Last week I joined a group of science and math teachers to talk about how the new school year was going. One of the teachers is working in a school where the administrative directive is to shift to “proficiency based” and “student-paced” learning. (I put the words in “quotes” because they seem to mean different things to different teachers.) The students in this teacher’s seventh-grade science classroom are now working at substantially different paces as they proceed through investigations. Some of what he sees happening is exciting. He said, “I am feeling a lot of discomfort, but that is also kind of exciting because when I am uncomfortable I am usually learning to do new things.” But some of the discomfort does seem related to real collisions between ideas about teaching and about what we value.
This teacher, like most of the middle school teachers I work with, is using a set of curriculum materials that they selected five years ago. The setting was an NSF-funded program that brought teachers from many rural districts together to improve science teaching and learning. At the outset of program, they were all using different sets of curriculum materials — often materials that they pulled together themselves from the Internet and other resources. Sometimes the materials supported a good lesson; more often they didn’t quite work at the level of individual lessons and failed to cohere at the “unit” level … helping students develop scientific ideas over time. So, during the first year of the program teachers from more than a dozen different districts worked together to review the published materials that were available and to select materials that they would all use. Having everyone using the same materials made a big difference in terms of teachers’ ability to share with and learn from each other. Actually, the story that I have to tell here illustrates that.
The materials for grades 7 and 8 start off with activities designed to get students thinking about a few fundamental ideas in science and engineering. One of these ideas has to do with why scientists are careful to record exactly what they do and how they do it …. their methods. A related idea is how using the same protocols enables different scientists to have a “fair” comparison of their findings … where the differences might be related to something interesting about the world, instead of just to use of different methods.
One of the activities divides the class into small “research teams” — pairs or threesomes — that work on a project to figure out how many drops of water fit on a penny. The students in each group take turns putting drops on the penny and record their results over multiple trials. The point of the activity is to get kids thinking about things such as how high the dropper should be above the coin, whether the penny should be wet or dry, whether it makes a difference how clean the penny is or what side to use. The activity assumes that there will be variation among the students in each group … but, since they are working as a group, that they will collaborate to smooth out some of that variation. The interesting part comes when the results from the whole class are aggregated. It always turns out that different groups settle on different protocols and so get really different results. This creates an opportunity for “productive talk” — where the different groups can explain why they did their research they way they did, consider other approaches, and perhaps settle on a shared protocol — getting the idea along the way that such things need to be worked out in advance if results from different research groups can be compared meaningfully.
This teacher’s class includes students with a wide range of abilities. Some of the students have difficulty reading. Some have difficulty in staying on task. He let the students choose the members of their “research team,” and the result was a kind of ability grouping. The two students with the greatest academic ability paired up … other groups generally comprised students who were comfortable with each other. Because the curriculum materials consist of an entire series of investigations, not just this one … and because in a student-paced setting, teams move forward or not at their own rates, once the teams are formed, they stay together. And, of course, there are some teams that are several investigations ahead of others.
What’s Gained and What is Lost
Before this year, the teacher used a “teacher-paced” approach to this work, where the students all worked together on a lesson and investigation. The students who were able to read the materials and organize their work ended up waiting on the students who proceeded more slowly. One upside of the student-paced approach is that these students no longer have to wait on the other kids. In the teacher’s words, they are “Loving it.”
But the teacher also sees a downside to the way he is implementing the program this year. Previously, the entire class got to consider each other’s results and have the discussion about differences in protocols that is actually the point of the investigation. This year, the kids who are moving quickly tabulate their results, don’t see much variation, and move on — actually missing the big idea.
More generally, across all of the investigations, the class is no longer engaging in teacher-facilitated, productive discourse, where the entire group learns to listen to each other, respectfully disagree, offer counter proposals, and to pay attention to each other’s thinking — taking each other seriously as people with ideas and points of view.
A while back I wrote about Deborah Ball’s experience in working with students on the difference between odd and even numbers. One student reasoned that numbers could be odd and even at the same time. Rather than just correcting him, she invited him to explain … and what followed was a discussion that involved the entire class in a new, unplanned but rich investigation of the properties of a new set of numbers that she called “Sean numbers,” naming them after the student. It provided students with the chance to learn that mathematics is a method of exploration, not just a box of stuff to learn.
What students learn from participating in such conversations, where they have to listen to each other rather than simply discount each other’s thinking as wrong or “stupid,” is just as important as other things that are going on in a lesson. Over the long run, it might actually be the more important learning.
This is what bothers me about the student-paced thing. It seems like we are reinventing tracking … segregating students by ability. Worse, by having a classroom where students are all working on different things and at different paces, we are diminishing the opportunities for teachers to facilitate productive discourse among students …. the kind of discourse where students learn how to listen, understand that there is thinking behind the ideas that others have, and to consider that thinking in formulating a response.
I do understand that it would be possible for the teacher whose story I am retelling to revise his approach to student-paced learning to periodically bring students together to discuss, say, the data that they have all collected about water drops on pennies, as a group. In that way, he could perhaps recover some of the value that is lost when students are no longer working on a shared activity. But, as he said last week while discussing this with colleagues, middle school students don’t remember or care about what they did last week. The BEST discussion will happen when all of the kids have been thinking about the problem THAT DAY, rather than trying to recall the reasons that they had for something that they did a week or more ago.
And … even to the extent that a teacher CAN make adjustments to periodically bring the class back together — it seems to me that the choice between having students work as small, self-paced groups or having them work together as a class really IS a choice … and an expression of preference and of what we think is important. It seems to me that such work is valuing the acquisition of discrete bits of science knowledge more than it is valuing the students’ learning how to listen to each other and think and work with each other.
One could make arguments for such a preference. But it is important to remember that it IS a preference … we ARE choosing to value one kind of learning more than another. This is not to say that a teacher can’t still do both to some extent … I am just talking about our “turning the dial” to favor one kind of learning more than the other. And I am wondering whether, as we start twisting this particular dial … in some cases, because we have been told to do so … everyone has thought about the full range of consequences.