Are we really serious about ALL students learning science?

If we’re really serious about ensuring that all students learn science, then why do we continue the practice of moving on to the next topic before all the students are ready?

Because it’s impossible to manage a classroom if you’re trying to keep all 20-40 students together and you wait until every last one of them has the concept before moving on.  The behavior and attention issues would drive even the most patient teacher up the wall.

So in order to mitigate this problem, most teachers “teach to the middle.”  The upper kids will already have it down and the lower kids won’t have it yet, but when the middle of the group has got it, most teachers move on.  (Although sometimes some move on even before this point due to time, packed curriculum, etc.)

In my experience it’s not that students CAN’T get something–it’s that they don’t have the background knowledge (or the prior experiences and understandings) to enable them to learn the new stuff in the same amount of time.

See…I taught chemistry for ten years and it (along with MANY subjects) is one of those things that if you don’t understand the stuff in the beginning then you’re NEVER going to catch up.  If you can’t understand chemical formulas then you won’t be able to balance an equation, and if you can’t do either of those things then forget about getting to stoichiometry.  And if you never “got” algebra in such a way that you can transfer it to other content areas then you’re going to really struggle with a lot of the math in chemistry.

So once a kid falls behind, the chances of them catching up are slim…they’re just trying to float along and not fail at that point.

But I really want my kids to UNDERSTAND what I’m doing in my classroom–if they’re just trying to float along and not fail, then what’s really the point?

If I could take the time to get kids caught up in the background knowledge, or at least take the time to supplement a student’s background knowledge where it specifically prevented them learning the new stuff, then I could teach them the new stuff.

I came to a cross roads after my 8th year teaching where I just couldn’t justify teaching in this “teach to the middle” way any longer.  It wasn’t respectful of the upper level kids (why should they be held back when they don’t need to be) or the lower level kids (why should I move on when they’re not ready…are they not worthy of learning the material?).  Having multiple levels of a course (honors and regular, for example) can help somewhat with this issue, but even within those leveled courses there’s still variation in where students are at.

So I transformed my class into a Mastery Learning class.  Each student moved on when and only when they were ready.  They chose the ways in which they wanted to learn the material, used me and their peers as resources and personal tutors, gained the background knowledge that they’d been missing, filling in pieces, learned new content and moved on to the next lesson whenever they could show me mastery of the current lesson they were working on.

Kids that got something moved on quicker.  Kids that didn’t get it as quick got to take the time, and get the attention, they need to get it and they moved on as well.

I spent two years teaching in this way and am a true believer that it’s the ONLY way to get each student to learn the content.  Yes, it was hard work on my part.  Yes, it added some chaos to my life, but it was the only way that every student walked out of my classroom at the end of the year LEARNING chemistry and not just “not-failing” it.

I wrote a book on teaching science with Mastery Learning, published by NSTA Press and you can find out more about it at the NSTA store website.

Because I’m not the only one that teaches this way and I certainly don’t have all the answers to all the questions someone might ask about teaching this way, I started a website (  It’s very new (which means there’s not a lot there yet…but hang in there with me and please share and participate to help it grow!), but I’m hoping it will turn into a community of teachers that will share, ask and discuss with each other how to best become serious about ALL students learning science.

Did you enjoy this article?
Get Free Updates

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.