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How Teachers Can Balance Diverse Learners in a Packed Classroom

As classroom sizes grow, teachers are contending with more learning styles and abilities in one room. This is especially prevalent in elementary schools, where students are sorted based on age rather than knowledge level. This creates classroom management problems, where teachers are left trying to challenge high-performers while making sure struggling students keep up.

How can teachers balance incredibly diverse learners when there is only one of you in the room? Here’s what other leading educators do and how you can learn from them.

Understanding the Different Learners in Your Classroom

Before you start changing your classroom, it’s important to understand your learners. A student that you think is struggling or is an underachiever might be smarter than you realize.

There’s a difference between high-performing and gifted students, writes Carol Bainbridge, Purdue University NW instructor and former board member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted. High-performers are well-organized, have good time-management skills, and tend to be well-behaved. Many high-achievers are gifted, but not all. Similarly, not all gifted students are high-performers. Some gifted students can be underperformers or self-motivated, meaning they won’t care about assignments that don’t interest them.

“Gifted students often frustrate teachers because they don’t quite live up to their potential, especially in classes that are too easy for them,” says Chris Croll, school board member for Loudoun County Public Schools and founder of the National Center for Gifted Services. “Gifted children often have poor executive function skills so they lose homework and don’t know how to study for exams.” She adds that a surprising number of gifted students drop out of high school and never make it to college.

Creating a Gifted Classroom

Teachers need to create a classroom environment for their gifted students, as well as their high-achievers and their struggling students. You’re never just teaching smart and not-so-smart kids. Students have abilities and skills, along with intelligence levels, that complicate how they respond to teaching.

For example, your high achievers might confidently complete a page of math problems, but your gifted kids could get frustrated by the same assignment. “Gifted students don’t need to do 25 problems in math when they can do the five most difficult first to demonstrate mastery,” explains gifted education consultant Dina Brulles, Ph.D., co-author of “Flexible Grouping and Collaborative Learning.”

Putting the most difficult problems first is a way teachers can challenge their gifted students while compacting the curriculum. Students that complete those problems are excused from doing the rest. If you’re working in a small group with gifted students, they can move more quickly through content and move onto more challenging topics.

Don’t Forget the High Achievers

Educators often focus on struggling students and gifted students who need extra attention. This leaves the high achievers, who are doing everything right, ignored.

Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the Fordham Institute, says educators tend to ignore high-achieving students because they know they can count on them. These students will do what they are asked, regardless of whether or not the teacher is watching them. Unfortunately, this disproportionately affects students from low-income neighborhoods who might otherwise climb to excellence with the right tutelage. He agrees with a Fordham report which states: “High-achieving students – especially those growing up in poverty – need all of the attention they can get.”

When high achievers are taken for granted, they’re not getting the positive reinforcement they need for doing great work. This can make them not want to try as hard in the future — turning them into average learners.

Interestingly, low achievers and high achievers tend to view the classroom differently, Jelena writes at Nobel Coaching. While high achievers want to succeed and excel, low-achievers want to avoid failure. They don’t want to disappoint their parents and teachers and try to avoid the embarrassment of failing in front of their peers.

Identifying the Quitting Points of Your Students

Instead of defining your students in terms of how smart they are, consider how they approach problems. You will likely find that some stick to a concept for hours if you let them, while others will give up if they get bored or can’t immediately grasp the concept.

Teachers Adam Chamberlin and Sveti Matejic co-authored the book “Quit Point,” in which they discuss what makes students quit and how teachers can “hack their classrooms” to identify the point at which their students quit. One of the first concepts they emphasize is that each student has their own quit point — and that point is constantly changing.

They use the metaphor of reading to explore this. There are times when you can’t put a good book down. If a book is hard going, though, you read it more slowly or in smaller chunks. Some people will give up on the book entirely. The same concept applies to other things. Students might stick to one concept if they want to succeed and fight to get it, while others might quit as soon as they encounter a roadblock.  

A student’s quitting point doesn’t only apply to math class and other core subjects, but to artistic programs as well. About half of the students who pick up musical instruments at the start of the year quit playing by the end of the year. Trombonist and music educator Anthony Mazzocchi says one reason students quit is because they don’t think they’re talented, but there are other reasons. Parents don’t emphasize music as important and get tired of forcing kids to play. Meanwhile kids don’t think the instrument is fun, mostly because the music they play isn’t aligned to their interests, plus their teachers don’t give them enough opportunities to perform.

