Saturday, October 23, 2010

Data Driven Instruction and the Dynamic Group Learning Environment: Making Standardized Testing Useful in the Classroom

Data Driven Instruction and the Dynamic Group Learning Environment:
Making Standardized Testing Useful in the Classroom
By Nicholas Gallimore

Twenty or more students enter our classrooms every year, and we have only a few days to establish a baseline. Some of our students are repeating the grade. Some have been socially promoted due to age or previous retentions. Some are working at grade level. Yet others are working on a more advanced level than everyone else in the classroom. It is essential that we address the needs of every student, and that simply cannot be done through a constant whole group instructional approach. Using standardized testing data from previous years, students can be placed into dynamic groups that allow teachers to alternate members depending on the skill being addressed. This will increase student engagement, understanding, and retention rates; while simultaneously reducing misbehavior in the classroom.
Whole group instruction has been used in the American Educational System for years, yet now it seems with increased accountability that the gears of reform are starting to get a little more oil. Whole group instruction is perfect for tasks that require repetition, basic memorization, teacher modeled instructions, or addressing an issue that concerns the entire class. However, whole group instruction falls short in maintaining student engagement over an extended period of time with such a diverse audience. While the teacher is remediating the class on basic skills, the advanced students are bored. While the teacher is trying to introduce new skills, the lower leveled students are confused. Essentially, teaching using a strictly whole group approach results in lessons that are geared toward the lower performing students in the class and often exclude some members of the group.
Ability grouping has been tried in the past by many classroom teachers. This approach allows the teacher to address the diverse needs of their students, while simultaneously increasing lesson engagement. The students are placed in high, medium, or low groups depending on academic ability. The teacher then creates lessons for each performance level. Unfortunately, this often results in the teacher merely assigning worksheets to the groups that were not working with the teacher. Ability grouping allowed some of the students to be engaged some of the time. Most of the time the lower performing students still monopolized instructional time, because they simply needed more time to process new information.
A dynamic group is one that is assembled by the teacher based upon the student’s need in a specific skill area during a specific time. In using this approach, the classroom is divided into several dynamic groups that are simultaneously learning different skills. These skills can be based upon aspects of the same subject or in different subject areas altogether. While one group is working on punctuation, another is focused on grammar, and the other is focused on reading comprehension. These dynamic groups can be initially formed through the use of the data that has been collected throughout our students’ educational career.
Our students are tested to the point of exhaustion. I feel that it is time for the classroom teacher to take the reins of this ever increasing mountain of data, and utilize it to drive a more individualized instruction. I understand that educational think-tanks, the government, and local school boards spend countless hours analyzing data to construct another round of educational programs. However, children are more than test scores, and raw data. Social constructs, up-bringing, attitude, and environment come together to transform the children in our desks into contributing members of society. As classroom teachers, we have the capacity to see past the raw test data into the heart of each student’s potential. Since we understand our students as individuals, we can understand their shortcomings and address each student’s unique educational needs. The question with which most teachers struggle is, “How can one person meet the individual needs of so many students”.
The simple answer is that we can’t realistically fix every deficit or inspire every student. However, we can set in motion the means for every student to become inspired or to identify ways that students can experience achievement. Teachers have many tools at their disposal; one of which is our students. Children learn more through teaching and explaining to their peers than a teacher could ever hope to achieve. Peer teaching and discussion increases the engagement of our students and forces them to problem solve in a natural and authentic setting. However, this tool must be used with extreme caution. In order for peer teaching in dynamic groups to be successful, the teacher must lay the initial instructional foundation and establish a rigid classroom management routine.
The teacher must establish how the groups will transition from one station to the next, the expectations of student behavior while at that station, how the students will flow from group to group during the course of the year, and the role each student takes in their own education. I feel that this approach may help to put the students in charge of their education. Instead of being educated by an outside source, the student can utilize their natural curiosity and build a need to know. In this setting the teacher becomes a facilitator of knowledge rather than a dictator of truth. The archaic student teacher relationship is challenged and student centered learning can occur.
As a facilitator, the classroom teacher must transition between the dynamic student groups and illustrate ways in which students can find needed information. More importantly though, is the facilitator’s role in showing group members ways to digest that information into authentic usable solutions. The ability to memorize facts has not lead to human prowess. It is our ability to problem solve that has built our strength. The importance of memorization is decreasing with the rise of technology. Information can be found on any topic with the use of a keyboard, but it is what we do with that information that is essential to forming solutions for our problems. The role of the classroom teacher is no longer to be the sole provider of information; instead it has become a manager of information. We show our students how to discern which information is legitimate and which is misguided. We guide our students to transform the information and the data into usable solutions. We are charged with the responsibility of nurturing the desire of our digital natives to become responsible, contributing digital citizens.

It is time that we teach by example. We need to take the data that has been giving to us by the think-tanks, our government, and our principals and transform the information into a usable solution. We can group our students based upon their need. This is different from ability grouping, because each group is formed to meet the needs of a student’s deficit. We need to identify the problem before we construct its solution. As the student’s deficit is identified, individual learning goals can be established by the teacher. Once these goals are met and the student’s deficits are reconciled the student can transition to another area of need. In this model groups are formed and dismantled as needs arise and are addressed.
Dynamic groups should be viewed as another tool in your teaching arsenal. It is another way to engage your students. This method may not be feasible in your learning environment, but I feel that it is one way that we as teachers can realistically meet the needs of our students. As students become disengaged, the potential for problem solving decreases; while conversely behavior problems increase.