Different Tracks, Different Teaching

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It's no secret that students in high-track classes tend to get a beefier curriculum and better-educated teachers than those in low-track classes. But if the more fortunate students are learning more, says University of Wisconsin researcher Adam Gamoran, it may also be due in part to the questioning and discussing that goes on in their classes.

Mr. Gamoran, a professor of sociology and educational policy studies at the university's Madison campus, and two colleagues spent two years studying 92 honors, regular, and remedial English classes in 18 secondary schools in the Midwest.

They observed the classes on at least four occasions, analyzed students' previous grades, and tested the students at the beginning of the school year to get a handle on their reading and writing skills. They also surveyed students and teachers and tested students at the end of the school year.

As might be expected, students in the higher-track classes got more out of their courses than their lower-end counterparts did--even when the researchers took into account the students' previous achievement levels. Students in upper-level classes also completed more assignments and were more focused on their work.

Role of Discussion

But, in terms of the kind of instruction that went on in the classes, there were few differences. More discussion took place in the honors classes, but those discussions took up an average of only 75 seconds a day. Also, in the high-track classes, teachers tended slightly more often to ask authentic questions---questions, in other words, in which they genuinely wondered about the answer as opposed to asking students to parrot back information.

Curiously, however, the amount of discussing and authentic questioning that went on in the classes had different effects in different-level classes. The more those activities took place in honors classes, the more students learned. Students learned less in low-track classes, though, as the frequency of discussions and authentic questioning increased.

Because discussions took place so infrequently in all of the classrooms, researchers could not say for sure why they seemed to have a differing effect.

But, with regard to authentic questioning, the explanation was clearer.

"It's because in honors classes, when teachers were asking questions, they were asking about literature," Mr. Gamoran says. In the remedial classrooms, he adds, teachers asked questions like '"How do most of you feel about test-taking?'" or '"What things would you associate with lying in the sun?"'

Overall, 73 percent of the authentic questions posed in honors classes were grounded in literature, compared with 31 percent of the authentic questions in remedial classes.

"A big part of the reason that students in the honors classes gained while the students in the lower classes lost is not just because of what teachers are doing but what teachers and students are doing together," Mr. Gamoran says.

His study was published in the Winter 1995 issue of the American Educational Research Journal.

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Page 30

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Different Tracks, Different Teaching
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