As an educator, you can only hope to move the points at which students quit for good. For struggling students, this means encouraging them to keep trying even when they fail. For gifted students, this means trying to keep them interested.

Embracing the Differentiated Classroom

Once you focus on extending the quitting points of students, you can start to change your classroom. One way that teachers can accommodate high and low achievers in the same classroom is with differentiated instruction. This is the concept of breaking up the class so different learners can learn at their own speed. Low achievers can take their time with concepts while gifted students can work ahead on new concepts.

Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson at the University of Virginia, author of “Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom,” says teachers can work with four elements in the classroom to develop a differentiated learning environment. These are:

  • Content. The concepts that students need to learn (and the resources available to them).
  • Process. The activities and steps students will take to absorb the information.
  • Products. Tools and opportunities for students to review and apply the materials.
  • Learning environment. The way the classroom looks and how students feel.

These elements work together to develop student-centered instruction, where the teacher adapts to the students, rather than expecting all students to adapt to one learning style.

Providing choices for students is key for developing a differentiated classroom, agrees Todd Finley, professor of English Education at East Carolina University. This approach gives students freedom to choose how they learn, while maintaining structure in the learning environment. A few examples of giving students choices include:

  • Allow students to choose how they learn: in pairs, groups, or individuals.
  • Allow students to choose what they answer: answering their choice of three questions out of five.
  • Allow students to choose what they study and focus on (within certain limits).

With these steps, students are engaged in the learning process, which extends their quitting point.

If the concept of a differentiated classroom seems confusing or overwhelming, know that there are resources out there to test this model. For example, Marcus Guido at Prodigy shares 20 examples of teacher-developed strategies you can apply to your class.

Extra Tips for Balancing Different-Leveled Learners

There are additional ways you can enhance your classroom experience to work with high achievers, gifted learners, and struggling students. Here are five best practices that some teachers have shared on they improve their learning environments.

Develop a Growth Mindset

As you build your classroom, focus on student growth and development at every level. The Common Core and other guidelines often force teachers to create a “yes or no” classroom where students either know the material or don’t. High achievers rest on their laurels while struggling students are left behind.

By creating a growth mindset, every student, regardless of their level, has room to improve. Struggling students can see themselves improve and high achievers can develop a love of learning. Donna Wilson, Ph.D., and Marcus Conyers, Ph.D., authors of “Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains,” share a how-to guide for educators who want to implement these ideas into their classrooms.

Test Spiraling Content

Math teacher Michelle Russell implemented a concept called “spiraling content” in her class. This is when you provide spaced practice, assigning homework that reinforces concepts from past lessons. This gives lower achieving students a refresher and chance to catch up plus the confidence to move ahead with new concepts. In this way, the material spirals out, instead of being seen once and never again.

For gifted students, you might consider adding a question or two from upcoming chapters for extra credit so they can challenge themselves with new material.

Let Your High Achievers Help Their Peers

Elementary teacher Erin Beattie encourages teachers to let high achieving students teach. She says the best way to prove you know something is to teach it to someone else. By pairing high achievers with struggling students, you can hone their peer-to-peer teaching skills while giving the rest of the class a support system. In this way, you also reward high achievers for their knowledge and hard work.

Be Specific With Your Compliments

If you do reward your students, let them know what they are doing well and how you value it. Instead of telling students they’re smart, Steve Miller, instructor of philosophy at Kennesaw State University and founder of Legacy Educational Resources, says you can compliment them on having an extensive vocabulary.

Specific compliments change the idea that “smart” is something you either are or aren’t. It allows teachers to show students exactly what they’re good at and that they can be good at multiple things.

Don’t Force Kids to Focus on One Goal

In an article on high-achieving adolescents, Kathryn Grubbs, academic counselor at University of Washington, examines the concept of multipotentiality. This is the idea that students are likely to have multiple interests and goals in life. She cites a TED Talk by career coach Emilie Wapnick (founder of Puttylike.com) on why some of us don’t have one true calling, especially because so many people in our modern workforce change their jobs several times throughout their lives.

“Asking your child what she wants to be when she grows up can feel overwhelming not just because your child may not know, but because it may feel like she has to choose one thing,” Wapnick says. By encouraging students to excel in multiple ways, instead of siloing them in something they are good at, you free them expand their knowledge and continue to grow.

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