Commentary on "Ability Grouping"

Discussion in 'General Education' started by EdEd, Mar 6, 2016.

  1. EdEd

    EdEd Aficionado

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    We've certainly had this conversation before, but thought I'd post some new commentary that I think highlights some important points when thinking about the issue. If you don't read Peter DeWitt's blog, I'd suggest it - he's pretty level-headed and practical with how he approaches topics:

    http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/find..._or_mixed_grouping_a_point_of_contention.html

    In short, as I've advocated, it's not that we use or don't use ability groups that matter - it's how.

    Ability groups, like most things, can be helpful or harmful in different contexts. Ability groups with low expectations for the lower groups, and that are fixed with no acceleration/mobility between groups? Yep, pretty bad. However, ability groups can be a core functional ingredient in differentiated learning, instructional levels, zones of proximal development, etc. - basic, core characteristics of education. Those are pretty good things.

    As a side note, I've made this point before, but ability groups aren't really "ability" groups, which tends to refer to fixed attributes. They should really be called "skill groups," which highlights the content, rather than the innate characteristics of the learner.

    No doubt there are folks that are finding success without ability groups, particularly folks who aren't teaching as many basic skills, and folks with classrooms that are more homogeneous in instructional level of students. However, simply pointing to an effect size of ability grouping without considering what that research is actually describing, then writing off the entire concept of differentiated instruction in group format, is pretty reckless.
     
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  3. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    Any time a teacher puts their "low kids" into a group, the message is sent: you are not smart enough.

    When teachers avoid ability grouping, they develop and use inclusive strategies that do not quash self-esteem in already fragile students. A teacher down the hall ability groups, and doesn't seem to mind that all the free and reduced lunch kids are in the same group. She calls them her brown group.

    If an instructional strategy has so many negatives and possible drawbacks, why would a teacher use it? Some teachers, like Eded, have examined the practice carefully and found some value in it. Some use it because publishers find it profitable to sell workbooks, backline masters and so forth, so it appears to be a viable mainstream teaching tool. Some do it because they don't know any other way to reach those "low kids". The research showing it as ineffective, especially for the low kids, is conclusive.

    This article on the subject just came out last week.
     
  4. 2ndTimeAround

    2ndTimeAround Phenom

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    some teachers use it because they are tired of the higher-ability students getting shortchanged. Or turned into free labor by the schools when they act as "peer tutors."

    I ability group a lot of in my high school classes. Sometimes I place students that have higher reading skills in groups to work on articles better suited for them. Sometimes I place students into mixed ability groups so I can guarantee that some of the problems will be solved on an assignment. Sometimes place students according to work ethic. I'm not going to have one student bust his butt and have three others piggyback off of him. Sometimes, when we use physical games to review, I group by athletic ability.

    I do what I feel is best, within my means, for ALL of my students. I am concerned about every student getting the content that is going to help him/her graduate high school. My students, after ten years of getting report cards, already know if they are at the top of their class or not. I will NOT, never, ever, ever, risk the growth of my higher ability students for the sake of another student. They are no less deserving of a quality education as those who struggle.
     
  5. Pashtun

    Pashtun Fanatic

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    Off topic, I agree with this, and think it is time for families of "gifted" students to get advocates and lawyers and demand services under "special education".
     
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  6. gr3teacher

    gr3teacher Phenom

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    Agreed. Most of the country treats gifted kids horribly.
     
  7. Backroads

    Backroads Aficionado

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    Here's the perspective from lower elementary: I'm teaching some basic math and literacy skills. If a student is struggling, I can't just sweep aside the fact he needs to learn these things. I don't know what the general research says, but I do know that I have personally observed the best results when I gather all the kids struggling with one reading skill or another math skill together to reteach, they are more likely to learn than if I hope and pray they magically pick it up in a randomly picked group.

    And regarding the higher-performing kids... they never learn more by helping the lower kids. So, sure, mixed grouping might serve the lower kids, but the ideal grouping will serve all kids.
     
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  8. blazer

    blazer Connoisseur

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    In the UK most high schools set kids according to ability. On my visits to Chicago schools when I asked if it was done in the US I was told that it was called 'Tracking' and was unconstitutional and therefore illegal.

    In my school we have classes of 30-32 in top sets and 8 -15 in lower ability sets. We can also target classroom support staff to the lower ability groups meaning that there may be a staff:pupil ratio of 1:4 in there.
    Mixed ability teaching means the teacher has to plan far more resources for any class or ( as I witnessed in Chicago) Just aim for the bottom ability kids and expect the higher anility kids to make up the shortfall in their own time.
     
