Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final installment in a series of posts about envelope-pushing strategies that schools might embrace to address students’ learning loss in the wake of the pandemic. Find the first four posts here, here, here, and here.
Last week I explored how we might truly personalize instruction and blow up the whole notion of grade levels so that elementary students could learn at their own pace and get what they need as they recover from the pandemic. I argued that it’s harder than it looks, especially at the elementary level, for several reasons. First, much of what the youngest learners are supposed to master in school is how to behave and get along with other kids and adults. Especially after everything children have been through over the last year, we need to put relationships front and center. Thinking of young students as knowledge-building machines is not going to cut it.
And second, I discussed concerns about grouping students homogeneously with other kids with similar readiness levels, as in the redbirds and the bluebirds. That’s because of research showing that students in the lowest groups rarely catch up. Yet teaching students in small groups is not only a time-honored practice, but one of the most obvious ways to individualize instruction.
At the elementary level, then, any approach to personalize learning has to balance attempts to individualize instruction with plenty of opportunities to build relationships and social skills with other kids and adults, while also making sure that the lowest-achieving students are not permanently consigned to low-level instruction and grouped all day and exclusively with other low-performing peers.
To my knowledge, very few elementary schools can claim to exemplify such an approach, but the nonprofit network of Rocketship charter schools can at least make a strong case. As I wrote a few years ago, Rocketship schools use an elegant model that combines whole-class instruction, small groups, individual work, and an extended day, one that provides ample time for core academics, including STEM and humanities, plus social and emotional learning and enrichment activities. Rocketeers get more individualized instruction than most elementary students do—and it shows in their impressive results. But the bulk of their day is spent with the rest of their classmates, or in heterogeneous groupings, which impart important social skills and avoid the downfalls of grouping the lowest performers together all the time.
That said, Rocketeers still progress through the grade levels on a traditional schedule. To bust up the age-old link between a child’s age and their grade level, we have to look to another model I’ve discussed in the past, Montessori. In those elementary schools, grade levels are collapsed so that students spend their days in multi-age classrooms—almost always ages 3–6, 6–9, and 9–12. Students can move to the next level when educators deem them ready. And it works because there’s very little whole-class instruction—though there is a lot of work in pairs and small groups. Mostly, students rotate through stations, at their own pace, to a large degree guided by their own interests. If a five-year-old is ready for second grade content, no problem. It’s the closest thing we have to personalized learning for little kids—and it’s over 100 years old! Furthermore, by keeping kids in the same classroom for three years, children get to build deep relationships with one another and their teachers.
The rub with Montessori is that students have so much choice that it can lead to more depth than breadth. Skilled teachers can encourage students to build skills in the areas to which they aren’t as naturally drawn so that children learn important material that they will need to know one day. But in public Montessori schools especially, where schools are held accountable for helping students reach standards in the Three Rs, there’s an unavoidable tension between letting students follow their interests and ensuring they spend enough time on every content area. To loosen that tension, Montessori teachers are trained to use detailed observation protocols and particular intervention strategies to recognize when students are struggling and to support them without controlling them. But given the number of standards and students in each class, even the most gifted teacher can struggle to see and respond to everything that’s going on.
Wildflower Schools, a non-profit charter network that embraces the Montessori model, is developing creative ways to expand teachers’ capacity to observe to make sure that its pupils get the necessary exposure to a breadth of important topics. They are piloting a fascinating hybrid of high-tech and low-tech that uses sensors to track where students are spending their time—though the learning activities in their classrooms are traditional enough to be recognizable by Maria Montessori herself. Data from the sensors can give teachers and administrators insights into whether certain kids need to be nudged toward reading, writing, math, and other key domains to progress academically.
What all of this means for elementary schools in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, then, is if they want to allow for personalized pacing, they should:
- Balance the use of small, homogeneous groups, typically for reading or math instruction, with plenty of whole-class lessons so students are learning with kids who are below and above their current readiness level.
- Use high-quality digital programs to individualize instruction, especially given how effective they can be at pinpointing the knowledge and skills students are ready to tackle.
- Offer students the opportunity to rotate through learning stations, Montessori-style, to explore their interests and work on core skills, including plenty of practice in reading, writing, and math.
- Consider multi-age classrooms, which may allow for more targeted instruction without the stigma of “holding back” the lowest-achieving students, while also allowing children to build deep relationships with their classmates and teachers.
None of that sounds easy. Some of it may require waivers from state regulations. But for schools committed to meeting each child exactly where they are, the effort might be worth their while.