerned are teachers about kids who say they are under-challenged and hate working in groups?


Niels Henrik Abel said...

A couple of questions:

1) Why is this teacher so dead set against kids getting ahead? If the kid can handle it, why on earth not?

2) Regarding "social skills": I thought that the oh-so-vaunted "social skills" was one of the primary reasons for encouraging team sports in P.E. How about letting the classroom be the place where students concentrate on academic skills, and leave the social skills to other venues such as the gymnasium, playground, or scouts?

It all sounds anti-individualistic, like egalitarianism run amok. God forbid students should work individually, let alone work at their own pace and thrive with the talents they've been blessed with.

Beth said...

OK, here's something I read in another forum:

"My sister taught school for many years and said that the norm on group projects is to assign one smart kid and one struggling kid to each group, and then fill in the group with the kids in the middle. All the kids know who is the smart one and the struggling one, so the smart kid ends up running the group, the struggling kid keeps their mouth shut, and all the projects turn out looking about the same level."

Ugh. Whose interests are served by this?

Cranberry said...

Beth, the teacher's interests are served. In part, this serves to camouflage any problems on the part of the struggling students. It also gives the comforting impression that "all students can learn in my classroom."

My eldest was misused for years as the smart kid with strong social skills, i.e., the perfect peer tutor.