The low, the middle and the high achievers (pt.2): The danger of labeling and the averagela

My previous post was already inspired by yesterday’s #edchat on Twitter. It is a weekly discussion between many passionate educators from all over the world on Twitter. It’s a great way to get inspired, to get you thinking and to change ideas. It is also a way to connect with people who think or, in fact, do not think like you.

If you are interested, have a look at the #edchat Wiki and Cybrary Man’s list of Educational Chats on Twitter.

Yesterday’s discussion was about the “middle” in our schools. The topic, to be exact, was Is too much emphasis placed on low and high achieving students?
My previous reflection was based on the German state school system. I don’t teach in it, but I grew up in it. Although my secondary school was slightly different, I was still sorted, and so was my sister. We both could have been very different people in different schools. But we are happy with who we are, and it shows that not only schools determine who or what you will become one day.

I’m happy to teach at an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) school, where such sorting is uncommon, and where, in fact, the regrouping of students is a requirement of educational practice. In order to put my reflection into context here, let me briefly explain my background. I started teaching at a private, progressive primary and middle school in Germany. The school was a school for everyone (called Gesamtschule) and sorting was only an issue when parents wanted to move their children elsewhere (such as to a prestigious Gymnasium). Two years ago I moved school and country, and took my first post at an international PYP school. I stayed there until this summer, and am taking up a new position in a new international PYP and MYP school after the summer.

This post is about the labeling in our own classes. The unconscious labeling we might be doing at times. I will apply a reflection model to this, to organize my thoughts and feelings, and, to hopefully come to a conclusion or action plan for myself. The model used is an adaption of Greenaway’s Plan-do-review; I will use Burton’s What? So What? Now What?

WHAT?

Over the last year I taught a small class of ten students. The class was mixed grade/age, the children between 8 and 10 years old. They were all from different countries, with levels of English (the “language of instruction” at the school) ranging from beginner (no previous knowledge) to mother tongue.
Differentiation was required at all times, in all academic disciplines, as well as socially.
Looking back over the year though, I can see how I might have put more emphasis on the “low” and the “high” in my class. I wouldn’t say achievers. Let me explain! The children with beginning English were supported through our EAL teacher (standard practice) and I had to plan for them in the mainstream classroom as well. Those children who struggled in writing/grammar/other areas, would seek support and get it from me as well. I would plan according to their needs, providing resources to enable them to deal with a specific task or idea in a better way. The “high” would need more challenges. They, as well, would be resourced in my planning. And the “middle”? Well, maybe I didn’t really have much of a middle, but there are some children for whom my “normal” planning was “just right” and I wonder if I could have done more for them.

SO WHAT?

I don’t want to go into overexplaining every single detail from my class. I’m sure you get the idea. So what, I ask myself now. What is the problem?
If we plan “in top of the normal planning” for the “low” and the “high”, then where does the “middle” stay? Why do we make them average, normal, why do we not challenge them on top of everything?
Generally, I’m happy not to have “sets” in my class. I always regroup, different “abilities”, different interests….. I knew the children in that class well, so it was easy.
How do we make sure not to look at the bell curve, the scale? What makes us look this way anyway? Is there a difference in our espoused theory of action and our theory-in-use? Do we preach differently from how we act? Do we, despite knowing better, fall back into “common”, “old”, “easy-way-out” traps?
Possibly. I don’t say we always do, but sometimes I probably do. And children don’t deserve that. Not always, not sometimes, not rarely, they NEVER deserve to be your “average”, your “norm” or “middle”. All children are individuals with their own needs at all times. And I speak here generally, although I can see the implications differ for the classroom teacher of 10-15 in an international PYP school and the High School Science teacher of 7 different classes of 30 kids each. I’m aware, but lets stay ideological for a minute.

NOW WHAT?

What can I do to break away from this altogether? The next children I teach, I don’t know. I’m fortunate enough to be working with their previous teacher, but you know how it works, you need to make your own picture!
I also have several “support” systems at hand in a PYP school. Scope and Sequence documents are developmental and not age-based, for example.
Firstly though, I have to get to know the students, every single one of them. Personally, and academically. And then, I guess I have to work hard on never labeling them. On always giving them the opportunity to exceed expectations and beyond. Always challenge them, always make them feel safe enough to take a risk.

We all don’t want to be average, we don’t want to be the middle. We don’t necessarily be low or high achievers either, but we want to be us. The best WE can be.
I would love your comments on this, let’s not let the ideas die just because the #edchat is over!

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