Friday, October 21, 2011

conflict in the blogosphere...

A couple of items came to my attention today during my usual perusal of the Washington Post Education section. One is a piece by Jay Mathews (again) which, to be fair, decries the not-well-thought-out implementation of required honors courses in Anne Arundel County, but ultimately sticks with his previous claim that all students should take honors classes. Unfortunately, I can't find a link to his original post from several months ago, but I'll work on that and hopefully add it to this page soon.

Of course, since you know how I feel about everything Jay Mathews writes (or, at least, it seems like everything), it left me twitching and frantically typing in the comments section. It turns out I just can't stop myself.

The other is on Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet blog. In this post, the author challenges the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's conclusion that highly-advanced and gifted students are being shortchanged by our current basic-standards-based system. I think you know which side I support on THAT issue...

I'll try to return and post some analytical-type comments about each one here but, honestly, we have a pile of family coming to our house Sunday, so I might not get to it. But I'll try.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

PSAT this Saturday!

Attention 8th-Graders!!!

If you completed and submitted Part I of the AOS application last month, you're registered to take the PSAT at Dominion High School this Saturday, October 15 at 8am. Be there, and don't forget to bring your admission ticket (mailed home the week of October 3).

Good luck!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

room for debate

The New York Times Room for Debate on October 3rd focused on the needs and academic gains of high-ability learners and the concept of 'differentiation' in the regular, mainstream classroom. Studies show that although heterogeneous classrooms appear to support achievement for average and struggling students, high-ability students show relatively little achievement growth in this scenario. In other words, everyone else grows while the top-ability groups stagnate.

The question then becomes, "What do we do about it?" Carol Ann Tomlinson of the University of Virginia touts differentiation of instruction as an appropriate remedy, and I agree to a point. As she states, differentiation is a wonderful tool when used appropriately and skillfully; unfortunately, we often throw 35 students spanning 6 or 7 grade levels of ability and/or achievement into one room, and then expect the teacher to essentially individualize instruction. This might be possible in certain subjects or in non-traditional settings which do not emphasize high-stakes tests (Montessori is an obvious example), but you can't pound the round peg of differentiation into the square hole of mainstream, traditional classrooms without two things: adequate professional development and support for teachers and massive reevaluation of the goals of public schooling. So far, no dice.

If our goal is to encourage and equip students to pass multiple-choice tests, drill-and-kill is the way to go, regardless of class make-up. Though certainly not foolproof, it seems to be the best way to get students to fill in the right answers and, since high-ability students tend to pass these tests, it's okay to essentially ignore them; after all, they're a safe source of high scores. We tend to aim instruction at the 'fence-sitters' in this scenario: students who are low-average achievers and right on the edge of passing. There's not much of a push for average students to do more, and certainly not for high-ability students to excel; in fact, sometimes we even hear of high-ability students being denigrated by the teacher for 'reading ahead' or behaving as if they're 'smarter than everyone else'.

If our goal, however, is to encourage and equip students to think creatively, find and solve problems, construct understanding and knowledge, and effectively self-assess and self-evaluate, we have to do better. Differentiation in heterogeneous classrooms is a laudable goal, can be beneficial, and should be done as much as possible, but there is also value in allowing high-ability students to spend a portion of their time with their intellectual peers. Not only does it discourage them from doing "just enough to get by", but it also has benefits for average and struggling students.

Regarding Room for Debate, I wish there had been an actual teacher on the panel. Just one. Everyone who submitted a piece is either a researcher or associated with an advocacy or policy group (which tend to be funded by private interests with agendas of their own), with the exception of one school principal. Once again, those whose experience and opinions might better inform debate (TEACHERS!) are left out. Once again, we've missed an opportunity to elevate the discourse and given disproportionate voice to special interests, some of which are for-profit. I'm disappointed, to say the least.

Monday, September 19, 2011

AOS Part I

**Attention Eighth-Graders**

Application Part I for Academy of Science is due TODAY, September 19!!!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cooperative Grouping Lesson

I didn't post this lesson example as soon as I anticipated, obviously, but better late than never, right??!!

My students completed the eCybermission project in March of this year. Sponsored by the US Army, it's a problem-finding and -solving competition which requires students to use the scientific method and science, technology, engineering, and/or math concepts to identify and propose solutions to community problems.

