Ever get that feeling that when you’re teaching a lesson, only a handful of students are with you, while most are either lost because they have huge knowledge gaps or bored because they already understand and just want to move on?
Well, that feeling hit me hard three weeks ago. I was teaching Grade 9 Academic math to my wonderful special education class of 14 students who have all been either diagnosed with a learning disability or have struggled with numeracy in the past. In either case, only one student is working “at grade level”, with most having completed Grade 4-6 math curriculum expectations last year. The challenges of teaching students with significant knowledge gaps, a wide spectrum of prior ability, and differences in processing speeds and learning preferences were exacerbated by teaching them the highest stream of math in Ontario (in case you’re wondering, my school eliminated the Grade 9 Applied math course and placed only a handful of students into a locally-developed class because of the evidence linking streaming in schools to poor academic and social outcomes for students, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods – it’s an equity issue).
After two weeks with my group, most students were struggling either because they couldn’t keep up or they had attendance issues and missed out on prior learning. I was determined to teach them Grade 9 material and have them excel at grade level, but I knew the status quo wouldn’t work. So, I took a page from Heather Theijsmeijer and designed a class structure that gives students the choice to learn using different media, but also the flexibility to learn at their own pace.
Basically, using Google Docs, I’ve laid out the topics of study, a couple of ways students can learn each topic, and how they can consolidate these topics. Students access these docs via a class Google Site, and they go through the topics at their pace. Here’s an example of a unit layout:
Since this whole class design was done on a whim, some topics are a bit lacking in terms of the additional web resources. I’m hoping to build that up in the next iteration of this design.
In class, students either use their own devices or borrow a tablet to access the content. They learn (usually by watching the YouTube video), ask questions, try some problems, I assess them by observing what they’ve done and conversing with them, and then they move on. I track their progress with a chart:
(The chart’s analog, I know. Sometimes, though, a physical copy just makes things feel more tangible)
As you can see, students are all over the place in terms of their progress. Only about half are on the pace that I was hoping for, but that’s okay. The whole point is that students take the time they need to learn a concept. As the semester continues, I’ll ask students to put in some extra time to catch up.
With this new design, students are always on a topic that they can understand. If a student has been absent for a few days, they just pick up where they left off. So far, every student has been on-task, engaged, and most importantly, successful. Most students are getting over 85% on evaluations, and no one is below 75%. I recently asked for some feedback via a Google Form, and 9 out of 10 students are happy with how things are going so far. Here are some of their comments:
“Everyone learning at their own pace gives everyone a fair chance to learn.”
“I really like it when we we can watch the videos then do the questions after so I can learn how to do other shapes and sizes [in measurement].”
“I like that we use tablets to help us do our work.”
“I like working at my own pace due to the fact that it takes me time to understand something.”
For myself, I’ll admit that it’s been weird acting as a facilitator in class rather than being the typical teacher at the front, but it’s also been incredibly liberating. I get to work one-on-one with everybody and have a chance to conference with students on a regular basis. The work to get these units organized ahead of time is bananas, but it’s worth it. I know it’s been only three weeks, but having students work at their own pace has really created a differentiated environment that has so far been very successful. I see myself using this design for all my classes from now on. Having said that, I’ll keep my fingers crossed over the next few months. I’ll keep everyone posted!
If you’ve tried an “at-your-own-pace” approach, how did it go? Are there any pitfalls that I should be aware of? What are your thoughts on having students work like this? Leave me a comment!