How on earth do we implement flexible grouping?

gifted learner comic

In class we have discussed the needs of a variety of students; learning disabilities, English language learners, gifted students, and students with diverse learning styles. Differentiation is vital in order to meet the needs of a diverse classroom, and this can be applied to how we chose to group our students for activities. 

One way to group them would be to put students that are at the same level of understanding in groups so that we can target specific needs of those students. This way, students that are ahead do not have to linger behind and students that are struggling don’t feel pressured to move ahead prematurely. Having the gifted students grouped together can enable them to take their understanding to the next level. Like the video we watched of the CHS teacher, those students can be given the “mountain” activities to keep them progressive further.

Another way is to group them in mixed levels of understanding. This way, students that are ahead can help explain concepts to their peers, and the students that are lagging behind can learn from them. I think that having to explain material puts students at that higher level of understanding because they are put in a position where they have to reiterate what they understand to someone else. These groupings also allow those students to take on leadership opportunities if they want them.

Both of these methods are not applicable for every situation, sometimes one may be more appropriate than the other, and the teacher just needs to evaluate the student’s needs and desires through formative assessments.

When these two grouping methods are not applicable, I think grouping the students based on learning styles could be beneficial. For this I would let the students pick which activity they would be most interested in; a creative option, analytic option, etc. This way I can be sure that the students are dealing with the material in a way that they feel most comfortable, and in a way that makes the content as accessible as possible. This grouping method is not necessarily specifically addressing gifted learners, but could be modified by offering the higher level students an extra component to the lesson, or a “mountain” option for whatever style they chose. 

how on earth to accommodate english language learners

Greetings in Different Languages

The chapter lists the following as tools for enhancing nonlinguistic learning

  • graphic organizers
  • physical models or manipulatives
  • mental pictures
  • pictures, illustrations, pictographs
  • kinesthetic activities

Thinking about applying this to an Earth Science classroom is fairly easy. So much of what we learn relies on visual representations and models that we can manipulate. I found an article that addresses strategies to boost English language learning in science and social studies. Their strategies are as follows;

1. Manage Vocabulary: choose targeted vocabulary to act as a foundation for further learning, have students create vocabulary collection tools, and to create vocabulary connections

2. Build Background: All students come in at various levels, informal assessments of prior knowledge will help determine where to start and what background needs to be enhanced before moving on. In order to help bridge the gaps, picture books, lower level texts, podcasts, or websites can be useful in or out of class for students that are struggling with content.

3. Use Visuals: Success in science and social studies in particular can be reliant on a “student’s ability to comprehend specific vocabulary and abstract concepts and to recall terms…” Props, basic websites, historical documents, scientific illustrations and charts, maps, and timelines are all extremely useful.

The article says that putting students in control of their own learning is important, and much easier when they have visuals and manipulatives that they can process in their own way. This is particularly important for English language learners because even when words don’t necessarily carry the meanings we need them to to get our points across, these tools can still relay the same message.


Why on earth is a flexible classroom necessary for student success?

I love this chapter. Mention layers to any geologist/earth scientist and they automatically get images in their mind of stratigraphic, atmospheric, and oceanic layers that they spend hours on end studying. Make that geologist a Shrek fan and you have a layers enthusiast.


The beginning of the Cooperative Learning chapter discusses the layers of our “complex world” and the varying needs and skills that need to be addressed in order to accomplish classroom goals. The five elements first discussed are positive interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group-skills, and group processing. Something that strikes me every week is that the ideas and tools we are discussing are completely universal across subjects. All of these important elements are not dependent on what the content is, and this ties back to how to we teach and how do students learn. The answer to both of those questions is always different based on what kind of students you have and what kind of feedback you get from formative assessments. That is why these elements are important, because even when lesson plans don’t click the way we want, or students aren’t grasping concepts at the rate expected, these methods will always be useful.

