Commentary on "Ability Grouping"

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

  1. EdEd

    EdEd Aficionado

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    I can definitely see your point about there being whole class excited over a particular lesson in which everyone is engaged. To be sure, I've never argued that skill groups are the most engaging or fun way to spend instructional time, nor is chemotherapy necessarily the most fun way to spend an afternoon if you have cancer.

    I guess, Tyler, I don't see it as either/or. I don't spend the entire day in skill groups working on basic skills. There are plenty of whole group activities that are engaging and community-building. But I also use skill groups. I don't see the forced dichotomy you're referring to.

    I think this is an area where we are probably similar. By no means are skill groups the only way of differentiating, personalizing, or otherwise addressing the individual needs of the learner. It sounds like you are still aware of individualization in the class format you choose.

    Or teachers who just find it effective. Honestly, this is where I think you'll build resentment and emotional discord with your comments & overall position. You've just made it personal. The whole "you just don't get it" kind of approach I don't think is very effective.

    For sake of keeping things on track, to summarize a bit:

    I think you've challenged those of us who use skill groups to be aware of the potential limitations, and to reconsider alternatives if possible. I value that contribution. Suggesting a strategy is helpful, though, is different from claiming that another strategy is universally, unequivocally destructive, as you've done with skill groups. Given that a number of teachers have successfully used skill groups and are not reporting the results you mention, the burden would be on you to provide evidence that they never work. I don't think it's appropriate in a professional conversation that you continue to assume your position is right, and others are wrong, when you've not yet established an empirical basis for your position, and responded to valid criticisms of the evidence you've provided.

    In short, I think you're operating in an intellectual vacuum - you've become entrenched in your own belief system, but you aren't responding specifically when those positions are challenged. This seems to be a recurrent pattern across threads, where we attempt to hold you accountable for the statements you make, but rather than following up and responding to those challenges, you tend to ignore those challenges, claim that you've already rested your case, and go on as if your position is well established, responding to other posters. You certainly have the right to do so, but I'd imagine over time folks will start to pay less attention and give less credibility to your positions. This would be a shame, because I do think you have a lot to contribute and seem like a very passionate & effective educator.
     
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  2. EdEd

    EdEd Aficionado

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    Continuing to read everyone's comments, I think we're stuck on the forced dichotomy that seems to have been created. Tyler's method of creating opportunities for individualized learning in heterogeneous groupings is completely valid and awesome. I think we have a lot to learn from that. But skill groups are also completely valid, and have tons of empirical support behind them as well (if you're interested, just pick up any journal article in which an effective intervention has been delivered in a homogenous group setting).

    In short, we don't have to accept one at the exclusion of the other.
     
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  3. EdEd

    EdEd Aficionado

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    I think this is the crux of the rationale behind skill groups - that instructional placement should be considered. While the student you refer to here is on the more extreme end of the spectrum, modern educators have gotten away from the either/or notion of disability - that there are "disabled kids" and "normal kids." In reality, almost all kids fall on a continuous spectrum, requiring varying levels of individualization, intervention, support, etc. Once a child is far enough along on that spectrum that his/her instructional needs in a specific skill area are beyond the scope of what can be provided simultaneously with other kids, I believe it's appropriate to provide instruction in different contexts.

    And again, this isn't to disagree with your point that there are plenty of activities in which heterogeneous groups are totally appropriate.
     
  4. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    It wasn't my intention to make you feel like I personally attacked you. Please accept my apology. My larger point was that good teachers ignore the the evidence behind the flaws of ability grouping.

    It's odd that you would accuse me of making it personal, then use terms like "intellectual vacuum" and "entrenched in your own belief system". If I didn't know you better, it would seem you are trying to be inflammatory.

    In past discussions on ability grouping, you've asked for evidence of my assertions, I've thrown up half-a-dozen high-powered studies, and you've denied their efficacy. I would challenge you and others to suspend your beliefs and, explore this topic and seek a better way to meet your students' needs.

    Students placed in static low groups learn less than low students placed in heterogenous groups.
     
  5. gr3teacher

    gr3teacher Phenom

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    And gifted students placed with other gifted students learn more.
     
  6. Backroads

    Backroads Aficionado

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    And taking the time to teach my lowest students basic skills helps them learn to read rather than ignoring it in a group lesson.
     
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  7. Caesar753

    Caesar753 Multitudinous

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    This was definitely my experience as a gifted student myself. It has further been what I as a teacher have witnessed among my gifted students.
     
  8. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    The literature shows some weak benefit for grouping gifted students together. I will do this several times a month. This year I have a gifted student who has some emotional issues and her best friend is also gifted, so everyone's life is easier when I put those two together.

    Just because an educator avoids ability grouping, doesn't mean that teacher ignores the academic and emotional needs of the rest of the class. It would be wrong not to address academic weakness in the low kids in a whole class lesson. Gifted and other students should have engaging and challenging activities, but don't always need to be grouped together.
     
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  9. EdEd

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    Thanks Tyler - definitely wasn't offended personally, but didn't think it was helpful either. I think my use of the term "intellectual vacuum" may be a bit over the top, admittedly, but I also think I was speaking about a specific pattern of discussion, rather than trying to characterize you as an individual or professional. It sounds like we're probably on the same page here, and I also offer my apologies for an inflammation.

    With past discussions, my issue isn't that you haven't offered up a study when requested, but you seem to stop responding once I offer criticism or perceived limitations of the study. Specifically, you've never addressed my concerns that 100% of the studies you offer do not isolate the variable of "ability groups" independent of things like expectations, rigor, mobility, etc. Without that experimental control, it's not possible to make specific statements about ability groups as a whole, just how they were done in specific situations. I'm not ignoring or denying that ability groups can cause problems, and acknowledge the studies and conditions under which they don't work. However, those results don't generalize to all situations, and I've yet to hear a response from you in this department.
     
  10. swansong1

    swansong1 Virtuoso

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    Whatever semantics you want to use...ability or skill grouping...that is exactly what you are doing when you give your high students more challenging work.
     
  11. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    Ability grouping is putting students into a fairly static group. In a classroom where ability grouping takes place, a low reading group would have different stories to read and different workbooks/assignments than middle and high groups.

    The members of the low group could consist of ELL students, students with developmental delays, bright students with attention problems, immature students, and IEP students with specific learning problems. Despite having vastly different needs, they are all together because they performed poorly on a placement test and are all given the same story and workbook. The story and workbook were not at all designed for their grade level maturity level and be of fairly low interest.

    This plan does not work nearly as well for me as putting those students into the whole class literature and making accommodations to make sure they are able to keep up.
     
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  12. a2z

    a2z Maven

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    How do you make accommodations for a student who is two or more grades behind trying to read the same literature as the rest of the class? How does this improve their ability to read and how do you assess their reading improvement?
     
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  13. 2ndTimeAround

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    not necessarily. That isn't what I've seen IRL. I've seen the same material being covered, just in different ways.
     
  14. swansong1

    swansong1 Virtuoso

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    I understand that many posters here use research studies to back up their personal educational philosophies. If that works for them and they are successful as a teacher, that's great. However, my personal philosophy is to use my personal experience
    I'm interested. What type of accommodations do you provide for those low students to keep up with your high students?
     
  15. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    A student that far behind in reading, [I have one right now], would typically get sped services in addition to what I'm doing in class.

    My lowest reader, I'll call him Johnny, reads with a partner, peer tutor or parent volunteer when doing our whole class lessons. I'll tell the class they need to read X number of pages, but I'll define success for Johnny with fewer pages.

    I'll tell you how it improves reading for him. They average student in my class reads 5 to 6 thousand words a day (fifth grade). Johnny reads about 3,000. If I put in him into a third grade text, he'd read about 1,000 to 2,000 and he'd be doing much of it when I was meeting with other groups. Since the whole class is in the same book, I can see right away if he's off task. In 100 days of school, he'll have read 300,000 words—much of it with a tutor, partner or adult. I don't teach reading "skills" unless I see something specifically holding back a reader. For example, last we were reading a story where the author put the protagonist's thoughts into italics. Some of my students didn't understand this, so we had a quick, on the fly, lesson.

