Adolescent learners vary widely in their physical, emotional, and cognitive development. For many teachers, the most challenging aspect of teaching middle school students is the constant problem solving energy required to meet their diverse needs. When diversity is at its peak, we are sometimes left feeling that short of super-human feats on the part of heroic teachers, it’s not possible to meet the varied needs of the children before us.
When varied learner readiness is the aspect of diversity confronting us, it can be a challenge to ensure academic growth for all. If students appear bored or overwhelmed, a common response is to track them into ability-based classes. Whether we isolate high achieving students into accelerated courses, learning disabled students into special education classes, students who have fallen behind into remedial classes, or English language learners into a stream of their own, we frequently do so at a cost to both the students themselves and to the mainstream population from which they’ve been separated. If we embrace full inclusion without applying effective differentiation strategies, we fail as well. Diverse classrooms where every learner makes significant progress are possible in part through tiered instruction and assessment.
For the most part, this blog details the journey of the middle school math department at Jakarta International School from 2006-2011, the years needed to institutionalize a tiered approach. The purpose here is to share the rationale, describe the process, provide examples, and a share some results.
Consider this… You’re teaching a very heterogeneous class of learners. Planning with the end in mind, you design a course assessment encompassing all course learning goals. Meeting the standard indicates preparedness for future academic success. At the end of the course, all students perform well on the assessment. It’s time to reflect.
There’s reason to celebrate. All students have met the grade level proficiency standard. This is no small feat. Students are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to work successfully in subsequent grade levels.
We might feel less enthusiastic while reflecting on our students’ growth. Depending on their initial readiness for success, different students have had different growth opportunities. Students at the beginning end of the readiness continuum have learned the most. Students in close proximity to the learning target have grown less. Some highly advanced students have experienced no growth at all. We feel pride that struggling students have made significant gains and disappointed that advanced learners have stagnated.
This scenario illustrates the most basic premise for a tiered approach. When we establish a single common learning destination for students in mixed-ability classrooms, one outcome seems inevitable – all students will not have equal growth possibilities.
Our guiding vision for student learning includes academic and personal development for all students.
Middle school math teachers around the world face the challenge of teaching students with varied readiness levels for success. The graph below shows a typically diverse breakdown of algebra readiness test results for JIS 7th graders at the beginning of a school year. The diversity reflected in the graph is pretty universal to heterogeneous, middle school math classrooms.
Some students are advanced, already capable of succeeding in a typical algebra class, while other students are far from ready, which isn’t too alarming since it is the beginning of 7th grade.
Lev Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “Flow” offer guidance. The research from both of these psychologists, not to mention our common sense, suggests we should offer learning challenges suited to each child’s readiness level in order to create the optimal conditions for learning. Realizing that our students’ readiness levels differ so much, we offer varied challenges so every student can learn in a state of relaxed alertness.
I like the graph below, which Csikszentmihalyi uses in part to make the point that we can create the conditions for “Flow” by either increasing our skill level with a given activity or by boosting the challenges we face. Tiered instruction and assessment enhances a teacher’s ability to do both on behalf of students.
Bill and Ochan Powell’s framework for effective teaching supports the use of tiered instruction to work within a child’s ZPD and a challenge-by-choice approach to increasingly shift ownership for learning to students.
That we should differentiate for varied readiness levels is not so controversial. The challenge lies in how to do so.
In a tiered class, students engage essential course content at varying levels of depth and breadth.
Students choose the challenge on homework assignments and assessments that will help them maximize their learning.
Three different levels of challenge are offered. We designate each by a color.
There are some steps we consistently follow when planning tiered lessons.
A lesson will have 1 or more learning goals. For example, the goal of a geometry lesson might be to have students apply equation solving skills while learning about triangle properties.
Following whole-group instruction, students are asked to select the challenge level that will help them maximize their learning. For example…
This learning cycle repeats itself as the unit proceeds. Click for more samples of…
Tiered lessons share some general characteristics.
After developing tiered assessments and assignments, we started thinking more and more about how to manage our tiered classrooms. Essentially, any strategy that develops cooperative learning skills and/or promotes self-reliance is worthwhile. Similarly, planning lessons with big ideas in mind promotes a sense of cohesiveness between all challenge levels.
At the end of a unit, students select the assessment challenge level that will enable them to best demonstrate the extent of their learning. The following graph shows the breakdown of color choices for all middle school students at JIS on all summative assessments during the 2006-10 school years.
Following a unit’s assessment(s), students reflect on their learning experience during the unit.
Reflections generally reveal students feeling appropriately challenged. In the majority of cases, students felt that they had selected a level of challenge that was an appropriate learning target towards the goal of maximizing their learning. Sometimes students believed they could have made a better decision. In few cases did they perceive that all targets were outside their zones of proximal development (situations where students who selected green felt the assessment was too difficult or students selected black and felt the assessment was too simple).