The chapter says that positive interdependence “emphasizes that everyone is in the effort together and that one person’s success does not come at the expense of another’s success.” This is extremely important because so much of student’s learning can be affected by their social environment and emotional feelings regarding it. The American culture is often one of extreme competition, where the “dog eat dog” mentality dominates businesses and in order for there to be a winner, there must always be a loser. Students experience pressures from their families and their friends that may encourage this as well. Classrooms should be a safe haven from this. Competition can sometimes be a useful tool to motivate students, but if students feel that failure is inevitable or that they will be shamed, it will disengage them from learning and participating.

Mark Barnes is a 20 year classroom teacher who experienced this first hand. He explained in an article that he had a very black and white classroom, where misbehavior was met with consequence and he gained the meanest-teacher-in-school reputation. He said that this alienated his students and that even though his students behaved, he felt that it was at the price of their learning. He shifted his classroom into a Results Only Learning Environment “founded on mutual respect and understanding.” He explains that “a no-rules, no-consequences learning community, based on cooperation and filled with exciting activities and projects engages students and eliminates boredom.” He made the journey to success a team effort where he could more effectively personalize instruction to the individuals in his class. This was much more effective that him acting as a dictator making demands of his minions.

This blog post has taken a very roundabout turn to answer the primary question, but I wanted to highlight different aspects of student needs before answering it concisely. The short answer to “How do students learn?” is; it depends, it varies, it changes constantly. The short answer to “How do we teach?” is; however we need to in order to reach the diverse and dynamic students we have. Therefore, the short answer to “Why is a flexible classroom necessary?” is that nothing else comes close to being as effective, nothing else addresses fully what our students need. Why must we be flexible? Because our students are not rigid. Nothing is ever black and white, so why should our classroom be?

How on earth should we use our assessment results?

What is the point of assessing our students if we don’t apply what we gain effectively? If our students don’t perceive the assessments as worth while, can the results even be trusted as an accurate representation of their understanding?

histogram with Gaussian distribution on blackboard

In Formative Assessment:The Driving Force Behind Differentiation, they discuss how formative assessments are particularly effective at the end of class. I can attest as a student that the last 5 minutes of class are generally spent thinking about what is next in the day. It is difficult to focus when we are excited to go to lunch, or meet up with friends, or go home. I like how the article said that this time is best spent having a time of reflection of the material. The article also discusses that the assessments need not be used to grade the students success, but rather to help shape it. When asked the question how should we use our assessment results, the answer should always be whatever use benefits the students the most. They are called formative assessments because they should be, first and foremost, used to help format the rest of instruction.

An article I found in Forbes Magazine Online discussed how some teachers are using technology and games as formative assessments. As Forbes does best, the article then skipped over the efficiency of this assessment technique and discussed more political and economic implications. They discussed some fears that corporate America may take technology too far and replace teachers with robots, so clearly they completely missed the mark of having a valuable discussion on assessment. However, the article at the very end did make a comment that there is some evidence to support that game based learning is an effective tool for assessment. One thing that I did glean from the article is that the important thing is not what tool we decide to use as assessment, but rather what we choose to do with the results. So how should we use those results to ensure that our lesson plans are fitting our students needs?

Two important things that are discussed in Chapter 2 of Classroom Instruction that Works are reinforcing effort and providing recognition. They claim that these two things will affect a student’s

  • Self Efficacy: beliefs about one’s competency
  • Control Beliefs: beliefs about one’s ability to influence what is happening or what will happen
  • Intrinsic motivation: motivation that comes from an individual’s desire for self-satisfaction or pleasure in completing the task rather than from an external source, such as a reward.
  • Task Value: beliefs about reasons for doing a task

Our assessment results should aid us in figuring out what content is being understood, where our students are starting, and what teaching styles are most effective to our students. Formative assessments help us continually evolve our classroom to constantly being more effective and successful, but only if we apply them properly. Once we have the information we need from the assessment it is our responsibility to format our lessons accordingly. In addition, we should also use the results to help encourage and reward our students, as well as challenge and push them to further success. So much of learning can be attributed to whether or not teacher’s create an environment where success is attainable and valued, and if we use our assessments to continually foster this environment our students will follow suit.

chalk stairs

What on Earth is the relationship between assessment and instruction?

