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What’s in the exam?

One teacher decided to have a private conversation with May Ling to try to pin down what she understood from her reading of the social studies text. It soon became apparent that May Ling had developed social language in English, Cantonese, and Danish but lacked the academic language that would allow her to engage in abstract thought.

For years, May Ling had masked her lack of comprehension behind a veneer of social graciousness. When teachers talk about a student's academic performance, we often use the term "ability. Given how frequently teachers use the term "ability," it was a surprise to us that in Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe's book Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design , they avoid the word almost completely. They even substitute the term "readiness grouping" for the more familiar "ability grouping.

We paused to examine our assumptions about the word "ability. Or does ability imply a natural aptitude and talent?

Is there something about one's ability in a specific subject area discipline that suggests potential for future success or failure? How malleable is ability? What is the relationship between ability and potential? What is the relationship between a teacher's perception of ability and how he or she constructs expectations for a given student? What is the relationship between teachers' expectations and student performance?

What an individual identifies as the cause of his or her success or failure can have a profound influence on future learning. For example, if a student routinely attributes his failure in mathematics to sources outside his control e. If he believes the sources of his difficulty in math are beyond his control, the "smart" thing to do is to stop wasting any more time on the subject.

In this way, a student can develop what Carol Dweck refers to as a "fixed mindset. We, like Tomlinson and McTighe, prefer the term "readiness" to "ability" because readiness suggests malleability. It is something that can change and be influenced by skilled instruction, and it will vary considerably depending on circumstance, topic or subject, and a student's developmental stage. Ability, by contrast, suggests innate talents over which neither the child nor the teacher has much influence.

We suspect that teachers are much better able to judge a student's readiness for the next learning challenge than they are a student's ability to tackle that challenge. A substantial body of research supports the importance of teachers knowing the level of student readiness. Longitudinal research conducted by Hunt and colleagues in the s established two features of effective personalized learning. First of all, more effective learning takes places when the amount of task structure by the teacher matches a student's level of development Hunt, In other words, students who are functioning at a fairly concrete level might require very explicit and sequential task instructions, whereas students who are thinking more abstractly might benefit from task instructions that are deliberately open-ended and "fuzzy.

In a study of classrooms, Fisher and colleagues found when individual students worked at high success levels, the students overall felt better about themselves and the subject they were studying and learned more. These authors go on to suggest that a success rate of about 80 percent is probably optimal for intellectual growth.

This suggests that students who are achieving at a success rate significantly over 80 percent are probably being underchallenged.

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What does this say about our straight- A students? Put another way, student achievement is not likely to improve when teachers ask students to practice what they already know and can do reasonably well. In a five-year research study, Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen found an important correlation between student readiness and student motivation. The researchers studied over teenagers, pursuing the question of why some adolescents become committed to the development of their talents while others become disengaged and neglect talent development.

The findings show a strong correlation between the complexity of the tasks developed by the teachers for the students and the individual skill level of a student. Students who had good skills but were underchallenged demonstrated low involvement in learning activities and a decrease in concentration. At the other end of the spectrum, students whose skills were inadequate for the level of challenge demonstrated low involvement, low achievement, and declining self-worth. This mismatch not only failed to stimulate or challenge students but also undermined both their competence and confidence as learners.

The researchers write: "This situation, which accounted for almost a third of the observed classroom activities, consisted mostly of reading, watching films, and listening to lectures" p. According to these researchers, teachers who are effective in developing student talents craft challenges commensurate with student readiness levels.

Typically, teachers personalize learning for student readiness levels by addressing content, product, and process in four ways: By varying the degree of dependence or independence of the learning activity e.

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This can take the form of the teacher dividing complex tasks into manageable chunks for students who might otherwise be overwhelmed. By modifying the task clarity or "fuzziness. This may especially be the case when the assignment involves creativity or imagination. By varying the degree of structure or open-endedness of the learning activity.


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Depending upon the readiness of the students, a teacher can either provide a graphic organizer e. It is clear that teacher adjustments that accommodate student academic readiness enhance both student achievement and student attitudes about learning. Include interests, intelligence preferences, learning styles, production styles, and environmental influences. Although identifying and sorting student learning preferences may seem time-consuming, the dividends your students will reap should more than compensate. Having a student lie on the floor to read his book rather than sit in a chair, letting a student explore the concept of life cycles through her passion for beetles, assigning a drawing rather than a writing project to an artistic student—these small modifications can make big differences in the learning that takes place.