The psychological benefits of feeling appropriately challenged seemed to translate into improved learning outcomes. Compared to the difficulty level of assessments in previous years (prior to offering choices), green level assessments are the most similar. With the introduction of the blue and black level challenges, it’s clear that students are now tackling greater challenges, on average, than in the past. The graph below shows that grades held steady at the same time, suggesting an overall increase in student achievement.
Before introducing tiered assessments, students at the beginning end of the readiness spectrum tended to bring average test scores down. After, students at the beginning end of the readiness spectrum (those who selected green level assessments) performed at an accuracy level comparable to students taking blue and black level assessments. The performance of students working at a “green level of readiness” seemed to improve following the implementation of a tiered approach.
During the 2009-10 school year, JIS began giving students the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) assessment. Students were tested at the beginning and end of the school year. Results indicate the tiered approach is having its intended effect: students across the readiness spectrum are meeting or exceeding expected growth rates.
Each student has a RIT, a number that represents their current skill level in mathematics. Over the course of the year, students are expected to grow by different amounts depending on their starting points. The horizontal axis represents student subgroups across the readiness continuum. The Blue bars represent JIS 7th graders’ mean growth. The Red bar represents the mean target growth set by NWEA, the organization that administers the MAP, based on historical growth rates.
We believe these consistently strong results from year to year (with 2 out of 3 teachers being different) speak to the power and importance of systematically implementing a tiered approach. An articulated tiered curriculum (the learning goals we have for students across the readiness continuum in addition to the materials that support the attainment of these goals) is a critical component of effective differentiation. Each teacher has been able to focus their energy on helping students be successful towards reaching tiered learning goals, rather than focused on developing a tiered curriculum, which while intellectually stimulating and fun, is also quite challenging.
The JIS 7th grade results are particularly dramatic examples of the power of Challenge by Choice. 7th grade math classes tend to have an enormous range of readiness levels because the breadth of topics covered is so wide and these topics extend learning from previous years.
Differentiation in 7th grade also exemplifies the importance of supporting advanced learners through a balanced offering of acceleration and enrichment. Rather than moving on to a relatively narrow set of 8th grade algebra learning goals via a traditional tracking system, advanced kids get the chance to grapple with rich problem solving challenges for a variety of important math topics like probability and statistics; ratio, proportion and percentages; and measurement. When topics lend themselves to acceleration, like equation solving, advanced kids are accelerated through above grade level learning goals like solving systems of equations as an example.
Remember the algebra readiness test results from the beginning of the year. A similar test at the end of 7th grade yields dramatically improved results.
Another positive development has been the decreasing need for a remedial 8th grade math course. For years, the math department felt that a remedial course was needed to serve the needs of our most vulnerable students. Teachers never felt very satisfied with the effectiveness of the course, but we didn’t know what to do. Having previously tracked students, it didn’t feel possible to have all students successfully complete the same 8th grade math course. Over time, it’s been wonderful to see our 8th grade math teachers feeling more comfortable with differentiation and our students feeling more confident in their skills. Both developments have led to the elimination of our remedial 8th grade math course, and a single math course has now been offered at each grade level (with no remedial 8th grade option) since 2009.
Besides academic development, adolescents also need and want opportunities to struggle, opportunities to make decisions, and teachers who guide them with a broad view of their development.
Achievement test scores and enrollment figures are easy to report as measures of success, but they only tell (a relatively insignificant) part of the story. Tiering’s impact on class culture and other aspects of our vision for student learning has been even more significant. Listen to some teacher, student, and parent reflections on the “Perspectives” page to develop a sense for how people feel.
Beyond achievement gains and encouraging stakeholder sentiments, research on effective teaching and learning consistently supports a tiered approach. The following are some recommendations for supporting learners of different readiness levels. Tiering makes it possible to support all students in the way that’s consistent with how they learn best.
An added benefit of the tiered approach is that heterogeneous student groupings can be preserved. The advantages of effective differentiation vs. ability based tracking are numerous. Here are some benefits brainstormed by the JIS Math department.
The challenge of meeting diverse needs is universal. A wonderful aspect of the work at JIS is that it’s been done by an extremely diverse math faculty.
It would be irresponsible not to mention certain “dangers” or downsides that accompany this work. The upfront workload is significant. I’ve developed tiered learning materials on my own, and I’ve also done it alongside colleagues. Both approaches can work but it goes without saying that the more you divide the work between team members, the easier, more effective, and FUN the work will be.
Another caution relates to the green challenge level. In our experience, it’s critical that green level expectations be rigorous and respectful. Using a tiered approach can have an incredibly positive impact on the sense of community in a classroom. On the flip side, class culture can deteriorate quickly if students perceive that green problems are for the “dumbies” or beneath the mainstream expectation (for more on this point, see “Finding Tiered Problems.”)
I hope this brief introduction leaves you feeling more interested to think about using a tiered approach with your students.