[Note: this started as a comment on BmoreSchools’ “Tracking by ability…gifted? average? mediocre?“, but grew so long that I thought I should make a whole blog post out of it.]
Classroom Intellectual and Knowledge Diversity
At my school, classes are not tracked, for the most part. There is an occasional honors class, and AP courses have some prerequisites, but I’d estimate that 95% of the classes are untracked.
I personally have never taught a tracked class. Though there is a bit of self-selection for those students who choose engineering as their career pathway, I still have students in engineering classes who hate math with a passion, and others who don’t like building things or hands-on activities. Students whose math and reading skills are on a 3rd grade level. And there is not self-selection for most math classes I have taught.
This means every class is likely to have students with learning disabilities and an individualized education plan (IEP), students without an IEP who are slow to learn new things, students who are very quick to learn new things, students for whom English is not their primary language, students with behavior problems, students who come with full memory of background knowledge taught in prior classes, students who don’t remember what we did in class yesterday much less what they ‘learned’ a year ago, students who don’t show up and therefore don’t have a clue what we did in class yesterday or last week. And everything in between.
Teachers are encouraged and expected to “differentiate instruction”, that is, meet the students where they are at and bring them to the next level. This is accomplished by providing supports and scaffolds for struggling students to climb up and reach mastery (or at least a few steps closer to mastery). While also challenging the most advanced students with higher-level thinking tasks related to the same topic.
I’ve been mostly pretty happy accommodating learners at different levels in my engineering classes. While on some days, I may lose some students when we delve into the deeper math behind an engineering concept, there is enough hands-on activity accessible to students at all different entry points to keep everyone engaged and learning for the majority of the time. (That’s not to say I don’t wish they all had better math skills coming in.)
For example, the robotic arm activity we’re doing now is tiered in such a way that builds up students’ knowledge, from basic controlling of the arm, to recording and teaching positions, to basic programming, to figuring out coordinates and roll angles, to more complicated motions with the arm, to programming with variables and subroutines, to communicating with another machine. Not every student I teach will make it to the most advanced level of skill in programming the arm–some don’t fully understand variables in algebra, so attempting to build on that prior knowledge with variables in programming may not work. However, every student will work her/his way up the ladder of activities, each one building on the last and extending the knowledge a bit further. And, with the help of some of my advanced students who act as peer tutors, I can make sure every student in my class has experience working with complicated programming techniques like variables and subroutines. And I can push the quicker students to try out other programming techniques, to improve their program’s efficiency and clarity, to apply and adapt their programs to more settings, and/or to help teach other students the programming techniques (which can really cement the concept in the tutor’s mind as well as helping the tutee).
Math class is somewhat harder to differentiate. If a student misses a few days, they come in and may be lost because of how much each activity builds on the previous one. And, as SmallestTwine writes, many students don’t have the confidence to work and explore on their own, so providing the sequence of tiered activities like I do for the robot arm is not possible for most students in math, the way it is easier to do in engineering.
Similarly, it’s tough to be teaching how to solve quadratic, exponential, logarithmic, and trigonometric equations in Algebra II to students who don’t have familiarity and comfort with solving linear equations. Of course I review solving linear equations as a whole class, and then individually with some students as needed. But tracking students would make it easier for me to continually push and challenge those who are comfortable with a previous topic, or extensively remediate those who are lacking prior concepts or skills.
My worry with tracking is that it can exacerbate inequalities. Students held to lower expectations (like those tracked into the lowest and most remedial math class) will not learn as much as they could if held to higher expectations. A famous study showed that teachers told to expect higher performance from random students actually led those students to outperform their peers.
So I would tend to avoid tracking whenever possible. But on the other extreme, when prior knowledge in a classroom has such a broad range as to make effective instruction nigh-impossible (e.g. 2nd-12th grade reading levels in the same room might be pushing it for an English class), or when students are in a class for which they have not mastered any of the prerequisite skills and knowledge, no one is being well-served. Tracking may be necessary in these types of situations.
Thanks again to my support group of local education bloggers in this month of daily blogging: