University of Connecticut
Behind the varying levels of student intellect and motivation in any given classroom lies the challenge of meeting each student’s individual learning needs. This includes not only the needs of struggling students, but also the needs of intellectually advanced or gifted and talented students. A classroom of students with a diverse level of ability and motivation requires the use of a differentiated instruction model. The most common way teachers group students in a differentiated classroom is by intellectual ability. However, such rigid grouping may stigmatize a child as a member of “the high math group” or “the low reading group.” A method that alleviates this grouping stigma is flexible ability grouping.
In-class flexible ability grouping is an instructional approach in which students’ knowledge is assessed prior to each unit in all disciplines. Based on their prior knowledge of the subject matter, students within the general education classroom are placed in small groups by their ability and understanding. “When ability grouping is utilized in a flexible and temporary manner, with appropriate curricular adjustment, significant achievement gains can be realized” (Tieso, 2003, p. 29). Teachers can then differentiate the level, depth, and breadth of instruction to provide learning opportunities that maximize student strengths and potential.
There has been some resistance from elementary teachers regarding the use of differentiated flexible ability grouping within a general education classroom. Some teachers feel that differentiating the curriculum to meet individual learning needs is too much additional work or is too time consuming due to the amount of planning and preparation needed to successfully differentiate. “The teacher must develop curriculum according to the unique needs of the group, rather than utilize a ‘one size fits all’ approach to curriculum development” (Tieso, 2003 p. 29). Because most teachers are isolated in their classrooms, differentiating the curriculum by creating tiered activities, projects, and assessments may be overwhelming and intimidating for some teachers. One solution that may help elementary educators to overcome this negative perception of in-class differentiation is the implementation of a co-teaching model in the classroom. Collaborating with a co-teacher reduces the frustrations that accompany the creation of a successful differentiated classroom.
As a pre-service teacher studying at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, I am familiar with methods of differentiated instruction and studied pedagogy associated with student grouping practices. However, it was not until my Master’s internship that I truly discovered the positive impacts that differentiation, flexible ability grouping, and co-teaching could have on student learning. Elementary school administrators created my internship in an attempt to provide their third grade students with differentiated instruction through team teaching and flexible grouping. It was my role as the co-teacher to create differentiated lessons and tiered activities for the varying ability levels in a third grade classroom. After working in this classroom for a month, I began to see interesting trends in the motivation of the four identified gifted and talented math students in the classroom. I decided to conduct a small investigation to uncover these four students’ feelings and attitudes towards whole group versus small ability grouped math instruction. This article is designed to communicate my personal experiences involving the influence of co-teaching and flexible ability grouping in a differentiated classroom on the enrichment opportunities and level of engagement of four identified gifted and talented math students in my third grade class.
After working with these four students for a few weeks, I came to the realization that relying on the pullout gifted and talented math program for enrichment opportunities was educationally inadequate. Teachers must not rely solely on pullout programs to meet the learning needs of students. More must be done within the classroom to differentiate the curriculum to align with students’ abilities.
I took several steps in an attempt to uncover these four students’ attitudes towards differentiation and small group math instruction. Methods for collecting information included daily observations, student surveys, and student written responses. The aim of gathering this information was to implement change based on the students’ attitudes regarding their learning opportunities and level of engagement in the classroom.
Most lessons during the first month of school were taught using the traditional whole-group method of instruction. A student survey was distributed to the four gifted and talented math students in my class. It was designed to uncover the students’ feelings regarding the first month of whole group math instruction in the classroom, prior to the implementation of the flexible ability grouping model. The survey asked students to respond to 10 statements on a three point Likert scale. Sample items included: “I would like my classmates to move more quickly through math lessons,” and “I almost always get perfect scores on my math assignments.” All four identified gifted and talented math students agreed that they almost always got perfect scores on their math assignments during whole-group instruction. Three of the four agreed (one student was neutral) that the math they did in class was too easy for them. Also, three of the students conveyed that they always completed their math assignments quickly, before their classmates; therefore math time was sometimes spent reading a book. These findings demonstrate the low level of engagement these students encounter when being instructed in a whole-class model. The survey revealed that the identified students understand that they have high math ability, they feel that math done in class is often too easy, they have mastered many math skills prior to learning them in school, and that their level of engagement during whole-class math instruction is often low. These findings supported the need for a differentiated classroom model. These students were not receiving the level of course work they needed to feel challenged.
After the first month of school, my co_teacher and I began planning, preparing, and implementing flexible ability groups for mathematics in the classroom. As a result of co-teaching, we found it easier to collect resources, pool ideas, and plan activities and lessons geared towards the varying levels of ability in the classroom. Students were pre-tested prior to each math unit. The students who proved mastery were automatically exempt from lessons within the unit, allowing more time for enrichment opportunities. Time can be used to teach a topic in greater depth than what would normally be taught in a whole-class lesson. Working in a differentiated classroom through a co-teaching model allows for smaller learning groups that can be easily facilitated and managed. Within each group, content is specifically tailored to meet individual learning needs. Tailoring the curriculum to meet many varying levels of understanding can be overwhelming for a single teacher in an isolated classroom to manage. Through the co-teaching model of instruction, the teachers benefit from a well-organized, collaborative, easily manageable instructional model, while students benefit from working with classmates who comprehend mathematical concepts on a similar level.