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  9. mrachelle87

    mrachelle87 Fanatic

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    I actually taught in a district that did this. We looked at test scores and placed the lower students with a teacher that had a higher number of lower ability students. The higher ones would go to another room for reading and for math. The other subjects were taught to the whole group.
     
  10. bella84

    bella84 Aficionado

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    I teach in Chicago... In my school, it's quite the opposite. Aim for the top (or near-top) and leave the rest to fail. Both approaches are wrong, IMO.

    Part of being a teacher in 2016 is having plan more resources for any class, as you stated, at least in the elementary setting. From my understanding, in secondary, classes are often designed for one level or another, so maybe planning for a wide range of levels within one class isn't quite as common or necessary. Not like having readers from level B all the way through level O in one second grade class.
     
  11. bella84

    bella84 Aficionado

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    I disagree. The message I send when I do small groups, both as a sped teacher doing resource and as a gen ed teacher doing math intervention or my "below-level" guided reading groups, is this: I see you have a specific need. Somewhere along the line, you didn't learn something that you needed to. I'm going to make it my mission to help you learn it. I'm going to help you overcome your challenges and help you be successful in this classroom and beyond.

    Never ever do I send a message that says "you are not smart/good enough." And, I think my students would agree.
     
  12. mathmagic

    mathmagic Enthusiast

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    I drive growth mindsets within my students 24/7, and am consistently mentioning (with their permission, which is given 99% of the time) areas of struggle students have and the strategies they are using or have used to grow and help them improve in that area. Students see growth, and thus also identifying their areas where growth is needed, as success. I have three different book I'm using for some SS literature groups - one's at a 7th grade level, one at a 5th grade level, and one at a 4th-ish level (teaching 4th grade). Yes, I'm grouping them, but I hold high expectations for all of their writing responses, expect them to grow each time we meet, and have simply grouped them so that they are in their "zone of proximal development", which will help them best grow as readers. Naturally, I never set in stone a grouping throughout the year - it's in the moment, every time.

    While there are many situations when ability grouping is bad and harmful, it certainly depends on the classroom environment that has been created, and how the ability grouping is done by the teacher (and thus perceived by the students).
     
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  13. EdEd

    EdEd Aficionado

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    As is usual, it seems that most folks have a range of experiences, from Tyler at one end to folks like bella84 and mathmagic on the end finding skill groups useful, if used correctly. This seems to support the conclusion that the use of skill groups isn't uniformly good or bad, but dependent on context, how they're used, etc.

    A quick note about tracking vs. ability/skill groups: tracking tends to refer to placement in classes (rather than within-class groups) based on skill level, and those "tracks" tend to be consistent over the years. This is quite different than the use of situational, subject-specific, fluid skill groups by a teacher within a class.

    Tyler, I also don't want to ignore your comments, but I realize we've gone round and round about this before, so I won't get too heavily involved in a response. For sake of new viewers on this particular thread, I'll simply bring up that I've responded to your claims about the research being conclusive by asking you to cite studies with experimental control which have isolated the variable of ability groups. I haven't seen any yet. I understand your concerns, and I think they're real, and it also sounds like you've done a wonderful job teaching your kids without them. And, while we disagree on this particular topic, I do think we both care about what we do and how we do it, which is the reason for our passionate disagreement. There are worse reasons to disagree!
     
  14. Tyler B.

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    EdEd, we agree on so many things, but this one is different. The literature is unequivocal on this topic. Here's one that hard to argue with.

    By the way, skill grouping is much different from ability grouping. Skill groups are formed on the fly and do not have static members. If a "skill group" always has the same kids in it, then it's an ability group. We may be closer on this topic than we think.
     
  15. mathmagic

    mathmagic Enthusiast

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    This makes it sound more like the different views are based on semantics, or at least more-so than differing viewpoints. I will group by abilities, in the moment (well, sometimes with advanced planning, such as the books), based on a certain skill that a group of students need...and outside of some situations (again, the three different leveled books to meet their ZPD), it's flexible day-to-day. I could call that "skill" grouping, "ability" grouping...all sorts of names.

    In the end, regardless of the name, if you strip the whole "ability grouping label", I'm curious how many would say that they meet students at their ZPD (in whatever subject might be), holding them to a similar high expectation for growth?
     
