I see students working in groups all the time… Students working collaboratively in pairs or small groups having rich discussions as they sort shapes by specific properties, students identifying and extending their partner’s visual patterns, students playing games aimed at improving their procedural fluency, students cooperating to make sense of a low-floor/high-ceiling problem…..
When we see students actively engaged in rich mathematics activities, working collaboratively, it provides opportunities for teachers to effectively monitor student learning (notice students’ thinking, provide opportunities for rich questioning, and lead to important feedback and next steps…) and prepare the teacher for the lesson close. Classrooms that engage in these types of cooperative learning opportunities see students actively engaged in their learning. And more specifically, we see students who show Agency, Ownership and Identity in their mathematics learning (See TruMath‘s description on page 10).
On the other hand, some classrooms might be pushing for a different vision of what groups can look like in a mathematics classroom. One where a teachers’ role is to continually diagnose students’ weaknesses, then place students into ability groups based on their deficits, then provide specific learning for each of these groups. To be honest, I understand the concept of small groups that are formed for this purpose, but I think that many teachers might be rushing for these interventions too quickly.
First, let’s understand that small group interventions have come from the RTI (Response to Intervention) model. Below is a graphic created by Karen Karp shared in Van de Walle’s Teaching Student Centered Mathematics to help explain RTI:
As you can see, given a high quality mathematics program, 80-90% of students can learn successfully given the same learning experiences as everyone. However, 5-10% of students (which likely are not always the same students) might struggle with a given topic and might need additional small-group interventions. And an additional 1-5% might need might need even more specialized interventions at the individual level.
The RTI model assumes that we, as a group, have had several different learning experiences over several days before Tier 2 (or Tier 3) approaches are used. This sounds much healthier than a model of instruction where students are tested on day one, and placed into fix-up groups based on their deficits, or a classroom where students are placed into homogeneous groupings that persist for extended periods of time.
Principles to Action (NCTM) suggests that what I’m talking about here is actually an equity issue!
We know that students who are placed into ability groups for extended periods of time come to have their mathematical identity fixed because of how they were placed. That is, in an attempt to help our students learn, we might be damaging their self perceptions, and therefore, their long-term educational outcomes.
Tier 1 Instruction
While I completely agree that we need to be giving attention to students who might be struggling with mathematics, I believe the first thing we need to consider is what Tier 1 instruction looks like that is aimed at making learning accessible to everyone. Tier 1 instruction can’t simply be direct instruction lessons and whole group learning. To make learning mathematics more accessible to a wider range of students, we need to include more low-floor/high-ceiling tasks, continue to help our students spatalize the concepts they are learning, as well as have a better understanding of developmental progressions so we are able to effectively monitor student learning so we can both know the experiences our students will need to be successful and how we should be responding to their thinking. Let’s not underestimate how many of our students suffer from an “experience gap”, not an “achievement gap”!
If you are interested in learning more about what Tier 1 instruction can look like as a way to support a wider range of students, please take a look at one of the following:
- How do we meet the needs of so many unique students in a mixed-ability classroom?
- Differentiated Instruction: comparing 2 subjects
- Differentiating Mathematics Instruction
Tier 2 Instruction
Tier 2 instruction is important. It allows us to give additional opportunities for students to learn the things they have been learning over the past few days/weeks in a small group. Learning in a small group with students who are currently struggling with the content they are learning can give us opportunities to better know our students’ thinking. However, I believe some might be jumping past Tier 1 instruction (in part or completely) in an attempt to make sure that we are intervening. To be honest, this doesn’t make instructional sense to me! If we care about our content, and care about our students’ relationship with mathematics, this might be the wrong first move.
So, let’s make sure that Tier 2 instruction is:
- Provided after several learning experiences for our students
- Flexibly created, and easily changed based on the content being learned at the time
- Focused on student strengths and areas of need, not just weaknesses
- Aimed at honoring students’ agency, ownership and identity as mathematicians
If you are interested in learning more about what Tier 2 interventions can look like take a look at one of the following:
Instead of seeing mathematics as being learned every day as an approach to intervene, let’s continue to learn more about what Tier 1 instruction can look like! Or maybe you need to hear it from John Hattie:
Or from Jo Boaler:
If you are currently in a school that uses small group instruction in mathematics, I would suggest that you reflect on a few things:
- How do your students see themselves as mathematicians? How might the topics of Agency, Authority and Identity relate to small group instruction?
- What fixed mindset messaging do teachers in your building share “high kids”, “level 2 students”, “she’s one of my low students”….? What fixed mindset messages might your students be hearing?
- When in a learning cycle do you employ small groups? Every day? After several days of learning a concept?
- How flexible are your groups? Are they based on a wholistic leveling of your students, or based specifically on the concept they are learning this week?
- How much time do these small groups receive? Is it beyond regular instructional timelines, or do these groups form your Tier 1 instructional time?
- If Karp/Van de Walle suggests that 80-90% of students can be successful in Tier 1, how does this match what you are seeing? Is there a need to learn more about how Tier 1 approaches can meet the needs of this many students?
- What are the rest of your students doing when you are working with a small group? Is it as mathematically rich as the few you’re working with in front of you?
- Do you believe that all of your students are capable to learn mathematics and to think mathematically?
I’d love to continue the conversation. Write a response, or send me a message on Twitter ( @markchubb3 ).