My students covered many different issues, from excessive cafeteria waste to acne-causing bacteria, and many were surprised by the solutions they found, not to mention the creativity they didn't realize they possessed. This project would be perfect in a mixed-ability classroom because of the huge diversity of opportunities and challenges it offers, especially since it places such emphasis on teamwork.

The unit plan I wrote is here.

And one of my groups was a winner :)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cooperative Learning...or...Heterogeneous Learning Groups

Ah, a safe topic. Or not.

Cooperative learning is one of the most commonly used, yet poorly implemented, strategies in the classroom teacher's toolbox, and it seems each individual teacher and administrator is either strongly in favor of using it often and for many different types of tasks, or strongly opposed to using it at all for anything. Personally, I'm in the middle. Having been the child who was expected to teach material to my classmates regularly and remembering how frustrated I felt (I'm talking to YOU, certain elementary school teacher who I will not name), I've always been wary of using it with regard to gifted and academically advanced students.

However, cooperative learning groups have undeniable advantages when it comes to learning to work with human beings who have a wide range of backgrounds, skill sets, interests, and talents. Since I'm a gifted resource teacher, this post will focus, as usual, on cooperative learning as it relates specifically to gifted students, though I will also briefly touch on some issues relevant to other ability groups.

One thing is critically important to keep in mind; this scenario (and the accompanying example lessons) is specific to public schools with relatively large class sizes. It would be wonderful to have very small classes such that we could effectively individualize education, and it would be wonderful to have a situation where teachers could function more as 'guides' who help students design their own educations rather than 'instructors' who must often attempt to deliver knowledge as if it was a newspaper, but THIS IS NOT REALITY for the vast majority of American children. Most teachers face daily challenges to creativity and autonomy due to SOLs, pacing guides, administrative directives, common lesson plans and assessments, and other imposed parameters. Should we work to change the structure of public school? I would argue 'yes' but, at the same time, we continue working within that structure because we have no choice.


Imagine a scenario in which a gifted student, Steve, is expressing general unhappiness and boredom in his fifth-grade class. His teacher, Ms. Goodman, recently attended a professional development workshop focused on cooperative learning groups, and she has been regularly implementing the strategy since returning to the classroom. Steve's mother has contacted Ms. Goodman to express her concerns, and stated that Steve feels he is expected to constantly teach material to the less-advanced students in his group in order to keep up and complete assignments. Ms. Goodman tells the mother that the other children are showing some academic enhancement and advancement as a result of working with Steve, and she expresses her strong conviction about cooperative learning as a tool for developing skills in working with a large range of backgrounds and behaviors. Steve's mother is dissatisfied with this response and tells Ms. Goodman that it is not Steve's responsibility to teach or inspire other students at the expense of his own continuous academic progress.


First, what exactly is cooperative learning? According to Johnson and Johnson (1994), cooperative learning has five essential elements:

1. Clearly perceived positive interdependence
2. Considerable promotive (face-to-face) interaction
3. Clearly perceived individual accountability and personal responsibility to achieve the group’s goals
4. Frequent use of the relevant interpersonal and small-group skills
5. Frequent and regular group processing of current functioning to improve the group’s future effectiveness

Ideally, cooperative learning groups should consist of a range of abilities, backgrounds, interests, and skills and, in order to be effective for both average- and high-ability students, should be used mainly for tasks requiring complex-level thinking skills. Work which could be completed alone or a task which will be assessed with a single collective grade are particularly poor candidates for this strategy because they directly violate the first and third principles, respectively (Johnson & Johnson, 1994; Huss, 2006).

And now, back to our scenario...

Steve’s mother is correct in several areas. Steve should not be expected to ignite other children "at the expense of his own continuous progress”. Ms. Goodman is using cooperative grouping for most, if not all, of the students’ independent practice time; this type of implementation is generally not appropriate for a gifted student (Huss, 2006; Johnson & Johnson, 1994).

Asking (or simply expecting) Steve to teach the material to the other students in his group is not fair to him or to them. Though cooperative learning can be marginally helpful for average and struggling students with regard to basic knowledge and skills (as measured by standardized tests, themselves known to be unreliable indicators for gifted children, at best), the strategy has not been shown to consistently address the higher thinking levels critical for advanced students (VanTassel-Baska et al, 1992). In fact, due to gifted students’ often advanced knowledge-, comprehension-, and application-level understanding of material, cooperative learning can at times be no different from peer tutoring, practically speaking (ibid). Webb (1982) found advanced students are often not effective with regard to explaining material to lower-level learners, and they require explicit instruction and modeling in this skill, which does not generally occur (VanTassel-Baska et al, 1992). In other words, even when tasked with explaining material to others, gifted students often prove to be rather poor teachers.

Cooperative learning can also involve several negative social effects for struggling students and students with disabilities: they are often perceived negatively in the first place, they are easy blame targets if the project is not successful, and they may require instruction and modeling in appropriate peer interaction before they can be successful in a group situation at all (ibid). This research shows us two things; not only is cooperative learning often not appropriately advanced or challenging for gifted students, but it is not reliably positive for many of the students who share their groups.

At the same time, however, Ms. Goodman is correct in her assertion that learning to work with the full diversity of human behaviors is a good thing. As stated by Sapon-Shevin and Schniedewind (1993), cooperative learning is designed to encourage “learning to respect others' differences and to interact successfully with people from different racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups and whose skills are widely divergent”. There can be no doubt this is an important aim. In this sense, the social-interactive effects associated with appropriately-implemented cooperative learning may be helpful for all students.

It seems a compromise is in order. Steve’s mother is certainly justified in her dissatisfaction with the extent of heterogeneous cooperative learning in Ms. Goodman’s class, but Ms. Goodman also appears to have good intentions in emphasizing social interactions and understanding between her students. The major problem appears to be implementation. The key to cooperative learning as a successful tool for gifted learners lies in limiting the scope to “challenging, creative, open-ended, and higher order thinking tasks” (Huss, 2006). Rather than using it for every independent practice activity, Ms. Goodman should limit the use of cooperative learning to specific lessons and situations in order to avoid emphasizing the needs of struggling students to the detriment of gifted children (Fiedler et al, 2002).


I'll post a lesson example (actually, it will probably be more like three or four class periods of 45 minutes each at the middle school level, due to the complexity of the project) tomorrow. If you'd like a preview, though, check out Ecybermission's website for a basic overview of the community problem-solving competition my students completed at the beginning of this month.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How does ability grouping benefit students in the regular classroom?

The most appropriate words come, in fact, from a student himself: “When Bill (the gifted one) was in class, it was like the sun shining on a bright, clear day. But, when he went out to work with other gifted kids, it was like when the sun goes over the horizon. The rest of us were like the moon and the stars; that’s when we finally got a chance to shine” (Fiedler, 1980, quoted by Rogers, 2002).
In other words, we do not know that of which students are capable if they are never given a chance to show it. Many educators assume average-ability students will reach to match the achievements of their high-ability classmates if they are placed in the same classes, but if they feel constantly and consistently outshone, this strategy may well have a deleterious effect on them instead.

As stated by Feldhusen (1989), "...grouping of gifted and talented students in special classes with a differentiated curriculum, or as a cluster group in a regular heterogeneous classroom (but again with differentiated curriculum and instruction), leads to higher academic achievement and better academic attitudes for the gifted and leads to no decline in achievement or attitudes for the children who remain in the regular heterogeneous classroom".

As I stated in my previous post, "We do not even blink when one group of athletes is placed on the varsity team while others play JV, nor do we think twice about providing special education services to students who struggle due to various disabilities (Pare, 2004). People tend not to see these things as “giving one group an unfair advantage”; JV teams provide places for athletes to hone their skills while still receiving playing time, while those with already-developed and/or extraordinary abilities are not forced to do drills and exercises they do not need. Special education services permit certain students the accommodations they need to learn and grow at an appropriate and reasonable pace, while allowing other students to learn and grow at a more accelerated tempo. Why should appropriately serving gifted students be any different?"