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  16. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    What makes you think a teacher who avoids ability grouping does not meet the disparate needs of all the students? It's actually much easier to challenge gifted, inspire the middle and remediate the low when teaching without ability groups. Why would you stead fasting hold to a strategy, that research says, fails your low kids? Why not look for a better way of teaching?
     
  17. otterpop

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    We ability group. It is very difficult for kids to move up. The kids in the lower classes just cover less than the kids in the high classes. So, a third grader might be learning two digit by one digit multiplication in the on-level class, but long division in the high class. Even if a kid is excelling at the lower level, it is really difficult to move that child up to the high class, because he/she just hasn't been taught the same things and it would be hard for them to go from mid-year third grade content to mid-year fourth grade content. Because of this, there is very little movement in the middle of the year or even from year to year.

    Also, moving a kid up means that someone often has to move down. There are only so many high level spots available.

    I've got mixed feelings on ability grouping.
     
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  18. mathmagic

    mathmagic Enthusiast

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    I guess, as I started to surmise in my last post, I'm not fully clear on where the clear difference is between the standpoints...as "ability grouping" seems to be construed differently by different people.

    I've read some of your previous posts...but don't remember them perfectly: without specifically using the terminology "ability grouping" - are you suggesting that any group work be of students at heterogeneous levels, heterogeneous skill sets, etc...? As in a student who needs support with being able to better visualize a fiction text to help them comprehend it better should be worked with in connection with a student who needs to analyze the way in which the author chose to craft their text to help the reader better visualize it?
     
  19. gr3teacher

    gr3teacher Phenom

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    Do your gifted kids finish your grade a full year ahead of their peers in math?
     
  20. EdEd

    EdEd Aficionado

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    Thanks Tyler. Yes, I'm sure we are indeed probably closer than we may think. In terms of your definitions of groups, I'm guessing you'd define a guided reading group as "ability" - even if kids are moved up or down in level as soon as data would indicate? I'm not sure I've heard the terminology you've mentioned used - I've used, and heard used, the term "skill group" refer to standing groups such as guided reading groups. I have heard ability groups used, and my disagreement with terminology is just my own disagreement based on general understanding and usage of "skill vs. ability" in most educational contexts.

    If we go along with your definitions, I'd still support standing groups, provided kids were moved to different groups as soon as (frequently collected) data indicate.

    In terms of your article link, it linked to a preview page in a Marzano book that unfortunately seemed to only have the first half-page included. There did seem to be one study referenced that found unfavorable results of ability groups, but it didn't list the conditions of usage - for example, if it isolated the variables of group-based expectations & group fluidity. I continue to be open to having my mind changed, but don't want to add work to your plate, which I'm sure is already pretty full :)
     
  21. blazer

    blazer Connoisseur

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    Surely that also applies even if the kids are all in the same room? The higher ability kids will be working on different stuff to the low ability kids and at the end of the year the low ability kids will have not have covered the higher ability stuff and so can't catch up?
     
  22. Backroads

    Backroads Aficionado

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    Because why fix what isn't broke?

    I pull kids into ability groups, or skill groups, and interventions because I can first-hand see improvement. I see my kids improving, or I try something else. But I'm not going to ditch what is working because research told me it doesn't work for some kids. My students are not a statistic and I'm not going to drop what is working on hopes something else works.
     
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  23. Caesar753

    Caesar753 Multitudinous

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    When I was a student, I think that I benefitted from ability grouping. In first grade, I was in the "blue birds" reading group; students who struggled in reading were in the "red birds" group. We all knew what each group meant, and we didn't tease each other or anything about it. It was clearly understood that the red birds needed a little more help and practice with the basics, while the blue birds needed a little more help and practice with more complex skills. It was seriously all about skills and not about personal character or any deeper meaning than that--very much like having an 8-minute running group versus a 12-minute running group. Why is it so bad to identify areas of strength and weakness and use them to help kids get better?
     
  24. otterpop

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    What I gave is just one example. Yes, a teacher might differentiate and give harder problems to the high kids in their class, but often not go into totally new concepts. Our high kids do the next grade level's entire curriculum.
     
  25. mathmagic

    mathmagic Enthusiast

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    This is similar to what I do in math. I have created problem solving "menus" of at-level, above-level, and extreme challenge problems that require students to take the grade level understandings and apply them to new situations, rather than simply just learning new material (which often turns into a rush of "how many procedures can I learn"). I'll definitely teach new content, too, but this deeper level of thinking, I believe, is extremely important to excel in mathematics.

