Leveraging Mixed Abilities to Reinforce Learning
Here in Indonesia—and in many other parts of the world too, I am sure—a major challenge that faces almost all teachers in almost all schools is the mixed ability class. To a certain extent, this is an entirely universal teaching scenario, but it is certainly more pronounced in some parts of the world than others. Here, when I am interviewing candidate teachers, I am always sure to inform them that they should fully expect to find themselves in a classroom where a handful of students can barely greet the teacher in English, while one or two of the students might have an Australian mother or father and speak basically native English, with the rest of the students strewn along the spectrum in between.
I have spent a long time thinking about this scenario: what the implications are, what the solutions are, whether it should be allowed or avoided, whether it might in fact be a good thing. I am still inconclusive on some of these questions, but there is one silver lining that I see. If a teacher takes the time to prepare suitable lessons and to get to know her students well enough, there is at least one approach that I think can actually thrive in this situation.
The two main pillars of this approach are that we learn best when we do it together with others and that teaching someone else is a valuable way of reinforcing one’s own learning.
The principle of collaboration is currently enjoying its day in the sun as one of the twenty-first century skills that everybody is talking about of late. As such, teachers are being encouraged more and more to include group work and collaborative projects in their teaching in order to develop this skill in their students. Even with that aside, it has long been appreciated that people learn effectively when learning is social. Collaboration is not just a skill to be developed for success in the professional world, but it is also a valuable learning medium in its own right.
Allowing students to cooperate in their learning gives them the chance to leverage their strengths and make up for their weaknesses while also letting them control the pace of their learning. This means that students learn the way they want at a pace they are comfortable with, and they help each other along the way so that everybody progresses together.
Joseph Joubert famously claimed, “To teach is to learn twice”. This has since become an idiom as common as any you’re likely to hear in education circles. As teachers, we all know that feeling of coming out of a lesson far clearer about a topic after having taught it than you were beforehand. The act of teaching something requires that we make a number of cognitive moves, all of which are beneficial to our own understanding of the subject in question.
People cannot receive complex information and simply assimilate it into their own understanding; they need to build their own mental models, and as teachers we have to help them. Therefore, the first thing we have to do when teaching something is break the knowledge down into its smallest parts so that we can introduce each element for the students to consider individually. It might be that you’ve never done this since you first learned it yourself, and as such the process often highlights things that you never really thought about before, thus giving you a deeper and more elaborate understanding.
Then, you must find the right language to explain the information. It must be precise but not too complex. This again requires a more intricate understanding than just knowing something. Often, we hold ideas in our head that we’re very comfortable with and can use quite effectively but that we would not be able to explain to another person. Teaching requires that you lay your understanding out clearly and simply enough that another person could understand it just as well.
Making the Most of a Mixed Bag
Bearing these principles in mind, with careful planning we can actually turn the nightmare of mixed ability classes into the ideal environment for independent learning. This works by facilitating three types of activity within the classroom, which the students can alternate between according to their needs and abilities at any given time.
The target here is to maximise the effectiveness of student learning by giving them both control over how they learn and also by giving them the opportunity to deepen their learning as their understanding grows, while also putting a heavy emphasis on cooperation and collaboration. The following three maxims are what we want our lessons to embody:
- I can learn from those who know more than me.
- I can work together with those who share my difficulties.
- I can give guidance to those who know less than me.
The lesson then should proceed collaboratively, allowing students to put these maxims into practise. Students should ultimately be allowed to work in groups that they choose based on whether they want to learn from, learn with or present to their peers. There is a necessary circularity to this approach. In some lessons, it is likely that no student will be confident or knowledgeable enough to take the teaching role from the beginning; they will all have to first learn. Therefore, they should be encouraged to form groups to tackle activities and tasks so that they can reach conclusions together.
Naturally, during this process some students will formulate understanding more quickly than others and move into the teaching position while others will listen and learn from them. As this happens, the teacher should be monitoring and can assign more definite roles accordingly. If it seems that a student has progressed beyond the rest of his group, but the other members are still working together effectively, then that student can be moved to a group that is struggling more. Similarly, if a whole completes a task before the rest of the class, they can either be split amongst the other groups or sent away to do further independent reading before reconvening to compare findings and present them to the rest of the class.
The Role of the Teacher
This means that the teacher’s role becomes largely one of management, placing students where they are best suited a) for their own learning benefits and b) for the benefit of other members of the class.
Near the beginning of the learning process, the teacher might well lead with a brief demonstration if that is appropriate, but this should be in the form of presenting fully formed ideas rather than “teaching” basic principles. By this I mean that the teacher should give students a fact, a scenario, a condition or similar without explaining too much how or why things are the way they are. The students should then be given the opportunity to answer the how and why questions themselves.