There is a considerable research base to support a strong correlation between the degree of student interest and levels of student motivation, achievement, productivity, and perseverance Amabile, ; Torrance, Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues have found that student interest is as critical to talent development as the match between task complexity and student readiness for the task. According to Glasser , students who are interested in what they are learning are motivated to pursue learning experiences of ever-increasing complexity and difficulty.

There is also a significant correlation between students' interest in the learning content and their willingness to persevere in learning tasks that are momentarily not interesting. Another important correlation to emerge from the research on student interest and choice is that students who are engaged in work that interested them were overwhelmingly more able to see connections between their present work in school and their future academic or career goals. These connections form the foundation of commitment to future learning and foster self-directedness Cziksentmihalyi et al.

There are two types of student interests useful in planning for personalized learning. Pre-existing student interests are those subjects, topics, and pursuits about which an individual student has an existing curiosity or passion. They may be interests explored at school areas of the curriculum, extracurricular activities, or athletics or outside interests in which the student readily invests time and energy.

Relevance to the student is obvious and engagement is immediate.

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Potential interests are topics, activities, or pursuits that the student may not have yet discovered or been exposed to, but that may prove to be ongoing. Potential interests are as powerful as pre-existing interests, but a teacher needs to mediate their relevance for the student. Effective teachers pay attention to both pre-existing and potential interests. Whenever you can link the classroom curriculum to student interest, you tap into internalized achievement motivation—where goals are personal, motivation comes from within, and achievement is deeply meaningful.

Mediating connections between classroom learning and student interests is one of the most powerful strategies that teachers can employ toward the goal of creating enthusiastic lifelong learners. During a unit on religious knowledge in our IB Theory of Knowledge class, we asked the students to write about how they personally came to knowledge through faith. Both Jorgen, a militant atheist from Sweden, and Samir, a devout Jordanian Muslim of Palestinian extraction, wrote particularly well-organized, articulate essays.


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  • As a follow-up, we asked the class to undertake a self-analysis of their arguments for "confirmation bias"—the tendency all of us have to perceive only that which confirms our pre-existing ideas and prejudices. A rich and respectful discussion ensued, with Jorgen and Samir—both fascinated by God but taking polar-opposite positions—driving the conversation. It was a vivid example of how student interest can support deep, critical thinking. Intelligence preferences.

    General consensus in education today is that intelligence is not monolithic but made up of many elements. Educators also view it as malleable, subject to a wide variety of influences Nisbett, Howard Gardner's model of intelligence, identifying eight specific types of intelligence, has been popular with teachers, but many who find it fascinating intellectually also find it cumbersome to apply to classroom instruction.

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    Gardner himself is quick to point out that his theory was never designed for classroom use. Teachers may find Robert Sternberg's framework of intelligence preferences easier to use. Sternberg proposes three intelligence types: analytical, practical, and creative. Analytical intelligence is the intelligence most often recognized and rewarded in schools. Students with strengths in this area learn well with traditional school tasks such as organizing information, perceiving cause and effect, logical analysis, note taking, and predicting implications.

    Practical intelligence is about relevance. Students with strengths in this area need to solve problems in a meaningful context. Their learning is supported when teachers offer connections with the real world outside the classroom. These students need to see concepts and skills at work. Creative intelligence involves approaching ideas and problems in fresh and sometimes surprising ways. Students with strong creative intelligence are often divergent thinkers, preferring to experiment with ideas rather than "work" like everyone else.

    All people have and use all three intelligences, but we vary in particular preferences and in combination of preferences. These preferences may be shaped by "brain wiring," culture, gender, and personal experiences. It makes sense for teachers to support students as they develop their intelligence strengths while providing opportunities to expand their nonpreferred areas.


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    Sternberg's model has been well substantiated by research studies of students from primary school through university level. His findings suggest that students can make significant gains when teachers both permit them to explore ideas using their preferred intelligences and teach regularly in all three modes, which deepens student understanding and enhances retention. Learning styles.