Some argue ability grouping is damaging to the self-esteem of students who are NOT placed in the upper-level groups. There are two problems with this argument; first, there are no studies (to the best of my knowledge) which corroborate this view. Self-esteem is affected by so many factors that it is impossible to attribute it to a single incident or situation (Kulik, 1992; Pare, 2004). In fact, Kulik's (1992) research finds that classroom impacts on self-esteem actually have a leveling effect, and he concludes that "no one program is really any more detrimental than any other program in producing negative self-concepts" (quoted by Pare, 2004).

Second, we tend not to emphasize self-esteem issues when placing children in special education services or separating them into appropriate athletic teams. We do this because we know we're putting them into the programs which will most effectively serve their needs and help them succeed, and we communicate this intent to these children. Again, why should appropriately serving gifted students be any different?

A successful classroom/gifted resource teacher relationship can result in the best outcome possible: flourishing gifted students, as well as typical students who feel heard and valued, are able to step up their creativity, and do not feel outshone in class. If, as Fiedler, Lange and Winebrenner (2002) say, “…one goal of education is to help all students develop a realistic appraisal of their own ability”, classroom and gifted resource teachers must find a way to successfully collaborate.

If it is true that students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (IDEA), classroom and gifted resource teachers must find a way to successfully collaborate. If it is true that school systems are currently “giving tacit approval to create underachievement in one ability group so that the needs of the other ability groups can be served” (Fiedler, Lange, and Winebrenner, 2002), classroom and gifted resource teachers must find a way to successfully collaborate in order to ensure that this is not the case.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ability grouping is NOT tracking...and here's why

“Grouping all the gifted students together is tantamount to racism. The students will be tracked and I am morally against this.”

One can make two major arguments in response to this statement. First, gifted students do not necessarily have to be grouped together in one homogeneous unit all the time. We might use within-class grouping, cluster grouping, cross-grade grouping, subject-specific grouping, pull-out programs, and/or full-class heterogeneous grouping as appropriate, and these can all be flexible options (Allan, 1991; Gentry & Owen, 1999; Rogers, 2002; Rogers, Re-Forming Gifted Education).

There is no reason these opportunities should be seen as set in stone; the idea of tracking, where identified GT students are always together for every class (and other students are effectively blocked from participating in compacted, higher-level courses), is unreasonable if we consider the myriad ways and speeds at which children learn and grow. This is one of the reasons Virginia now requires annual screening of all students for GT services (8VAC20-40-40); children change, and we have to give abilities and talents a chance to emerge.

It is true some students show intellectual giftedness in all areas of the curriculum, but most have strengths and weaknesses; advanced in math does not necessarily mean advanced in language arts. Flexible grouping, a major tenet of differentiated instruction (see Carol Ann Tomlinson for lots of information about this), is designed to address just these types of scenarios.

The second tactic involves challenging the very assumption of a superior/inferior dichotomy. As stated by Fiedler, Lange, and Winebrenner (2002), “…being able to function at an advanced level intellectually does not, automatically, make an individual better than anyone else. It merely implies a difference that requires an educational response that may be erroneously interpreted by some as giving one group an unfair advantage”.

We do not even blink when one group of athletes is placed on the varsity team while others play JV, nor do we think twice about providing special education services to students who struggle due to various disabilities (Pare, 2004). People tend not to see these things as “giving one group an unfair advantage”; JV teams provide places for athletes to hone their skills while still receiving playing time, while those with already-developed and/or extraordinary abilities are not forced to do drills and exercises they do not need. Special education services permit certain students the accommodations they need to learn and grow at an appropriate and reasonable pace, while allowing other students to learn and grow at a more accelerated tempo. Why should appropriately serving gifted students be any different?

Rather than assuming intellectually advanced students will be seen (and see themselves) as superior to others, we should be attempting to understand gifted students and giftedness in the context of individual differences, just like we do with athletics, fine arts, and other areas (Fiedler, Lange, & Winebrenner, 2002; Rogers, 2002).

Insisting, instead, that all students be grouped heterogeneously at all times has a terrible consequence of its own; we actually encourage elitist attitudes among gifted students by ensuring they will always be “the smartest kids in each class”. Unless they are appropriately challenged by spending at least some of their time with intellectual peers, they may develop the very attitude many seek to avoid by refusing them these crucial interactions (Fiedler, Lange, & Winebrenner, 2002).


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