kindergarten

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

At a family celebration this past weekend a friend shared that her daughter had just been accepted into a Gifted and Talented kindergarten class at their local school and she wanted to know my thoughts about putting her child there vs. letting her child experience, what she perceived would be, a less anxiety-producing mixed-ability classroom environment. Here are my thoughts (and research):

What is tracking? 

Tracking is the practice, traditionally in high schools, of grouping students with similar ability and then teaching to that ability. This often looks like the "higher ability" students being given more complex work and asked to think more critically than the "lower ability" students who are treated with lower expectations.

What are the perceived benefits of tracking students? 

Some people say that students in all tracked groups (high, middle, and low-ability class groupings) will learn more and be pushed out of their comfort zone into a more challenging zone of learning if they are with like-peers.

Some people also say that it is easier for a teacher to teach one thing to a group of students rather then have to differentiate instruction for students with differing abilities.

Some parents say that their Gifted child was used as a teacher for lower-performing peers and didn't get the chance to shine with like-minded peers.

What are the proven-through-research detriments of tracking students? 

There are just so many so I will highlight what I think are the most important:

- Students learn from each other!

- Students develop communication and life skills by learning to explain, listen, and ask questions of their peers.

- Students develop relationships with more of their peers.

- Students begin to see themselves and each other as teachers!

- Teacher expectation changes student performance. This means that when students are grouped by ability teachers teach them differently and students who are perceived as "lower ability" will not be as stimulated or engaged by the teacher, or be treated as capable learners.

- Tracking only highlights tested academic skills. Many students have other skills that lend themselves to a school setting where they might have a deeper understanding of a concept that doesn't show in tests. For example, a student who understands music may be very good at math, and be not so great at taking math tests.

- Listening to students teach each other adds more strategies and ways of thinking to a teacher's toolbox. This makes them better teachers.

Something to note when you hear from parents and students who disagree (based on experience) is that they probably didn't have teachers who were excited about the differences among their students. GREAT TEACHERS will capitalize on all of the skills and abilities of their students and seamlessly create a feeling of community in the classroom. It is extremely unfortunate that there are teachers who are not willing to embrace all of their students and who complain that mixed-ability classes create more work for them. We have to always remember the goal: to teach students to want to learn, create, and make a better world, which includes all kinds of equity (and not complaining because something seems difficult).

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

For more info read: Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work, What Tracking Is and How to Start Dismantling It, Tracking (in Wikipedia), Can Tracking Improve Learning? (study done in Kenya)

What if school was playing in a forest all day?

School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten (trailer)

This film looks amazing. These kids play in nature, learn through exploring, and are learning to learn! 

What if schools were noisy, open-air laboratories with no set schedules?

What if schools were open-air laboratories with no set schedules? What if there were no walls and students could come and go freely, attending to their emotional needs? What if some of the students' needs were anticipated like tree-climbing and the ability to dangle your legs from high places? What if nature and physical activity were built into your school day, and your school? What if you had to climb a tree to get to class and take a slide out of it? 

In his TED talk, The Best Kindergarten You've Ever Seen, Takaharu Tezuka reminds us that children can become anxious in silent, sterile environments. And they thrive when given space and some stimulating background noise. He argues for intentionally-designed child-centered spaces that meet the needs of students while also creating a safe space. Think about it: a circular school so kids can run and run without leaving the school. Brilliant! 

Something else of note is that instead of a sink in the corner of the room, Tezuka puts them in the middle, allowing space for many children to use it at once, thus expanding the utility of the sink. It becomes not just a place for washing up, but a place for play, chatter, and the talk-around-the-water-cooler social phenomenon.