Sunday, May 21, 2006

Heterogeneous classrooms: They still don't get it

In the April 17 article The heterogeneous debate: Some say best students get short shrift, Madison (WI) School Board President Carol Carstensen is quoted as saying,

""Good teachers can challenge students across a pretty broad spectrum," [she] said, adding that training and support for teachers is essential. "The thing that I think is so critical is that the diversity in the classroom in and of itself creates an academic challenge and fosters creativity among all kids."

How exactly does diversity offer academic challenge for the students? Certainly it's a challenge to the teachers, having to interpret the curriculum appropriately for students in up to 12 different levels of ability and achievement. But for the students? Is a child who is struggling with the material, say 9th grade biology, really going to debate a child who learned this all at the age of 8? Certainly not. He's going to sit there and wait for the other child to give him the answer, and then he's going to write it down on his worksheet. And what has he learned? That he should not try to learn things himself, but rather wait until a "smart person" tells him what to think.

You may think my assessment of the situation is rather harsh. I wish it was. Look at how the media is shaping the debate on immigration. They holler racism against Mexicans and millions of Spanish speakers rally in the streets. Is the immigration debate only about Mexican immigrants? Should it be? The 9/11 hijackers got into this country through the Canadian border, not through Mexico. An intellectually rigorous mind would be saying, "Wait, what about immigrants from countries other than Mexico? How do the current bills affect illegals from Poland, China or India?"

My point here is not to argue about immigration reform. It's that too many people swallow whole the stories the media gives them, carefully written at not more than a fourth-grade level, mind you. Fifteen minutes listening to talk radio with show you callers are well-versed with the party line--whether that's from a conservative point of view or a liberal one--but they can't explain why they hold the opinions that they do.

My theory is that the heterogeneous classroom is to blame. Okay, the public school system is to blame. We're bred from kindergarten to swallow whole whatever the teacher says. No questions are allowed, unless they're on the preprinted list of discussion questions in the teacher's manual. But the hetergeneous classroom is compounding the problem. The kids who know the answers answer the questions (unless they've given up completely and gone to sleep). The kids who are struggling know that if they just wait long enough, someone will tell them the answer, so why bother figuring it out for themselves?

I had a boy in my Webelos den last year, John, a fifth grader who was good at other things we did in Scouts, but couldn't read. Not only couldn't he read, he didn't even try. We were discussing, during a hike, what other activities the park offered (or something like that). Once we reached the parking lot, there was a sign answering our question.
I pointed to the sign and said, "Well, there you go."
John's immediate response was, "What does it say?"
Me, going into teacher-mode, "It's talking about park activities."
John: "Oh."
Xavier then read the sign to him without prompting. I know I wanted to help John take a stab at reading the sign but he'd already given up and gone on to "when are we leaving?"

John and Xavier both knew what the situation demanded: John would wait until someone like Xavier did the academic work for him. They did not learn this in a homogeneous classroom, in Cub Scouts or at my house. In fact, research has proven that motivation inproves for students of all abilities when they are placed in a homogeneous classroom, vs. a heterogeneous one. Imagine John having an opportunity to be the best in his class at science or math instead of always being relegated to the stupid part of the classroom because of that one kid who always knows the answer. Imagine that one kid in a class of other gifted students, suddenly realizing he's not God's gift to to the fifth grade because Joe, Suzy and Sally are faster or know more than he does! Homogeneous classes, aka ability grouping, is a win-win situation. Now if only the school boards would figure this out.

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