Friday, May 2, 2014

Who Learns in Your Classroom?

Teacher, I'm going to ask a horrible, nasty question that you might not want to answer. But I think it has to be asked, and I hope you will reflect on it:

Who learns in your classroom?

I know when I first started thinking about this question, my immediate reaction was, "Why...everyone, of course!"

But I think that's the answer I want to be true.

If I'm really honest about it, not every student in my class learns. In fact, there may be days when few of them are actually learning.

Some students are distracted, unmotivated, or uninterested, and will not connect with the material because I do not make it relevant to them.

Other students will struggle, and maybe they will be unable to learn the content. Perhaps somewhere between my planning and the execution of the lesson, I missed something, or maybe they aren't developmentally ready for the material.

Still others already know the content I am planning to teach--they don't learn it, because they already know it.

This last group is the ones I'm really thinking about today. I think our school culture today is strongly focused on the low achieving, low ability students. Even the name of the legislation for funding much of public education--"No Child Left Behind"--emphasizes this fact.

And it's hard, right? They are smart kids. They are the ones who read ahead, who are bored by the stuff they already know. If they aren't causing trouble, it's easy to leave them to their own devices, because we're all so busy ensuring that no one is being left behind. We figure that things will work out for them, because they're sharp kids.

Is this okay?

Can I slack off and say, "Hey, there's only one of me and 20 (30?) of them. I can't be all things to all people. They're the smart kids; they'll be fine."

It would be nice to be able to say that some days.

But I think we need to get real about the fact that school is supposed to be about learning. Yes, that means we want low-ability, low-achieving students to learn. But that also means we should be providing opportunities for high-ability, high-achieving students to learn as well!

I think we need to reconsider what we are doing for gifted learners just as much as we think about what we are doing for struggling learners, and the kids in the middle too. How can we shift our thinking? We need to be deliberate about making school a place of learning for all of our students. Just this morning I read this article from Education Week entitled Gifted Ed. is Crucial, but the Label Isn't. Teacher, I encourage you to read it. Reflect on it. Discuss it with colleagues.

How are you going to make your classroom a place where all students learn something new every day?


  1. I totally agree, Dave. I do think the Gifted student gets over looked frequently due to the focus on the low-achieving student. I think for the most part, the high achieving students are really at the mercy of the teacher they have. If the teacher knows the advanced math, for example, he or she can push that child further. If not, most teachers may just expect the student to complete what they already know. We need to do a better job with pushing/challenging those students. Chances are, they will be the ones to invent something special. Great post.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, my friend! I think you're right about the student being at the mercy of the teacher. This is why I think collaborating with colleagues is so very important. Maybe we can't be all things to all students, but we should be able to ensure that every student learns every day!

      Thanks for the feedback, Jim. I appreciate it!

  2. Off to read the suggested material... this happens way too much in our classes, I'm sure! Thanks for posting, Dave!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read, and to comment, Joy. I think we need to raise our collective awareness of this situation, and continue to challenge each other to teach *all* of our students. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's important!

  3. This tendency to under serve gifted learners is precisely why I have spent so much time incorporating writer's workshop, geniushour, and passion projects into class. These structures and techniques allow for much more one-on-one instruction, skill appropriate goal setting, and focus on individual needs. In such settings I can really challenge the gifted learners in ways they need and deserve.

    Thank you, Dave, for keeping the needs of all learners (including teachers) on our collective priorities list.

    1. Scott, I love your heart! You're so right: minimizing one-size-fits-all instruction in favor of differentiated (or even personalized?) learning opportunities seems to be so much more authentic. For me, this is a tangible way to work at shrinking the gap between theory (e.g., making grand statements such as "I believe every students in my class is a unique individual") and practice (e.g., teaching to the middle, and hoping everyone else will be okay.)

      It takes a deliberate mindshift to push ourselves in that direction, and teach ALL of our students, doesn't it? Not easy work...