    In using it, those students who have shown mastery with a concept will move onto that, while those who have mostly mastered a concept will work on practice problems to aim for accuracy, and those who are still struggling quite a bit will meet with me and we'll do more guided work before they work independently. Flexible each day, and yes, some students are almost always in that latter group, but it allows everyone to grow an equal amount.
     
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  26. waterfall

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    I've said this before, but I will say it again. I think that almost all of the time, "skill grouping" ends up being the same as "ability grouping." It's really just semantics. We skill group at my school. We have a reading intervention model where every grade level does a 30 minute intervention block with classroom teachers, specialists, and paras. The highest needs get the smallest groups. We group the kids based on what skill they need. For example, in 1st grade right now we have groups working on CVC/short vowels, blends and digraphs, fluency, basic/text-dependent comprehension, inferring, etc. We meet every 6 weeks and rearrange groups and/or rearrange the focus for the groups as necessary. It is easy to move up/down. If it becomes clear that a child is in the totally wrong placement before the six weeks is up, we move them immediately. The thing is, these "skill groups" are pretty much ability groups. Obviously the lowest kids are still in the CVC/short vowel group. The highest kids are in the advanced comprehension group. Middle kids fall into some of the higher level phonics groups, basic comprehension, or fluency depending on what level of "the middle" they fall into. I'm very sure that if we just said we were going to ability group and worked our way up from very low to very high, the groups would be the same.
     
  27. Loomistrout

    Loomistrout Devotee

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    The "how" certainly needs attention but, also, and possibly more important, is what takes place once in groups. Is it possible growth can be a result of effective instruction rather than who is in the class? The article cited a combination 1-2 class where a 2nd-grade student was asked if her pasting project was difficult. Her response, "No. I did this last year." So, even though kids are grouped isn't it a wash if the skills of the teacher do not take advantage of the placement?
     
  28. EdEd

    EdEd Aficionado

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    Most definitely. When I said "how" I think I also meant "what," meaning exactly everything that is packaged together in a certain concept.

    This is a side note, but I think illustrates the point - there are so many "strategies" out there that really aren't singular strategies, but combinations of a lot of things. Take "reinforcement" - I've heard plenty of folks say, "I tried reinforcement, but it didn't work" The issue, of course, is that there are so many variables likely present is what was actually tried - the schedule of reinforcement, what the reinforcement was, under which conditions in was given, how long the strategy was tried, etc. This doesn't even get to the context of the strategy - the teacher/student relationship, classroom management procedures, whether social skills training is present, school climate, instructional match, etc. If a strategy doesn't work, any one or combination of many elements could be at play.

    I think we're on the same page, loomistrout
     
  29. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    When students are put into small groups studying different pieces of literature or math concepts, several huge losses are instantly built into the school day. Probably the most important loss is the loss of connections.

    Marzano identified the most effective teaching strategy as Making Connections [Identifying differences and similarities]. It's easy to get students of all abilities fired up to do this when the whole class is engaged in quality literature or an engaging math experiment. When students are divided up into small groups, the extra focus and energy resulting from being part of a fired up group becomes much harder to attain.

    As a former teacher of the gifted in our district and father of two gifted children, I'm acutely aware of the special needs of these learners. Just because the whole class is reading the same novel or working on the same math domain [like measurement], doesn't mean a teacher ignores the needs of students on the ends of the bell curve.

    Defenders of ability grouping are most likely dedicated teachers who don't fully understand the destructive nature of homogenous grouping or don't know another way to address the needs of their students.
     
  30. Backroads

    Backroads Aficionado

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    Yet, Tyler, you yourself has said that you are always pulling over lower performing students to work one-on-one with you. How is this not ability grouping?
     
  31. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    Picture this. Each student in the class filled out a survey where they recorded their favorite color, how far they could jump and 40 other data points in our effort to find out what an average 5th grader is like. Students are grouped into 2 or 3 student teams to examine the data and figure out which graph (bar, scatter plot, line) would best show their information. Then they need to write a narrative statement based on the data to tell what's average for a 5th grader.
    Suzie, a lower math student, raises her hand because she has a problem with "favorite color". Eight students choose blue, the most of any color, but if all the other colors were added up, there's 17 of those. So is blue the favorite color?
    Seth, a gifted student, quickly made a bar graph of how far each student jumped, but discovered no two students jumped exactly the same distance. The bar graph is one long set of bars the same length. Is a bar graph the right choice for this data set, or should he combine the jump lengths into groups and graph those?
    When I answer a question or provide instruction on the fly for students of varying abilities, it's not ability grouping. I did intentionally give the harder problem to Seth's group since he needs the challenge.
     
