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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

Overview / Reconsidering Our Commitments

      I realize now I was mistaken when I pushed a version of individualized instruction in the 1960s and '70s. I wasn't alone; eminent psychologists, noted consultants, federal officials, and lots of other practitioners thought as I did. We accepted the findings of social science, bolstered by our own experience, that individuals differed greatly in learning ability. To cope with these differences, it made sense to organize instruction sequentially, provide self-explanatory materials, and devise ways for teachers to manage the operation. That way, students could “progress at their own pace.”
      Those of us who organized such programs may not have been entirely wrong, but in just two decades I have come to think very differently. For example, it now appears that learning ability is modifiable, and that it is not a single general factor. Cognitive psychologists now emphasize the social nature of learning, which makes highly questionable a system in which students work alone most of the time. Indeed, the aim of many educators these days is to make the classroom a community of inquiry, just the opposite of an assortment of unrelated individuals. Perhaps most important, our expectations are changing. With new economic conditions we are beginning to see that preparation for college and preparation for work are not necessarily exclusive aims. We even see the possibility, as many advocates insist, that the same high standards should apply to all.
      That was the fatal flaw in oversimplified programs of individualization: students got farther and farther apart. “What's wrong with that?” we asked at the time. We thought it was natural; even desirable. But if all students are entitled to a high-quality education, we cannot be satisfied with such extremes.
      Individualized programs are comparatively rare these days. A much more common response to differences is ability grouping, called tracking by its critics. But ability grouping, though widely practiced, also has disadvantages: not only do students move at different rates; they often get quite different curriculums. From one point of view, that is reasonable and fair. From another, it is depriving some students of the opportunity to learn the most valuable content.
      Educators often say we want students to become whatever they are capable of becoming. In fact, researchers have found, we ourselves decide very early what each child is capable of. After that, our curriculum and instruction help confirm our own self-fulfilling prophecies.
      Ironically, individualized instruction, homogeneous grouping, and similar practices are crafted not by insensitive bureaucrats but by caring, committed educators. Needing to serve many students with few resources, they do what seems to work. But when confronted with evidence that patterns they think are helpful may actually be harmful, they are obliged to reconsider.
      So what should they do instead? That's not easily answered. Clearly, people do differ, in many different ways, and the solution is definitely not to dump them all together and prescribe one-size-fits-all instruction. But creative educators are providing for differences in ways that encourage all students to do their best. Anne Wheelock (p. 6), who has visited middle schools engaged in untracking and talked with those involved, has catalogued some of their strategies.
      As Jeannie Oakes (p. 18) points out, efforts to dispense with tracking are most productive when aimed at improving instruction not just for the lower tracks but for everybody. “Students need opportunities to construct knowledge together, to make meaning, to make sense of what they're learning, to make connections. I'm convinced,” she says, “that that's the best kind of curriculum for all students.”

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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