In The End of Average, Harvard researcher Todd Rose argues that “average” is the white whale of social science.
There is no average person, average newborn or average student – there is only the abstract amalgamation of individuals into that neat category.
It’s one of the many challenges of being a classroom teacher.
For instance: Chris is a smart kid, but easily distracted (and often a distraction to others); Alacia is motivated academically, but a slower learner; Vadezia is a terrific student, but never challenged in class.
When 25 kids arrive in a classroom, the bell curve goes out the window and the real work begins – trying to address the unique collection of strengths and weaknesses present in each individual kid.
In ed-speak, it’s called ‘differentiation.’ It’s also what keeps even the most grizzled veterans up at night.
At the middle school where I am principal, we’ve been thinking about how to address this conundrum by reimagining how a school’s human resources are organized.
Instead of the traditional model, with one teacher in a room with 25 students, we have been piloting a new model: in one grade, three master teachers oversee 30 tutors (all recent-college-grad AmeriCorps members), who work with 100 students.
In a typical class period, students are organized into groups of three or four, overseen by one tutor.
In our efforts to differentiate, we’ve discovered that the human aspect of our work – how to get teachers and tutors working together, and how to prepare tutors for long, challenging days – is more impactful than any of our experiments with technology (though we have learned some things there, too).
As we near the end of the second full year of implementation, here’s what we know:
Some things are better in small groups. The small group setting allows us to customize students’ learning experiences.
A well-trained tutor can deliver more focused, consistent feedback to students than a traditional classroom teacher simply because they have far fewer students demanding their attention.
Instead of getting 1/25th of a teacher’s attention, a student gets one-third of a tutor’s.
Instead of one teacher trying to read 100 student essays, a tutor reads a handful.
Other things are better in a traditional classroom. We’re still learning what needs to be left to an experienced teacher, and what a well-trained, tightly managed tutor can do.
For example, modeling nuanced think-alouds and leading whole-class discussions are extremely difficult to do well without lots of practice.
Leaving these tasks to master teachers makes sense.
Technology is terrific tool for individualizing practice and delivering real-time feedback. All our students have Chromebooks and we use Google Classroom to help organize class material.
“Playlists” of math problems are especially helpful to give our students lots of individualized practice on concepts where they struggle.
In literacy, teachers and tutors can review and comment on student work whenever and from wherever they wish – gone are the days of lugging file boxes of essays home each night.
Technology can be used as a workaround. Delivering a conceptual lesson – the first time a student learns about fractions, for example – was a task most tutors struggled to do well.
A short mini-lesson delivered by the master teacher proved far more effective.
We now host a series of mini-lesson videos on a private YouTube channel.
Students can watch each one as many times as the want, stopping (or fast-forwarding) as much as they need.
Leverage master teachers. Our master teachers do three things: train and coach tutors; develop curriculum; and work with students (individually and by leading class discussion).
Over time, we expect master teachers to spend at least a third of their time working directly with individual or small groups of students – far more time than a traditional classroom teacher would be able devote.
Our school has integrated tutors into its pedagogy for most of its 15-year history (every student in second through 12th grade receives two hours of tutoring a day), so the idea to staff a school almost entirely with tutors wasn’t at all random – it seemed a natural evolution.
It was a way to leverage our master teachers and support individualized learning, while experimenting with the best uses of technology in the classroom.
Over the next couple of years, we’ll integrate many of these best practices across grade levels.
So far, we’ve seen it help Chris, whose tendency towards distraction is easier to manage in a small group setting.
It’s helped Alacia, who is able to watch a mini-lesson video as many times as she needs.
Alacia can also work with her tutor to practice a concept without slowing down the class (or feeling like she is behind).
And it’s helped Vadezia, who now has the opportunity to do more advanced work and explore topics outside the standard curriculum.
The students are learning; so are we.
Ray Schleck is the principal of Match Next, a new school model serving grades 5-6 in the Match Charter Public School in Boston.