Learning How New Teachers Relate to Academic Diversity in Mixed Ability Classrooms

Spring 1996 Masthead

Carol Ann Tomlinson
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

In a burgeoning number of classrooms around the country, heterogeneous grouping of students is the order of the day, and general classroom teachers find themselves unsure of how to adjust instruction in response to the readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles of students who differ widely in those ways. Research tells us that teach-to-the-middle instruction still prevails in our schools and that few veteran teachers are predisposed to differentiate instruction (that is, to modify what and how they teach) for students who differ significantly from the norm.

If it is the case that experienced teachers find it difficult to make changes in their practice so that they can establish classrooms with appropriately differentiated curricula, we might hypothesize that our best hope for addressing academic diversity in heterogeneous settings lies in novice teachers who may possess both state-of-the-art training and the flexibility necessary to establish classrooms with varied avenues to learning. Yet a strong body of research indicates that prospective teachers leave teacher education programs with relatively the same set of beliefs about teaching with which they entered these programs. In part, teacher education programs appear unable to reshape novice teachers’ views of schooling because of the power of the images of teaching and learning that formed during the dozen or more years of schooling beginning teachers encountered prior to formal teacher education. This research calls into question the flexibility of novice teachers in breaking entrenched patterns of educational practice.

While much research exists on how novice teachers make the transition from college or university into full time teaching, little research has been done on how novices come to understand and address the needs of academically diverse learners during the earliest stages of teaching. The University of Virginia site of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented recently concluded a 3-year project entitled Preservice Teacher Preparation in Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners, studying how novice teachers grow in their early attempts to think about and plan for students who are gifted, learning disabled or remedial, in the context of general classrooms.

Research Design

The Preservice Study was conducted through six university sites in four states. During the baseline phase of the study, novices received no intervention. During phase two of the study, one group of novices participated in a day-long problem solving workshop focused on helping participants think about and plan for learning needs of academically diverse learners. A second group of phase two novices took part in the same workshop and were then assigned a curriculum coach whose role was to continue to mentor their thinking about responding to academic diversity in their classrooms throughout their student-teaching placements. In the third phase of the study, a few novices from all three groups (no intervention, workshop, and workshop plus coach) were followed into their first year of full-time teaching. The study used both qualitative and quantitative design. All participants were observed at least three times during a given phase and interviewed after each observation. In addition, the novices and their cooperating teachers completed pre and post student-teaching surveys designed to assess their beliefs and practices related to academic diversity.

Key Findings From the Preservice Study

Findings from the study yielded a wide array of insights and implications for teacher educators as well as for public school leaders. Among many findings that merit consideration are the following:

  • Novices in all three groups reported that they received little encouragement to differentiate instruction for academically diverse learners from their teacher education programs, university supervisors, or cooperating teachers. While the novices typically took a survey course on exceptional learners, they most often recalled the course to be an-exceptionality-a-week with little practical value in the field. Cooperating teachers often cautioned the novices to be sure to “keep all of the students together,” even when the novices proposed more instructionally responsive plans.
  • The novices’ images of schooling were ill-suited to differentiating instruction. As they saw it, curriculum was about coverage with teachers telling and students absorbing and repeating information that is largely factual in nature. Everyone was allotted the same amount of time to complete the same tasks. Assessment came at the end of learning to “see who got it.” Grading was according to a standardized yardstick.
  • Images of advanced or gifted learners and struggling or learning disabled/remedial learners were limited and limiting, and were often intertwined with compliance. Asked to describe advanced and struggling learners, the novices noted that gifted learners “do what I ask them to do” and “do it happily.” Struggling learners misbehave, “can’t stay on task,” “don’t want to work.”
  • The novices appeared to have a shallow well of instructional strategies from which to draw. Lecture and worksheets dominated. Even in the early grades, it was common for all learners to complete the same activities or learning centers.
  • The single “alternative” instructional strategy common across many of the novices and sites was cooperative learning. The preservice teachers often spoke about cooperative learning in ways that clearly delineated the academic haves from the academic have nots, referring frequently to the students who “cannot learn” but who can at least be aided by the students “who already know it.” A number of the novices discussed the benefits and relief they felt in having “junior teachers” to help them with their role as instructor.
  • In the framework of overwhelming standardization in their images of schooling as well as in the realities of the classroom, the novices were frustrated by advanced and struggling learners. Gifted learners already know what is to be covered prior to instruction, “but they can’ t sit still, so I have to find fillers for them.” Struggling learners “can’t get it” in the time allotted, “but at least I expose them to it.” There was a virtual absence of images of teaching in which there was more than a single “content,” more than a single time allotment, or more than a single assessment, regardless of the diversity of the student population.
  • Novices in the intervention groups persisted in their beliefs that learners vary in need and that an effective teacher will modify instruction based on those varying needs. Non-intervention novices, on the other hand, quickly jettisoned differentiation as a goal, often noting that it was unrealistic. Intervention novices also made more attempts to differentiate instruction than did their non intervention counterparts.
Some Implications From the Study’s Findings

The role of a novice teacher is complex and demanding. In the virtual absence of either images of differentiated classrooms or persistent encouragement to develop the skills of differentiation, it was easy for the novice teachers in this study to succumb to the standardizing effects of schools. If we want to encourage novice teachers to move away from one-size-fits-all teaching, this study suggests that we will need to do a better job than we are currently doing, both at the university and public school level.

  • Teacher education programs need to make differentiated instruction a key component of all pedagogical and practical experiences for all prospective teachers.
  • Teacher education programs need to ensure that prospective teachers are developing the “gross motor skills” of teaching (e.g., understanding key concepts of a discipline, developing tasks that foster student meaning-making, teacher as facilitator, on-going assessment of student understanding, reflective practice) that are most likely later to lead to the “fine motor skills” of differentiation (e.g., creating tasks at varied levels of complexity, managing multiple groups in a classroom).
  • Teacher education programs need to coach cooperating teachers in how to differentiate instruction (or at least the need to do so), so that the experienced teachers facilitate (or are at least open to) modifying instruction in ways responsive to academically diverse populations.
  • Public schools need to establish for novices (and other staff) a core expectation that teachers appropriately address varied readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles in mixed ability classrooms.
  • School leaders need to provide for novices in-school models of and coaching in creating and applying differentiated curricula, establishing and managing differentiated classrooms, flexible time use, alternative assessment, and grading patterns that support individual growth.
  • Public schools need to provide novice teachers help in establishing reasonable long and short term goals for professional growth, consistent encouragement and support in achieving the goals, and recognition of growth throughout the early stages of teacher development.

The Preservice Study indicates that if the needs of academically diverse learners, including the gifted, are to be met in the regular classroom, much work needs to be done with preservice level teachers. We must establish a sense of need for teachers to be responsive to varied learner needs, perceptions and practices related to curriculum and instruction. This, of course, will require prolonged support and commitment at the university and school levels for long-term development in differentiation.


Back to Newsletter Articles Page