    I assess Johnny in several ways, but the most powerful is that I listen to him read several times a week. I also observe what he reads during Silent Reading time. Four times a year, my students take the STAR reading test. I find the state tests useless for determining progress.
     
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  16. gr3teacher

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    Unless you put it at the level of your highest student though, you're going to have at least one student who is bored at reading something too easy for them. I've had ranges of six years before... this year it's much more compact (all my readers are at approximately DRA 40-50, with the exception of a young lady at an 80), but my situation is fairly unique. The year I had a six year range in my room, I can't fathom how I would have been treating everybody fairly if they were all in the same book, all the time. I also question how much a below grade level student is going to learn to read if they are only presented with text that they are unable to decode. They could have the entire book read aloud to them, of course, but that isn't building reading skills... it's building listening skills.
     
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  17. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    High students read the class book with the class, but have different follow-up assignments. When we're studying, for example, how Avi constructs his long sentences, we'll discuss this and pull out examples during the whole class lesson and read through. Then I'll ask the class to re-read that chapter to figure out how Avi's long sentences affect the story. My advanced readers will not re-read the same chapter; they'll read another book.
     
  18. swansong1

    swansong1 Virtuoso

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    How do you improve Johnny's basic reading skills when he pretty much just reads all day with someone who probably helps him with all the words he doesn't know, but isn't trained to provide specific reading skills instruction? If johnny is 2 or 3 grade levels behind, his comprehension is probably lacking, also. He most likely will not understand the higher level text you are using, again because he is not being instructed by the people who are helping him to read.

    I understand that his oral reading skills will improve if he reads more, but if he isn't receiving direct, specific skill instruction, just reading more isn't going to give the necessary results. Just my opinion, of course.
     
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  19. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    When I was teaching sixth grade, I read "Bridge to Terabithia" and when I got to the sad part, nearly everyone in the room was crying. When I read it to my fourth graders several years later, there was only one cryer: me. The book was too advanced for their emotional development.

    When you choose powerfully written literature appropriate for the age of your students, you will move everyone. Also, I don't call the class literature our "reading" text. I call it our writing text. I have three identified gifted students in my class this year, but no one in our entire town is smart enough to write as well as Avi.

    We study how he writes: his sentences, his word choices, his writing conventions, and how he creates suspense and humor. Each day after reading, we have a writing assignment where we attempt to write like he does. We study and imitate one small skill at a time. My high kids are not one bit bored. They are fired up and terribly excited to learn so much.
     
  20. Backroads

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    So... you still give different levels of kids different assignments and different books?

    Tyler, with all due respect, I'm getting the impression that it's not ability grouping when you do something but if anyone else does something similar, it is ability grouping.
     
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  21. gr3teacher

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    I've done Bridge to Terabithia with 3rd graders, with a multitude of criers, mostly girls.

    So when you do reading with the class, you call that your writing block. Fair enough. I'm going to go out on a limb though and guess that some of your writers are still significantly more advanced than others, and benefit from more advanced writing lessons? That also leads into the question of how you handle reading lessons. Do you do reading conferences with students (which are inherently going to be ability-based)?
     
  22. Loomistrout

    Loomistrout Devotee

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    I encountered this years ago as a sub; an eighth-grade class working out of third-grade workbooks - pics and content were embarrassing.

    Fact you are concerned about designing effective instruction is commendable and speaks to a possible central theme regarding which side of the fence one stands regarding ability grouping - "Is it working?" or, more specifically, "Is it working for me?" Whether one believes Hattie's finding, 0.12 effect size, for ability grouping or questions its validity the mere fact of acquiring this type of information may, at the very least, cause one to reflect on one's method(s) and make some artful decisions regarding instruction. EdEd makes a good point regarding it's not either-or. Whether you agree or not it's worth noting from Madeline Hunter: "It's not that critical what you put into kids. What's critical is what you get out."
     
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  23. a2z

    a2z Maven

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    I thank you for the explanation that you have given so far. I still am lacking on what certain aspects look like, and I don't want to make assumptions. Do you mind some additional questions?

    What does read with a partner look like? Who is reading and how much is being read?