I can recall classes in my past where the concept of learning was completely separate from being tested. We were taught and then we were tested, and the overlap between the two was minimal. The test was seen as the end point of our learning for that unit or that semester, and if we didn’t have the material by then, then we had failed. We have discussed repeatedly the idea that by the end of a course, a student’s grade or evaluation should not be a surprise to them. If a teacher does their job effectively, they will have assessed the students learning often throughout the course and used this assessment to help formulate further instruction and direction.


Carol Ann Tomlinson outlines 10 understandings regarding the purpose of assessment, and all of them highlight the idea that assessment and teaching are connected and dependent on each other. She discusses that evaluation is not about the grade, the end result, the break in learning, or the teacher’s “gotcha” moment. Assessment is about highlight strengths, illuminating needs, and compiling information that will shape and determine instruction for the rest of the course. Assessment is just another part of a bigger picture of teaching, and it plays a big role in how the class will proceed.

Another truth of assessment and instruction is that it is constant and cyclical. Once learning begins there are no breaks or pauses. I love to hike so I will use that as an analogy for this. At the beginning of the course the teacher and the students will set off onto a path. The end goal should be pretty clear in the teacher’s mind, or else they could be leading the students onto a very disorganized and potentially misleading and worrisome trip. The teacher knows where they need to end up, but along the way there could be a felled tree, or some students could be lagging behind. By using assessments to see how the students are doing along the hike, the teacher can make decisions about what is the best course of action to reach the goal. Assessments act as directional signs for teachers to continue to lead the students in the most efficient and beneficial route to success. The chapter in Classroom Instruction that Works points out how vital it is to use assessment to guide instruction because of the rapidly increasing diversity of classrooms. There is just no way for a teacher to begin the year fully knowing the needs of each student in such a diverse room, making success entirely dependent on formative assessments.


An article I found called Formative Assessment is the Cornerstone of Differentiated Instruction reiterates all of the points. The article begins with some questions that teachers may ask when they enter the field. How can I manage/organize/make time/meet the needs…etc. The article argues that none of these kinds of questions are necessary as long as an educator has been given the tools to assess effectively. The steps they outline are…

  • Set purpose
  • Check for Understanding
  • Feeding Forward (using assessment data to plan instruction for future)

Adhering to these steps will result in

  • Student engagement

All of this information makes the idea of Backwards design so much more significant. It is difficult to know from the beginning how exactly the students are going to do in regards to the material, so if an instructor has  very clear end goals, they can use assessment throughout the year to help shape and redesign and guide the path that will bring the class to success.

How on Earth do we Teach part II

Being able to compare and contrast concepts and ideas is a hugely important skill for students to develop. In regards to the AMT learning model the students are required to acquire knowledge about the concepts in order to begin the process, making meaning out of them by drawing connections and breaking points, and then transfer that knowledge into applying what they learned to other concepts and ideas. The process helps students grasp the topic at hand, but it also helps them harness skills that are applicable to any other topic, class, or task that they may encounter in the future. The process of breaking concepts down and sorting them by various factors can be implemented pretty universally.

I think that this also applies to what teachers should be doing in class. There is a podcast on the ASCD wedbsite that discusses the need for differentiated instruction. Every classroom is a mixed bag when it comes to students backgrounds, strengths and interests. Because of this it is not effective to present content in a cookie cutter way, because there is no way that one instructional method will reach every student. Because of this, it is important that a teacher be able to find similarities and differences within their students so that they can more effectively reach all of them. This differentiated instruction can include content, process, product and learning environment. This means that the teacher individualizes what is being taught, how it is being taught, and how they are evaluated. This allows all types of students to access the information and demonstrate their understanding to the best of their abilities.


