Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Teaching High Achievers

Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Teaching High Achievers

Article excerpt

When students finish their work early or claim that they already grasp the material assigned, teachers' most frequent and natural response is to give those students more work: more problems, more pages, more sentences.

The adage that "practice makes perfect" rings in our ears. And besides, we have so many students who don't get it, that it's difficult to devote extra time and energy to those who do.

But if we truly believe that every student deserves the chance to grow-that all students should receive appropriate support and challenge to facilitate their learning-then we can't be satisfied with simply assigning more work. Rather, we should strive to assign work that is more appropriate.

In her 2011 Edutopia blog, "A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool," Judy Willis asserts that appropriately challenging tasks are necessary for cognitive growth; if a task is too easy, "...the brain is not alert for feedback and there is no activation of the dopamine reward response system." Consequently, without a proper intellectual fit, students may spin their cognitive wheels, but they will not move forward in their learning.

Principles in Action

Teachers can effectively address the unique needs of advanced learners in the regular classroom by assigning more appropriate work; however, that possibility rests on adherence to a few key principles for the entire class:

1. Authentic, engaging curriculum as a foundation

2. Formative assessment as a guide

3. Student access to like-able peers as facilitators

4. Flexible grouping as a binding agent

5. Anchor activities as appropriate next steps.

Mr. Carter's eighth grade U.S. History class can serve as a starting point to examine these principles in action. Before Mr. Carter's students began studying World War II, he explained the goals, including those listed in Figure 1.

Prior to today's class, students had engaged in interactive lectures, Socratic discussions, a structured academic controversy (see D. W. Johnson and R. T. Johnson's article, "Creative and Critical Thinking Through Academic Controversy" in the September- October 1993 issue of American Behavioral Scientist), and a political and economic simulation revolving around the United States' entrance into WWII. Mr. Carter ended the day's lesson with an exit card asking all students to answer two questions:

1. Other than Pearl Harbor, what other factors may have drawn the United States into WWII? List what you believe to be the two most important potential factors.

2. Now explain whether you believe these factors would have been significant enough to draw the United States into the war. Defend your answer with evidence from class discussions and resources.

As Mr. Carter examined exit card results, he found three patterns emerging. Several students thoroughly and persuasively defended their answers on the second exit card question, using reasoning and citing historical evidence to support cause-and-effect relationships. In contrast, the majority of the class provided their opinions but had trouble defending them. Five students were unable to cite legitimate factors in response to the first question, and their attempts to answer the second question-if they attempted-lacked a reasoned response

Realizing that "one-sized" instruction for the class would be ineffective, Mr. Carter chose to differentiate among the three emerging patterns.

The High Achievers

Because structured academic controversy was a strategy with which his students were already familiar, he asked the six students with advanced answers to participate in this multifaceted, formalized debate.

He put students with like answers into two trios and pitted them against one another to argue for their stance, then to "switch sides" and argue just as vehemently for their opponent's stance. Finally, the students had to reach consensus and present the best points from both arguments as a joint position statement. …

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