The hidden messages of teacher-paced instruction

A teacher recently emailed me asking for points of support for student-paced mastery learning when confronted with an administrator that believes that if you’re not leading whole group instruction you’re not teaching.  I sent along my standard list of research-based support and evidence of the benefits of student-paced mastery learning but I also wanted to include this vague, foggy idea I had about what traditional teacher-paced classrooms say to the students.  I often have the experience of clarifying a salient point in my own thinking when answering other peoples questions.  It’s that moment of taking those things that were floating around in my mind, maybe a little fuzzy – not quite knowing how to articulate the exact point – and all of the sudden coming up with a much clearer way of expressing it.

There’s likely many hidden messages in traditional whole-group, teacher-paced classrooms, but I’d like to talk about 2 here:

(1)  Not all students matter.  Yes, teacher-paced instruction tells students that not all of them matter.  If the teacher aims the pacing towards the middle of the pack then those that are bored don’t matter and those that don’t get it don’t matter.  Aiming the pacing at the lowest end to ensure that all students do understand the content lets all those kids that got it earlier than the last kid know that they don’t matter because you didn’t respect the fact that they already had it and were ready to go on and do more.

I think this is something we all know at some level – at that fuzzy, back of the mind, something doesn’t feel right level but no one really comes out and admits it in these blunt of terms.  We have clearly said in traditional classroom education that not all students matter.  If we had recognized it this clearly previously, wouldn’t we have HAD to do something to address it?  Who could stand by that kind of thinking and think it’s the best we can do?

I’m not OK with that message.  Not as a teacher nor as a parent.

No one can predetermine how long it takes someone to learn something.  Even when you “guess” which kids will grasp something quickly based on their previous performance, you can often be wrong.

So to the administrator, colleague or parent that thinks that whole group, teacher-paced instruction is necessary, my response is: “OK, let me know which kids matter and which kids don’t.  I can’t possible get all kids to understand the content with whole-classroom, teacher paced instruction – that’s a given fact.  So if you’ll kindly give me a list of the kids that matter, I’ll aim my pacing towards them and as soon as they ‘get it’ I’ll move on – regardless of where the kids on the ‘don’t matter’ list are at in their understanding.”

Seems absolutely absurd when you put it that way, doesn’t it?  Yet that’s how every teacher-paced classroom is – including my own before I transitioned to a student-paced mastery-learning format.  Now that I think of it in this light, I want to call all my students from those “before” years and apologize to each of them!

(2) Not all content matters.  Yep, teacher-paced instruction tells students that not all content matters either.  After all, if you’re not requiring that EVERY student display mastery of EVERY piece of content, then you’re letting them know that it’s OK to not learn it all – some isn’t important and we can simply move on without it.

I’m not a proponent of “cover it all” in the least.  In fact, in my first year of teaching I began researching and publishing what college professors needed incoming chemistry students to know and understand so that I could focus my efforts in the high school course and get them to really understand what was needed rather than covering it all because “I have to prepare them for everything.”

So I choose what I include and leave out thoughtfully.  I left out a lot of content when I wrote my high school chemistry textbook that’s traditionally included in textbooks because if no one ever gets to it and if it’s not necessary for the next level then why the heck are we putting it all in there?

And especially in content areas where understand builds on previous understanding (it’s awfully hard to do stoichiometry if you don’t understand all of the content leading up to it – and if you get lost in August you’re likely never going to catch up – you’ll just tread water throughout the rest of year, “playing the game of school” to get a passing grade but failing to really understand any of it).  How can we say that it’s OK for kids to not get material?   If it’s OK for them to not get it then shouldn’t it be left out of the course to begin with so we can focus on what IS important and relevant?

Again, seems logical, right?  Yet that’s not how we’ve done things for a very long time in education.  Yes, those students likely get a “D” in the course and that has implications for other things (lower GPA, fewer scholarships and opportunities, etc.), but they still have “passed” chemistry – they still have a stamp of approval on them that they’ve earned credit for that course despite having “not learned” a large portion of the content.

Again, I’m not OK with that as teacher nor as a parent.

What other “hidden messages” is the status quo of education sending?  What can we do to become aware of them and address them?

If you’re ready to change these messages you’re sending to students, look around on my site – there’s lots of information about student-paced and mastery learning in my blog and other pages…or feel free to contact me – I LOVE discussing these topics with fellow educators!

Because I’d rather send this message instead:

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