Resolving the questions of how and why can be done essentially two ways; by researching or by figuring out. In most cases, this will ideally be a choice presented to students, though you might sometimes decide to favour one over the other in order to develop the particular skills required for each approach so that students become more capable in both modes. Of course, to facilitate the approach, the teacher needs to plan and prepare materials and apparatus so that students can find out and figure out what they need to.
If a school has a good library and/or internet access, then this should provide well enough for students to research, but if not, you might have to acquire some reading materials, such as textbooks, magazines, brochures, newspapers and reports, as well as video and audio resources like documentaries, lectures, news clips and podcasts. You can then establish stations around the classroom or the school for students to interact with these materials.
You might also want to bring in props and other apparatus for students to experiment with if that is appropriate to the subject matter. This is especially likely in the physical sciences and technical subjects. It is here in planning and preparation that the main burden of the teacher’s work will be rather than in the classroom teaching and explaining.
Assessment and feedback should be mostly conducted and delivered in the lesson through the course of the activities. Teachers should monitor closely and give students feedback and guidance based on how effectively they are working. If they are progressing very well, the teacher can assign more precise roles and if they are struggling slowly, the teacher can reassign groups and offer suggestions on approach. Ultimately, students will know themselves how well they are doing or have done based on how well they understand and are able to demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter.
Ending the Learning Process
Lessons should as much as possible culminate in students understanding the materials well enough to present their findings to the rest of the class. It is natural that some students will acquire a deeper understanding than others through the research process, but that is not a problem as the demonstration phase is another opportunity for students to learn more from their peers. As long as all students are able to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning objective, anything more should be considered a bonus.
These demonstrations can be in the form of presentations to the group, one-to-one discussions where students share and compare their findings as the teacher monitors, or even the compilation of group or individual reports/papers on the students’ findings. Moreover, the output of the demonstration phase can be kept on record as materials for future learning and reviews: papers can be published in a class journal; presentations can be recorded and saved to a resource library.
Approached this way, teachers can begin with more complex and advanced ideas than they might normally feel comfortable doing in the more traditional lesson structure because students can be given more time and guidance to work backwards from complex principles to identify and understand the basic elements. As such, units might be planned as whole entities rather than multiple separate lessons. Students can perhaps be given several lessons to work on a subject with a deadline set for submission of papers/presentations. It is also worth noting that if implemented this way, the approach also allows for students to work outside of the classroom. If you’re confident about the maturity and integrity of your students, you might even tell them that they are free to come and go as they please for then next few lessons, allowing them to work when and where they choose to prepare for the final task.
This might seem radical, but it is the closest representation of how much of their adult professional lives are likely to play out, and as such it will prepare them much better for the world they are likely to live in after they graduate, which should ultimately be our main goal as teachers.
Trying It Out
If you want to try this approach in your own lessons, here are some suggestions to think about:
- Preparation is key. Make sure there are plenty of materials available for your students to explore and interact with. If your school has a library or an internet suite, allow students to use it. Consider also taking students to a local library or arrange school trips to museums and places where they can have hands on experiences with the subject material in real life scenarios.
- Begin with complete concepts. Introduce fully formed ideas and complex ideas to your students simply as facts about the world, and then give your students time to work out for themselves the explanations of why these concepts are so and how things work.
- Emphasise collaboration. Encourage students to work in groups, but also allow groups to be fluid. Students should be able to work with each other in whatever dynamic they find most effective. Some students might wish to assign roles and then separate before reconvening to compile their findings, while others might prefer to work more closely together throughout.
- Structure units across multiple lessons. Begin by introducing overarching concepts that students will have to break down into smaller parts, understand on multiple levels and establish connections between different elements. This way, a whole unit, which you might usually teach as four or five separate lessons each with its own distinct sub-topic, can be designated the same period of four or five lessons, but students can work freely within that period to put together a final project that they will deliver or submit at the end.
- Assess students by how well they can demonstrate their understanding. Units should culminate in some sort of demonstration of understanding. This should still be conducted through the same student-to-student model, perhaps with groups presenting their findings to the rest of the class or with students comparing and discussing their independent findings in small groups or in the form of written papers, documentaries, tutorials and the like that can be submitted and compiled in a library.
- Review regularly. Consistent with my last article on learning and memory, once a unit has been completed, it should not be consigned to the past. Come back to earlier units repeatedly throughout the syllabus to enhance consolidation and to practise retrieval. This can be done by asking students to update their learning based on changes in the world, if that is relevant, or by asking them to present what they remember about the unit to see who remembers what differently, or by approaching the same topic but within a different context or relevant to a different life skill.
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