    Who is the peer tutor? Is this a student from a higher grade level coming in to help the student read? Again, who is reading?

    Explain the role of parent volunteer when working with the child. Who reads?

    Is Johnny actually reading as many words as you say or is "reading" being used as a loose term for being exposed to by either reading some words by himself or having others read for him? If he is reading, can he really understand what he is reading if he is two or more years behind? Is he really pronouncing words correctly? How does he approach words that are beyond his ability?

    Why would he be reading fewer words if he was in books that are at his independent reading level? It would seem to me that he would be more capable and more fluent in books that are at his level thus being able to read more words than struggling through a text he isn't independently capable of handling. That is why I have asked the questions about who is actually reading when Johnny is with the peer tutor, the other student, or a parent volunteer.

    Also, how significant are the services that the students are receiving through special education?
     
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2016
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  24. EdEd

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    I tend to agree with Tyler on this - it's definitely possible to differentiate in non-ability group settings, and I don't doubt that you (Tyler) are doing this in the way you're describing.

    This is not true as a general characterization. It's certainly possible, but what you've described is a poor implementation of a group, not the norm or default. No effective teacher I've seen forms groups by dumping all low performing kids in the same one without consideration of their specific instructional needs and skill levels.

    No idea where you're coming from with this one.
     
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  25. EdEd

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    Honestly, this is inappropriate. You have a professional obligation to your students to do what works, and what works the best. "Research" refers broadly to the body of collective work that has demonstrated what works. I'm not saying ignore your personal experience - far from it.

    This is basically the same as a doctor deciding to ignore all research on medications and their side effects, and simply prescribing what works in his/her personal experience. A lot of people would die.
     
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  26. Backroads

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    Of course we should consider research and consider it deeply. But I can't refuse to take Johnny aside to teach him his alphabet and ignore his alphabetic needs because it doesn't apply to the whole - group lesson and then get all flustered when I blame the research.
     
  27. EdEd

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    So, to chime in on the continued discussion and challenge that Tyler isn't meeting his group's needs in class:

    In short, my perspective is that it's all about how diverse his learners are in his classroom. I don't doubt that he's able to lead whole group instruction effectively, and provide some (small) level of differentiation in that context, provided that kids are within a certain instructional zone. I think we can all probably identify effective whole class lessons we've led - even if it's in other areas such as social studies - because the skills required to both 1) be up to the challenge, and 2) not be bored, are roughly the same across all kids. In short, Tyler is probably doing an amazing job with the kids in his class. The problem is that all kids are not like Tyler's.

    The real problem comes when your learners are all over the place; when you're teaching 3rd grade and have 4 kids are reading on a K level, 5 kids on a 1st level, 5 kids on a 2nd level, and so on up to some kids being on a 6th grade level. Even in this scenario, I don't doubt that Tyler could come into your classroom and lead a few (or even many) whole group activities involving literature that would be effective & engaging. I think we could nit-pick his methods, and probably discover a few shortcomings, but I think our argument here is not against his ability to describe some lessons that could work. The real argument is that there are still glaring needs that kids in this diverse class would have that simply won't be met by whole group instruction.

    For example, there are countless studies demonstrating the importance of phonemic awareness & phonics instruction in a direct instruction context for beginning readers. There is simply no way to do this in a whole class environment when half your class is reading on a 3rd grade level or above, and half working several years behind. Tyler, you've mentioned SPED services, but this simply isn't the reality in many schools - I know so many more kids several years behind that are not receiving services than are. Now, RtI is changing that in some schools, which is great, but do you know what RtI is at the Tier II level? Ability groups, as we're calling them here: skill-specific, fluid groups based on a child's specific instructional needs. Just with someone else leading them.

    Thinking about this from a more structural perspective when it comes to SPED, as I discussed before, there is no hard and fast line between SPED & non-SPED, especially now with RtI where we're expected to provide a continuum of services - more support for kids with more need. Teachers are expected to identify how they've met the needs of struggling students in the context of Tier I/general education before moving to Tier II - and this IS considered part of the continuum of individualized services of which SPED is a part. In other words, we can't simply wait until a child has been labeled "learned disabled" before he receives individualized instruction. That thinking is from the 1970s, unethical, and in some states flat out illegal.