I love this comic because it is such an awesome representation on how diverse our classes can be, and how detrimental it can be to teach and evaluate them all in the same way. This is based off of the quote from Albert Einstein where he says;

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

How we teach is the deciding factor on whether or not our students grasp the content we are hoping they will master. We’ve talked about how we can draw a horse to water but we can’t make it drink, and how that may be true but we can make them thirsty for the water (information). I like that because some level of the learning is up to the student, but sparking interest and making the content accessible to all types of students is up to the instructor, and we have quite the task ahead of us in that respect.

How on Earth do we teach?

“We must be mindful of who the users are and design so that they are all maximally engaged and productive. Our design must be truly user-friendly, in other words, not just intellectually defensible.”

This quote is taken from the very beginning of the Understanding by Design chapter for this week and I think it covers the foundation of how teacher’s need to go about teaching. It is impractical to go into a classroom knowing exactly how you are going to teach before you even know your students. How you teach is completely reliant on who you are teaching. A class full of visual learners is going to need much different instruction than a class full of readers, and a mixed class is even more so demanding of specialized instruction. This chapter also instructs that educators must include opportunities for feedback into their instruction. This way, teachers are given the chance to “rethink, revise, and refine.” This is so important because teaching should never be a static course of action. Whether it is a teacher’s first year or 40th year, they should always be making changes based off of evolving content (especially true in Earth Science), evolving students, and evolving teaching resources (Technology, AH!) How teachers chose to teach is going to vary extensively by their content area and their audience but some things must remain constant; we must teach effectively, in a well-rounded manner, and we have to be flexible in how we teach. I think that is one of the most fundamental truths of teaching; flexibility is key.

The Hook section also touches on a fundamental truth of teaching; “the design challenge is to tap intrinsic motivation more effectively.” Like we discussed in the Understanding blog post, what you teach is more or less irrelevant if understanding is not gained. This holds true for motivation. What you put out into the classroom means nothing unless you create an environment where the students are hungry enough to pick it up. The chapter says “the best way to create interest in a subject is to render it worth knowing.” I love this because students so often come into the classroom and say “why do I need to know this?” or “when will I ever use this?” When it comes to Earth Science, my students may not become the next generation of geologists, but they will certainly leave with an understanding that the geosciences affects them every single day, in ways they did not even realize.

The Essential Questions chapter had one part that particularly interested me. It is a common point of discussion on the news where the US falls in comparison to other countries based on Education. One country we are often regarded as falling short of is Japan. The chapter quotes a study that says “In the US, the purpose of a question is to get an answer. In Japan, teachers pose questions to stimulate thought. A Japanese teacher considers a question to be a poor one if it elicits an immediate answer, for this indicates that students were not challenged to think.” I think this is huge and also ties in perfectly into the “what do we teach discussion.” How we teach should yield to what we teach in content, as well as problem solving and thinking skills.


I found an article called “12 reasons student’s just aren’t that into you” and every single reason is a reflection of how a teacher teaches.

1 They think tests reflect my overall knowledge

2 They tell stories more than they teach

3 They end it early (the class or the lesson)

4 Favoritism

5 Put you on the spot

6 Take forever to grade or return work

7 Pick on silent students

8 Be so textbook, like not fun or just everything is so strict or boring

9 Trick answers in multiple choice questions

10 They are not prepared

11 Too much unnecessary work

12 Expect our lives to stop…

All of these reasons are in response to how the teacher behaves, evaluates, performs, or is organized. What I think is interesting is that not one of these reasons is related to what we teach. Students come into classrooms with assumptions about whether or not they will enjoy the subject or if they are good at it or not, but when it comes down to it, how a teacher presents the material is the real defining factor of how successful a student will be.

dont care science