I never get tired of reading the thoughts and ideas that Carol Ann Tomlinson shares with the educational community about how to meet students’ needs. Having seen her in action as a presenter, she is very captivating and convincing. The books and articles she has authored, many of which I have read, are scholarly, well-written, and lay out a vision for excellence in teaching.
In the February 2012 edition of Educational Leadership, she co-authored an article with Edwin Lou Javius titled, Teach Up for Excellence. It was one of the most inspiring pieces I have read and gave me a great deal to think about in my work with teachers. The concept of teaching up for excellence is not totally new, but her depiction of the idea is clearly one of the most interesting ways to think about meeting the needs of all students.
She begins with a reflection on the history of education, a history in which low-income and minority students were educated in learning environments far less enriching than those of their more privileged counterparts. Many of our school districts were segregated. Even within schools, low-income, minority students were put in remedial tracks while their privileged peers were in the more advanced tracks. This structure only served to segregate students and foster a learning environment where teachers did not have to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all learners. Not all students were given the opportunity to share, communicate, and learn from each other.
The logic behind separating students by what educators perceive to be their ability is that it enables teachers to provide students with the kind of instruction they need.
However, this logic was really used to justify a system that funneled more resources, like better teachers, to privileged students and fewer resources to students who needed “remediation.” Tomlinson and Javius propose a different model, a mindset that says all students can learn and all students should receive the best education possible. They point out that the research supports their model.
When lower-performing students experience curriculum and instruction focused on meaning and understanding, they increase their skills as least as much as their higher-achieving peers do.
So what is their model? Here are the seven principles of Teaching Up.
- Accept that human differences are not only normal but also desirable.
- Develop a growth mindset.
- Work to understand students’ culture, interests, needs and perspectives.
- Create a base of rigorous learning opportunities for ALL students.
- Understand that students come to the classroom with varied points of entry into a curriculum and move through it at different rates.
- Create flexible classroom routines and procedures that attend to learner needs.
- Be an analytical practitioner.
So what does the classroom look like if the teacher is Teaching Up to all students regardless of the school culture?
A teacher applying this principle is actively working to create a classroom community in which all students hear their voice. In some respects this type of teacher would be using the principles embodied in culturally responsive teaching. Raymond J. Wlodkowski and Margery B. Ginsberg wrote a fascinating article in Educational Leadership entitled, A Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching (September 1995, volume 53, page 17). As Tomlinson and Javius write:
They support students in making meaning in multiple ways.
Using the work of Carol Dweck, Mindset, to promote a classroom environment in which students are taught that effort is more important than your genes. While genes and background have something to contribute to what students bring to the table, effort can overcome significant challenges that students face. As teachers, we have to reflect on how our evaluation of students, our grading systems and all that goes along with them, diminish students and foster a fixed mindset.
Here Tomlinson and Javius quote the Golden Rule:
Treat others as you would want to be treated.
However, they turn this around somewhat and suggest that teachers follows the Platinum Rule:
Treat others as they want to be treated.
From their perspective if teachers are Teaching Up they are showing a tremendous interest in the learning styles of their students. They would care about applying Howard Gardner’s model of multiple intelligences. They write:
Teachers who Teach Up select instructional strategies and approaches in response to what they know of their students’ interests and learning preferences.
This would be in contrast to a teacher who uses one strategy for all learners and sticks with it regardless of how it is received or whether the strategy is proven to work.
Teachers who Teach Up are interested in creating a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate, differentiated for the variety of learners in the classroom, and has sufficient challenge to keep the learner connected. They write about these teachers “ensuring that all students develop the skills of independence, self-direction, collaboration, and production that are necessary for success.” (page 30)
In a classroom where this principle is applied, the teacher is creating a safe place to learn for all students. These teachers are constantly monitoring student growth and providing safety nets for those struggling and enrichment experiences for students who are prepared to move on. Most importantly, these teachers are using formative assessment daily to help understand where students are on the learning journey and to inform their own teaching. They are bringing students into their assessment protocols as an active participant.
Teachers who Teach Up are creating flexible learning environments that “make room for a range of student needs.” (page 32) These teachers think about how learning time should be divided into flexible segments to best meet students’ needs. They use whole group and collaborative group settings, as well as individual learning time. This type of flexibility should be embraced by all teachers, regardless of the age group they teach. The neuroscience of learning gives us great insight into how the brain functions during learning episodes. Teachers can use this information to create these flexible and engaging learning spaces.
Teachers who Teach Up are interested in learning all they can to improve their craft. They are interested in using diverse data sets to discover whether all students are learning and understanding. They are not fixated on only the student’s grade as a measure of understanding. They are more reflective and analytical about searching for the ways to reach all students.
Tomlinson and Javius conclude that the greatest disservice we do our students is to underestimate their resilience and potential. I love this quote from their article.
Classrooms that Teach Up function from the premise that student potential is like an iceberg–most of it is obscured from view–and the high trust, high expectations, and high support environment will reveal in time what is hidden.
That is a vision for every teacher to live by.