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  32. Pashtun

    Pashtun Fanatic

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    I absolutely agree with this statement. I think most problems have an entry point for all students in the classroom. Each student may not get as far in the problem, may not go as deep, may have a spectrum of simple to complex answers, but the same problem can be accessible to learning for all students in the class.

    For my personal growth as a teacher, and me and EdEd have had this conversation, I think more effort, refinement..etc needs to be put into maximizing each lesson having a learning point for each student rather than pulling back for small groups.
     
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  33. Backroads

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    So how do you protect the fragile self-esteem of the kids who get asked the lower-level questions? Trust me, the kids know when they're be treated as lower students even in a whole group setting.
     
  34. Backroads

    Backroads Aficionado

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    I'd say the vast majority of teachers agree with this to one extent or another, but it's extremely hard to reach the needs of students who need intervention-level lessons during a whole-group lesson without sacrificing the needs of the rest of the class.

    So I ask, what is so wrong with pulling kids aside for intense intervention instruction?
     
  35. blazer

    blazer Connoisseur

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    Increasingly in my school we are getting immigrant students with no English. We have found that putting them into our top sets means that the teacher actually gets more time to spend with them 1:1 because the higher ability kids can be given self directed tasks freeing up the teacher to sit alongside the kids with no English.
     
  36. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    I once had a parent refuse services for her severely disabled child. This student was in my third grade class wearing diapers and had a feeding tube. I included her in as many lessons as possible, which wasn't much. If a student has special needs that make learning in a regular classroom inappropriate, then pull out programs should be considered. I wished that girl had not been in my class. [I hope this doesn't make me a bad person.]

    If a student is behind the class, but able to participate and learn, ability groups should be avoided as much as possible since these kids learn more when included and supported.
     
  37. Backroads

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    There is a big difference between being behind in class and in an intervention situation--where one is far behind grade level and had never learned the material needed to participate in the main group.
     
  38. Pashtun

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    I am not saying anything is wrong with it. IMO, I don't think enough time and effort is put into focusing on the entry points for groups of students in whole class activities. I think it is far easier, faster, to do so in groups. I think students would benefit from better thought out lessons with entry points, than small groups.

    Thats my thinking.
     
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  39. Backroads

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    My situation is that I have pretty much done away with groups--they just weren't fitting in with my workshop model.

    However, during the whole group lessons outside of workshop, I have a select number of students who can participate to a lesser or greater extent, but have missed out on many skills taught in 1st grade and kinder. This inhibits them greatly. They are not exactly being denied participation in the class, but it does not change the fact that they are getting pulled out for 10-15 minutes a day for intense intervention instruction to help them catch up.

    Perhaps I'm not that talented of a teacher (and I know I have plenty of growth to make) but at this point it is much easier and effective to give these students that personal time of intense instruction than to hope they pick up forgotten skills not even being touched upon in the lesson of the day.

    Sure, it'd be a great goal to have a teacher effectively and thoroughly teach all students every thing they need to know in main lessons, but I'm not going to let those kids drop through the cracks in the mean time.
     
  40. Pashtun

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    Mar 9, 2016

    I think we all have areas to improve on. This has been my point, it is easier to pull groups than to plan better lessons.

    I am equally guilty of this.
     
  41. mathmagic

    mathmagic Enthusiast

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    Mar 9, 2016

    See, I think the terminology here is again the key difference, and less the beliefs. In the last sentence, you're grouping, even though it may look ever so slightly different than how others are grouping. As others have mentioned theirs are, it's flexible based on the concept/current strategy/etc... that's being worked on. I differentiate on the fly, naturally, but if there are multiple students who all need the same thing, I'm going to work with them in a group, because that's more efficient. Non-flexible grouping (within a class of students of heterogeneous ability levels) that lasts year-long without extra thoughts, I think most/all would disagree with. You, me, and many others are differentiating based on what students need, but without that set/fixed mindset. Whether it's individual, a couple students, a group of students, or whole-class, depends on the particular skills/concept/strategy...and really will vary in every moment.
     
    bella84 and Backroads like this.

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