    Reigning myself back in, I bet I'd love to be a student in Tyler's class - it sounds engaging, community-oriented, fast-paced, interactive. If I had a child in Tyler's grade that was on level, I bet I'd request Tyler to be my child's teacher. Moreover, for classrooms with relatively similar learners, I think Tyler's approach would be more effective than those of us who would continue to insist we do small group instruction. However, if I had a child who was 2 years behind, not a chance. What this means is that I think the effectiveness of Tyler's approach to teaching will be directly proportional to the homogeneity of his students' skill levels.
     
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  28. EdEd

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    Well, as I've mentioned, there's not been a single study which has shown skill groups or ability groups to be ineffective across all conditions. So, I think you're safe :).

    That being said, even if there were a study or two demonstrating some slight drawbacks to using the method, there are literally thousands of studies out there which demonstrate extremely positive results of instructional interventions delivered in small group contexts, even within classrooms.

    What you're really saying is that you also know that there is empirical support that alphabetic needs should be considered & addressed in specific ways. You aren't ignoring research - you're directly including it.
     
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2016
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  29. Backroads

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    EdEd, you understand me. :)

    To be perfectly honest, the idea of small groups was something that took me a big majority of my college education to accept and I never really did care for them as a major part of the school day. When I taught first grade, I could even better avoid them. But now that I teach 2nd grade and I have kids that don't know the alphabet or can't write their names, that extra year shows some major problems. The suggestions Tyler was making that I shouldn't take those struggling kids aside and get them the interventions they qualify for based on RtI was more than made sense to me.

    Even now, my small group is mainly individual meetings with the smattering of one-time skill groups.

    It's needed!

    I would also add on the SPED stuff... even with the best of SPED services, and I daresay remove that "even", the general ed teacher still holds a lot of responsibility. One can't simply write off a student as being too far off the homogeneous group.
     
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  30. gr3teacher

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    I can agree that whole group instruction CAN be meaningful for all all students. When I talk about ability grouping, I'm thinking of my own situation, as a teacher of gifted students. My students learn more in my classroom than they would in a heterogeneous classroom. That isn't meant as a slight against any teacher or the methods they use, it's just an acknowledgement of reality, as well as the research behind homogeneous grouping of gifted students. My students master math curricula a full year beyond their base school classmates, and are able to dig deeper into concepts at both grade levels. My students are able to use simple machines in meaningful PBL. Their classmates are only given barest introduction to simple machines (that unit happens to fall during state testing season...), etc.

    Is it possible that my students would learn as much in Tyler's heterogenously grouped classroom as in mine? Sure. I've never seen his classroom. Does research back up the idea that it is likely, or that if he can, the other teachers on his team would have the same success? No.
     
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  31. blazer

    blazer Connoisseur

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    Not sure how it works across the USA (I only have experience of Chicago) but in my school we have about a dozen students who are recent arrivals and have no English. We have 2 students with Downs Syndrome and several with brain damage caused by oxygen starvation at birth. There is no way that they would function in a mixed ability setting. Some of the non English speakers we would put in a high ability group. This is because we know that they are bright and by putting them in a high group the teacher actually gets a chance to sit with them as the rest of the class will work on tasks without supervision.
    Personally I would try to avoid teaching in an establishment that had mixed ability classes as I would feel that I would be unable to do a good job with the majority of students in front of me.
     
  32. swansong1

    swansong1 Virtuoso

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    We will agree to disagree on this topic. I have taught for many years and have seen the same "research" come around every 10 or 15 years. Nothing changes except the jargon. I know how to teach and I know how to get the best out of my students. The basic tenets of reading and math do not change...despite all the new jargon that comes around. My professional obligation is to use my experience to get the best out of my students...and reading about new educational jargon that reinvents the wheel every few years is not a productive use of my time.

    As for your doctor example...science definitely does change so a doctor needs to know the new science.
     
  33. Pashtun

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    Teaching hasn't changed? Really?
     
