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Why We Need a New Paradigm for Classroom Design

In the 1980’s, my college education heavily emphasized these theories for successful instruction:

  • Differentiation: designing instruction for groups of students who have shown they are at a similar level of ability;

  • Whole language: exposing children to real literature and assisting them to make connections organically, rather than teaching reading comprehension skills in isolation; and

  • Mainstreaming: placing special needs students with their non-disabled peer group for at least 80% of their school day.

On a surface level, mainstreaming and whole language may seem logical. When one pierces their veneer, however, one can see the pitfalls in these approaches. Mainstreaming, in particular, does not support conceptual development as envisioned.

The third element, differentiation, is the only one that stands up to scrutiny well. It makes a lot of sense to meet students at their level of need, and in the last 15 years, "differentiation" has come to mean for each student. The problem is that we are not doing that yet. We say we are doing it; we believe it is important to do it; we want to do it.

But we cannot. Yet.

Why can we not? It’s because, in the last few decades that experts have been addressing and researching achievement, only two out of these three elements of classroom design have been put under the microscope and adjusted:

  • how we teach (our strategies)

  • what we teach (our curriculum) and

  • how we put students together in class groups.

Which element has been consistently ignored? The last one, of course. Teachers are continually lectured on best practices (our strategies), and Common Core infiltrated our curriculum more than a decade ago. But discussing how we put children together in classes is a nonstarter, despite evidence that it could be a significant factor in both our ability to differentiate and our students' ability to grow academically.

So how are students grouped in their elementary classrooms? They are purposefully mixed in class groups that will mimic the world they enter at their high school graduation:

  • High, medium, and low cognitive abilities;

  • Students who care about learning with students who don’t;

  • Behavior issues with those who adhere to policies and procedures; and finally,

  • Those who ‘can’ with those who ‘cannot’. This last bullet point meshes with the idea of mainstreaming.

The education elites wholly believe this mingling of students is to their overall benefit: cognitively, emotionally, and socially. They truly believe, based on their laboratory-esque research, that children will work together productively despite their differences if teachers would just set up the environment appropriately for them to do so.

But here’s the thing: the people espousing these views don’t actually work in classrooms. They don’t see the results of their ideological bent.

We teachers, however, do.

  • We see that students on the far right of the intellectual bell curve dumb themselves down in order to fit in with their social peer group.

  • We see that in mixed ability work groups, the ‘high functioning’ students do not assist their lower functioning counterparts so that everyone learns successfully, as the experts assure us has happened “over and over” in study groups.

  • We see that it is not possible, let alone feasible, to meet the needs of all our learners when the cognitive levels can range from first to eighth grade in a typical 5th grade classroom.

But the power structure continues its insane allegiance to the idea that

placing children in purposely mixed classrooms is ideal for all learners.

It is not.

CHAOS in our schools (specifically the chapter on Differentiation) provides the evidence.

We must change the paradigm of how we group children for learning. Continuing to disavow its significance on achievement perpetuates a pattern of paying only lip-service to the idea that we care about education.

How would I change the classroom paradignm?

  • First, increase the adult - to - child ratio.

Assign three adults to a classroom of 20 students in grades two through six. (In grades K and one, the cap on students should be 15.) One adult is a fully certified teacher and the other two are para-educators with at least two years of college, either at a four-year institution or a community college. All three must pass training on the school’s mission, strategies, and curriculum prior to being placed in a classroom with children.

Why is it important to reduce class size and implement a team approach to teaching? Because teachers are engaged in an uphill battle. Experts agree that differentiation is the best way to make learning effective for everyone, but do they fully understand and appreciate how difficult it is with 30 learners? The likelihood is that a teacher will focus her efforts on those students most likely to benefit, and merely document that she's doing it for the rest. This, of course, is not desirable but is probably inevitable, given the situation. There are only so many hours in a day and energy in one person.

  • Second, place children of a similar need and ability in the same classroom.

This means making class assignments based on the outcome of testing. If we did that, children and their guardians would take testing more seriously. If parents knew that their child was going to be placed with kids of like ability and motivation, they would be more apt to push their children to care about their education. At present, many of my students operate from a standpoint of ‘I don’t really want to participate unless it’s “fun”.’ And their parents are counseled that this is entirely okay.

  • Third, adjust how we assign teachers to classrooms.

No teacher is a master of everything: some are good at working with challenged learners; some are good at working with gifted learners; and some are good at working with the middle of the bell curve. But we don’t assign teachers to classrooms according to their education or skill level. Their unions won’t allow it. We assign teachers randomly to the purposely mixed groups we have created. The rationale for this is to make teaching ‘fair’ to all teachers. But how is it fair to students?

  • Fourth, place students in mixed groups for non-core classes because that addresses their need for social-emotional growth.

These non-core classes include art, music, physical education, mealtime, and recess. This means that some students will leave their core classroom to join students from other core classrooms for their art instruction, for instance, further increasing the likelihood of differentated core instruction for those who remain.

  • And finally, make core class groupings fluid across a school year.

If a child experiences significant growth, he can be moved to a more challenging core classroom. Likewise, should he regress, he moves to a classroom that addresses his lagging skills. In the long run, this will help him grow academically, something both he and his parents should be counseled to understand.

The non-core class assignments for art, music, and P.E. will remain the same, fostering continuity in the child's day. If fluidity becomes standard practice, everyone will adapt.

How we group students for learning is important to their success, but there is more to consider in creating a successful school. You can find the rest of my plan in the final chapter of my book.

In the end, it is imperative that we make our classrooms effective places to learn rather than stubbornly insist on theories that often do not work.

At present, we are merely supplying drivel to the public about how we want all children to learn.

The truth is that we do not want all children to learn, not when we ignore the most obvious way to improve their chance for it: changing the classroom itself.


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