FAQ: How to create a community of learners when students are at different levels?

by Chris Sturgis

How do teachers manage a community of learners when students are all at different levels?

This is a question that comes up a lot because it is so hard to imagine a different way of doing things.

To start answering this question: remember that teachers already have classrooms where students are at different levels. The difference is that traditional classrooms provide the same curriculum to all students regardless if they already know it or can’t access it well. Scaffolding tends to be aimed at giving the high achieving students something else to do and the lower achieving one some way of accessing the curriculum. Neither are actually designed to ensure students are progressing, showing growth, and addressing gaps.

In high quality personalized, competency-based schools the focus is on helping students to make progress. This starts with understanding students’ prior knowledge and differentiating instruction as needed. For students already competent in the grade level curriculum, they are provided learning targets and tasks that are at the higher level (or perhaps they actually work on topics where they are weaker — why does everyone need 50 minutes in each of the academic areas? why not spend 100 minutes in math if you are struggling there and at grade level in English?).  The key for lower achieving students is to make sure that misconceptions are addressed and gaps are repaired…on the path towards the grade level standards.

Now to the question: How does a teacher manage that? First, they create a community of learners that are fully supportive of each other. Everyone knows they are at different places, students help each other, and progress is celebrated. It starts with having students create the values and norms of the classroom. Teachers spend the first day creating a shared vision with their class. Why are they here? What do they want to accomplish? How as a community will they operate? This shifts the culture from compliance to ownership.

Second, depending a bit on the academic discipline, there are learning tasks or projects that everyone is involved in. However, based on where they have gaps or are struggling, teachers will organize flexible groupings to work more closely with students at times.

Third, competency-based education is a schoolwide model. We can’t expect teachers alone to meet the needs of every student. One of the things the school has to do is organize itself so that teachers can access timely and differentiated support on a daily basis. There are lots of ways of doing this.

Finally, the most developed personalized schools in New Zealand almost always had 2-3 teachers working together with larger groups of students. It makes it much easier to respond to the wide range of skills. The US has barely started down this path. Our facilities constrain us. Certainly, our imaginations do as well.


Photo:  Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

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