Breaking the Lockstep - ASCD
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September 1, 1994

Breaking the Lockstep

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For most teachers, diverse classrooms are a given. Students have always had a variety of interests, cultural backgrounds, learning styles, and levels of motivation. And today, as more schools move to "untrack" and include children with disabilities in regular classrooms, teachers are facing classes that are more heterogeneous than ever. In some, students may range in ability from the gifted to the mentally disabled.

As student differences multiply, some teachers are finding that whole-class instruction—as the principal mode of teaching—is no longer as appropriate as it used to be. Standing at the chalkboard and delivering a lecture is unlikely to meet the needs of most students, they believe.

So teachers are experimenting with alternatives to whole-class instruction. These alternatives include the use of mastery learning approaches, learning centers and contracts, self-directed project work, cooperative learning, computer-assisted instruction, and various grouping strategies. By using these approaches, teachers are striving to introduce an element of individualization and to avoid one-size-fits-all instruction.

Breaking away from a reliance on lecture is difficult for teachers who are "rooted in traditional teaching methods," says Karen Mortimer, an education consultant from Rapid City, S.D. Yet alternative approaches "have been around awhile," she says. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel."

One approach Mortimer recommends is mastery learning, which acknowledges that students learn at different rates. In mastery learning approaches, students who fail to grasp important concepts from a unit receive additional instruction for a class period or two, while other students move on to enrichment activities.

Another way teachers can differentiate instruction is by using a variety of grouping procedures, says James Yanok of Ohio University. Students can be grouped by ability or by interest, for peer tutoring or cooperative learning. A third approach is to use learning centers. When students can rotate among various stations designed to help them meet specific learning objectives, they can work at their own pace, Yanok says. This set-up also allows the teacher to move about the room, keeping students on task and offering help as needed.

Many experts suggest project work as a means to capitalize on differences in students' abilities, interests, and learning styles. Joseph Renzulli of the University of Connecticut recommends letting students pursue individual or small-group projects on topics of their own choosing.

The project must have a product or service as the outcome, Renzulli says. The goal should not be just to learn more about Australia, for example, but to write a Student's Guide to Australia. The product or service must be created for a "real" audience, such as the local geographic society—not just the rest of the class. Furthermore, students should use the authentic methodology of the discipline (as appropriate for their grade level). Real anthropologists gather information from reference books, questionnaires, interviews, original documents, and other specialists—all techniques students can use, too.

These kinds of projects accommodate style preferences, Renzulli says, because they allow students to work alone or in groups, to be self-oriented or peer-oriented, and to be practical or creative, as they choose. Although the members of the project group are united by a common task and purpose, they can select "job opportunities" that match their preferred styles. In producing a video, for example, some students will opt to work on the sound crew or to write the script, while others will want to be actors.

Despite the need to differentiate, whole-class instruction still has its uses, experts note. Teachers might use whole-class instruction to introduce a new concept, such as density, says Anne Wheelock of Northeastern University. Even while lecturing, teachers can take account of learning style differences by making use of visual aids and graphic organizers.

A Montessori Approach

Teacher Susan Mann "almost never" gives whole-group lessons. Mann, a Montessori teacher at a magnet elementary school in Prince George's County, Md., allows students to create their own schedules for each day's work. Throughout the day, students move to different parts of the room, where they find shelves loaded with materials to work with, such as math manipulatives, scientific apparatus and "safe" chemicals, and a library. Students work mostly in small groups of two or three.

Mann gives lessons to small groups as well, bearing in mind that children learn at varying rates. "I have to be ready for at least one kid who doesn't get it," she says. During a lesson about points, line segments, and rays, for example, a child who doesn't catch on may "spin off" the group to work on rays, while the other children go on to study angles. And, because her classroom includes children in grades 1–3, Mann can provide students with second chances to learn a concept. "I might give a geometry lesson to a 3rd grader who's had it before," if the child didn't understand it the first time, she says.

Attempts to differentiate instruction can go only so far, however. Those with experience emphasize that trying to create a tailored program for each and every student is unworkable.

In the early 1970s, some teachers worked with reading specialists to determine which language skills each child in the class had mastered and to prescribe individualized activities, says Elizabeth Cohen of Stanford University. This highly personal approach proved to be "grossly impractical," she says. Teachers were overwhelmed with record keeping, and researchers found "a tremendous amount of task disengagement" in these classrooms. "You can't really manage 30 students doing 30 different things," Cohen says.

But if teachers use alternatives to whole-class instruction thoughtfully, they can do a great deal, experts say. It may take a leap of faith for teachers to get off center stage, says Fred Gross, a teacher and staff developer for the Sudbury (Mass.) Public Schools. But if teachers allow their students to pursue "authentic" problems and to be active, self-directed learners—while they themselves observe and coach—students will retain much more of what they learn, he asserts. "Teachers who lecture are more interested in what they're teaching than in what students are learning."

Two Programs from the Past

Two Programs from the Past

Efforts to individualize instruction are not new, of course. Ever since schools began grouping students in grades that moved in lock-step (in the United States, this practice became the norm in the mid 1800s), teachers have tried to find ways to allow students to progress at their own rates. The most widespread, concerted effort to individualize instruction took place in the 1960s and '70s, when two programs designed for that purpose became popular: IPI and IGE.

Individually Prescribed Instruction (IPI), developed at the University of Pittsburgh, was based on a “diagnostic-prescriptive” teaching cycle. The teacher used placement tests to assign each student to a particular unit in reading, math, or science. Then the student worked independently with appropriate materials. The teacher assessed whether the student had attained mastery, assigning extra work if necessary.

IPI was a “truly individualized program,” says Carolyn Hughes Chapman of the University of Nevada at Reno. Under IPI, students were self-directed learners, and teachers were managers of instruction. The program was “very successful” for some students, Chapman says—those who were already self-directed. However, “not every child can work individually and be happy learning individually,” she asserts. Many students, including those who are at risk, learn best when they receive direct instruction from the teacher.

Individually Guided Education (IGE) was developed at the University of Wisconsin in the mid 1960s and flourished in schools in the 1970s. Under IGE, the teacher assessed each student's level of achievement, learning style, and motivation level (through criterion-referenced tests, observations, and work samples). Next, the teacher identified learning objectives for each child and set up instructional programs. Then the teacher determined whether students had attained mastery: whether they could move on or needed alternative lessons on the same skills.

Rather than trying to provide each student with an individual program, as in IPI, most IGE teachers closely monitored students' skill development and moved them freely from one instructional group to another, Chapman says. The program also fostered interdisciplinary planning by teams of teachers. IGE was really “an early form of school restructuring.” Chapman says.

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