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Teaching Q&A

Tips for Teachers on Grouping and Lesson Pacing for Accelerated Learning

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 25, 2023 5 min read
Week 3: Differentiating Learning 2700x1806
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Accelerating learning requires a change in how teachers structure class time and operations, including how they group students, differentiate learning, and set learning goals. One expert who has thought deeply about those changes is Douglas Fisher, a professor and chair of educational leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego. He spoke with Education Week about what those changes might look like in practice.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is the difference between acceleration and traditional ways of differentiating instruction in the classroom?

The worry about differentiation is that we differentiate our expectations, that we end up differentiating what we believe our students are capable of accomplishing. We talk a lot about gaps and learning loss and those kinds of things, but we don’t talk about what are the strengths and assets our kids have? How can I leverage what they already know for the new [content]?
For acceleration, we have to know what our students already know and go from their strengths.

The evidence says on average, about 40 percent of instructional minutes are spent on things students already know. Well, inconveniently, students don’t already know the same things. So that’s where we start to customize—not on the expectation for their learning.

What common mistakes do teachers make in moving to an acceleration approach?

Pacing was the hardest one for people to think about in acceleration work.

[Mistakes] we see right now are lessons that are kind of in slow motion, with the mindset that we need to remediate learning. I think what starts to happen is, we feel like we have to cover all the perceived gaps right now. So [what] we’re seeing is isolated skill-[building], rather than saying, what is it I need to build right now? What do my students need to learn right now to be successful?

Acceleration research talks about fast-paced, active lessons, where we recognize that students get a little bored with these isolated skill [practices]. So we should be thinking about how to keep the pace active and fast. A few skills cycling or spiraling [across several classes] would be better than [practicing] one skill at a time. If we go so slowly we see a bunch of students just check out of the lesson.

How do we rebuild academic habits?

Some students have a fractured relationship with the learning process [because of pandemic school disruptions]. So we have to help rebuild their confidence. They need to experience some successes; they need to be acknowledged for that success. Like gamers, you start at level one, you find some success, and the game makes it harder for you.

What’s the role of student grouping?

For class lessons, we need to be saying: What do I have to provide through direct instruction and modeling? How do I get my students working collaboratively and consolidating understanding? How do I identify student groups who have similar unfinished learning or next-steps learning?

We can maintain that group flexibility when we realize the grouping is based on what they need to learn next, connecting what they already know to the next set of learning. [Do not group] just because their reading level was 700 or whatever; that doesn’t tell you what to teach.

How can you make your pace more active?

So, we have 40 percent of our minutes on average with students learning things they already know. And on average, 9 percent to 13 percent of instructional minutes are spent on students waiting for something to happen. We can reclaim those minutes.

You can’t teach everything all at once. If we start off with some sort of inventory of what [students] already know, it helps you figure out where to go next. We say, here’s the structure of my class, to allow students to have learning time and practice time, then time with peers to consolidate so that I don’t have to reteach this again in a month or two months or next school year, because they actually got it. Then I can go into the next block of skills and concepts that I need my students to learn.

How can teachers make meaningful criteria for success for their students?

Interestingly, knowing what success looks like is elusive in our journey. It turns out, it’s really hard. And we tend to write things [for success criteria] that are kind of low level.

Here’s an example: Today, we’re looking at finding main ideas and differentiating between them and supporting ideas. [The teachers define] success criteria as “when you found the main idea.” Well, that didn’t help the learner at all. It’s more circular logic. [Instead, it should be], “How do you know you found the main idea?” That’s what success looks like.

I was working with some teachers around the idea of figurative language. So what’s the level of success that you would need to know? First of all, you probably need to locate where the figurative language is; that’s pretty low level. Then you would probably have to talk with a partner or someone and say, “here’s what I think the figurative language means.” But as you go deeper in this, you’d say, “why did the author choose to use figurative language here?” “What was the author’s intent of this figurative language on the reader?” And then eventually, “Can I use figurative language in my own writing?”

So we would start off pretty basic—if you can’t find the figurative language in what you’re reading, you’re probably not going to be able to analyze it or eventually use it. But we can’t leave learners with identification of where the figurative language is; they need to move to what does it mean, why did the author do that, how might I do that. And that’s the scale of success that we want to take students on. Once they’ve incorporated figurative language into their own practice and their own writing, we’re not going to have to teach that again.

And next year’s teacher, after some sort of rapid assessment says, “Oh, my students can already do this. I don’t have to teach this, maybe I’m going to add symbolism or more advanced figurative language for my students.”

How do we keep teachers from becoming overwhelmed by students’ needs and keeping pace?

We have to be able to say, what can we accomplish this year? What we will do next year? We can’t beat ourselves up if it’s not going to be solved in the next six months. It’s going to take some time to regain and address the unfinished learning that we have. What will we do if we say we are collectively responsible for the learning of the students? What are we willing to do? Grade-level regrouping? Cross-age grouping?

I think there’s all kinds of ways that teachers are going to come together and if we are collectively responsible, and we stop saying they’re “your kids” versus “my kids,” we will come up with incredible solutions.

Coverage on research-to-practice connections for the education community is supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation, at www.spencer.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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