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  34. EdEd

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    Mar 13, 2016

    ;)
     
  35. EdEd

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    Mar 13, 2016

    swansong I'm trying to understand where you're coming from, and it seems that the research you're reading seems redundant and unhelpful. Honestly, I've read some of that too. With some of the publications that I pay close attention to, I often find myself rolling my eyes and asking myself, "This is really a research study?" So many topics seems to be things that are common sense or things have already been researched. On top of that, so many research studies are so specific that I question whether they could be generalized to the average classroom.

    That being said, just because there is a lot of noise doesn't mean there isn't some good stuff out there. And, just because there is noise, doesn't give us the right not only to dismiss valid studies, but the very concept of research itself. I can see the frustration, and I can see dismissing certain studies because they don't meet your standards. But if the definition of "research" is "what works," then good research can't really be invalidated conceptually.

    In terms of "I know how to teach," this is something that I try to tell my kids: We can always get better. So many kids say, for example, "I know how to read." Well, reading isn't a dichotomous variable - it's not something you either know how to do or not. It's something you gradually get better at. No teacher, no matter how good, has mastered all things teaching. The best teacher in the world can get better. This isn't to say the teacher isn't sufficient or isn't absolutely amazing. But, and this is really a beautiful thing, we can always grow. Imagine if kids just thought of themselves as either "having it" or not - that they couldn't be influenced by anyone or anything else. Why would we teach them anything? As teachers, is it appropriate that we hold that belief system?
     
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  36. swansong1

    swansong1 Virtuoso

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    Mar 14, 2016

    I'll challenge you, Pashtun(and I'm not trying to be argumentative)...give me an example of a new teaching concept that isn't indicative of the wheel being reinvented.
     
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  37. Pashtun

    Pashtun Fanatic

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    I don't find it argumentative, I find it a part of having a conversation versus drive by postings.

    I think what has been determined as effective has changed over the years. I think it will be hard to "prove" this because I think teaching(teachers) have a certain attitude about what they do and why. I understand what you are alluding to with the pendulum swinging back and forth, this in my opinion is motivated by former teachers trying to make money. I think research is sorting out what methods are more and less effective as well as how you implement those methods.

    A specific example could be how one gives feedback to students. Research plays a large role in refining how and what kind of feedback is effective. For me, I learned that giving a grade and feedback on an assignment makes the feedback ineffective. Students simply ignore the feedback and focus on the grade.
     
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  38. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    Mar 14, 2016

    Brain research.
     
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  39. Tyler B.

    Tyler B. Groupie

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    Mar 14, 2016

    Several of my highly respected colleagues on this board have asked me questions about my procedures. Writing out complete answers is something akin to making sub plans, so I'm going to pass.

    I work at a very high income school with two low rent apartment buildings nearby. I have 16 parent volunteers, most of which are stay-at-home moms with post graduate degrees. These people are in my class every day and are fierce advocates for their children's needs. They love what I'm doing for their children.

    Last year all my students [but two special education students] exceeded on the state tests in reading and math. I say this not to brag, but to explain that it's possible to meet the academic needs of a wide spread in abilities without ability grouping. I love my job partly because I'm teaching the literacy and math blocks whole-class. I only need to prepare one literacy lesson a day, and it usually rocks.

    My colleagues who say it's impossible to meet the needs of a wide spread of abilities are wrong. I would challenge them to try it sometime and build up the techniques and strategies so they can avoid the disadvantages of "the low group".
     
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  40. a2z

    a2z Maven

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    Mar 14, 2016

    What a shame you don't want to share. If it works so well (and I do believe you that what you are doing is working), knowing how and what is being done is important to be able to mirror the implementation elsewhere. Otherwise, people get their own pre-conceived notions about what is being done and will most likely not get the same results.

    See, my local elementary does student-buddy reading where an older child comes to read with a younger child. The problem is, there is no training for the older children and no guidance regarding what to do when the children are having problems. It hasn't made an impact.

    Ah, the secret bullet. Intensive outside help.

    I will ask again, how are these people reading with the students? What does it look like? If we know what they are doing, it will help to understand the intervention that is working.
     
    Backroads likes this.

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