In math, there are currently three instructional groups. The identified gifted and talented math students form one group. One of the co-teachers works with these students on challenging math problems that require higher-level thinking and strategies. The group discusses possible answers to questions, the ways they derived their answers, and alternative solutions. Students in this group also create their own mathematical problems and work with a partner to find solutions.
After working in a small math group in the classroom for several weeks, the identified students were asked to fill out a second survey regarding their feelings about the new instructional model. Important findings emerged from this survey. Of the four identified students, three agreed (one was neutral) that they liked working in small groups better than with the whole class for math. Of the students surveyed, three of the four also agreed that the math done in small groups is more challenging than the math done as a whole class. All four students agreed that they were more interested in math when they work in small groups. Also, three of the four students admitted to daydreaming less when they work in small groups for math. These responses convey an increased level of engagement as a result of differentiated instruction though co-teaching. Again, three of the four students believed the other students in their small group were about the same ability level. Other interesting information gathered from this survey was that all four students understood that there is varying mathematical ability among their other classmates. The fact that they understand this may help to explain why they believe working within small math groups is beneficial to their learning.
All four students also agreed that they would like to study math topics usually studied in higher grades. Their responses to this statement reveal that they have the confidence in their math abilities to try new problems and challenge themselves. Finally, all four gifted and talented math students agreed that they like having another teacher in the classroom because they can do more fun and challenging math work. This consensus is important because it demonstrates that the students observe the benefits of the co-teaching model. Through the co-teaching model, gifted and talented students receive more face time with a teacher who can facilitate meaningful, in-depth assignments that challenge and excite these students in math. The children felt that having an additional teacher creates more and better opportunities for enrichment activities. The students were also asked to respond to two open-ended questions regarding their reactions to working in small math groups. The first question was: Do you feel more excited about math when you are being challenged with a math activity? One student said:
- Yes, I feel more excited when I am being challenged more because I have to think more.
The second open-ended question was: Do you think working in a small group with kids with similar abilities in math is better than working with the whole class? Why or why not? Some responses were as follows:
- I like being in the smarter group because it’s easier to concentrate and I seem to work easier.
- I like working in small groups because it is . . . quiet and easier to work.
- I think it is better to work in smaller groups with harder math because I get to do harder math, and I don’t have to wait for everyone to catch up.
- Yes, because they are at my level.
These written responses gave us further insights as to student attitudes about ability groups in math. The first noticeable finding that emerges is that these students are aware of their abilities. They understand that they are able to comprehend mathematical concepts at a faster rate and greater depth than most of their general education counterparts. However, teachers must be aware of the elitist attitudes that may form as a result of leveled grouping. Although flexible ability grouping allows for student shifting and eliminates the rigid lines of tracking, stigmas and elitist attitudes may form if teachers are not careful. Some responses to these open-ended questions can be interpreted as elitist. For example, one student claims, “I am better than other kids. . .” while another student writes, “I like being in the smarter group. . . .” These attitudes can deconstruct the sense of class community and can reflect on other students’ self-esteem and self-concept. This is why it is important that teachers use flexible ability groups based on a variety of assessments so students are constantly being shifted and working with different students for units within each discipline. These responses also helped us to understand the necessity for differentiated groups based on the needs of the students; many of the written responses address the fact that these students believe working in smaller groups allows for easier concentration and fewer distractions. Also, the students enjoy and are excited by challenges presented in their small math group. We would not be doing our jobs if we denied these students the opportunity for mathematical challenge, passion, and excitement.
In conclusion, from the gifted and talented students’ perspective, the whole-class model of instruction that was used throughout the first month of school was inadequate. The gifted math students reported feeling unchallenged about math. However, when small flexible ability groups were introduced to the classroom, the gifted and talented math students were more excited about math, more challenged, and enjoyed working with students who were “on their level.” The students also enjoyed having a co-teacher in their classroom to facilitate higher-level activities and teach abstract concepts. As a result of this investigation, flexible ability groups will continue to be used in our classroom; the benefits outweigh any negative aspects of this instructional model. Negative aspects discussed in this article, such as the creation of elitist attitudes, stigmas, or stereotypes, can be alleviated or even eliminated by teachers. Teachers must understand that by using multiple methods of pre-assessment and by constantly shifting students from group to group throughout the year, the problems associated with grouping practices may be eliminated. Then teachers and students will be able to work in a well-organized, student-centered environment, where each child’s individual learning needs are being met to the fullest extent.