2 Tiering to avoid tears: Developing assignments that address all learners' needs
How do we differentiate and still remain fair? How do we meet all students’ needs and still address the Standard Course of Study? Furthermore, how do we develop every child’s full abilities given the heterogeneous nature of our classrooms? Most importantly, how do we do all of this without losing our minds, or crying a lot, or losing great teachers from the classroom?
Rethinking the role of the teacher
The answers are not simple, but they do require our rethinking the role of the classroom teacher. Such re-conceptualization is a particular problem in education, where every teacher spent at least sixteen years observing teachers before becoming a teacher her- or himself. And while those years spent as a student typically don’t involve conscious observation of teaching methods, they do leave indelible images that are difficult to re-envision. These embedded images are almost always dominated by whole-class instruction with very little — if any — differentiation. The same images exist for parents and administrators, compounding the problem.
Additionally, educators are given confusing messages about the role of the teacher. Most of the public thinks that if teachers only taught the Standard Course of Study, all would be well and children would be successful. Few things are farther from the truth.
Our job as teachers is not to teach the Standard Course of Study.
Our job is to ensure that the Standard Course of Study is mastered.
If we define our role as teaching the Standard Course of Study, we ignore the needs of all students who do not understand or master it when we teach it, as well as all students who had already mastered it before we taught it. That eliminates the needs of fifty to seventy percent of any given classroom. There is nothing fair or equitable about focusing our energies simply on teaching the Standard Course of Study.
However, if our job is to ensure that all students master the Standard Course of Study, our classroom will look dramatically different. Instead of everyone doing the same thing, students are doing different things at the same time. If we base our rationale on even one truth with which everyone agrees, it is that children learn at different rates. The reality is that there are many reasons for differentiating, but this one truth should be enough to help us recognize that we need to do something different for different learners at any given time.
- Video: How Does Tiering Benefit Teachers?
- In this video, teachers at Raleigh’s Baileywick Road Elementary School discuss how creating tiered assignments has benefited them as teachers.
Tiering: What is it?
One way of achieving the goal of meeting multiple needs simultaneously is to tier instruction and assignments. In short, tiering involves teaching or applying the same Standard Course of Study objective in up to three ways to meet the needs of students at three levels of preparation: 1) students not yet ready for that grade level’s instruction, 2) students just ready, and 3) students ready to go beyond.
Tiering is more than a singular strategy. It is a concept that can be infused into small-group activities, differentiated homework assignments, learning centers, learning contracts, and even advanced classes. The greatest role tiering plays is in preparing a teacher for any given day’s activities by requiring that each of the three degrees of student readiness — not yet ready, just ready, ready to go beyond — are planned for and addressed in that day’s instruction.
- Video: What is Tiering?
- In this video, teacher interviews and classroom footage explore the practice of creating tiered assignments.
Steps to tiering
- Identify the Standard Course of Study objective: As obvious as it may seem, many teachers, often those most experienced, sometimes plan learning experiences without focusing on specifically what they intend for students to master with that activity. Teaching from textbooks or using activities that have been engaging in the past does not always ensure mastery of the objectives.
- Decide which tier’s needs are addressed with the given activity. Every teacher has at least one given resource for teaching every objective. The next step is to determine which level of readiness that activity, experience, or resource already addresses. Knowing the proficiency level of the students in that specific classroom is essential. For example, in providing tiered experiences for an advanced or honors class, a teacher needs to generate only two levels — experiences for those who are just ready for that grade level’s learning and those ready to go beyond it.
- Determine the modifications for the remaining tiers. This is where the fun begins! Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson conceptualizes these modifications like an equalizer used on a speaker system.1 For example, not-yet-ready students might be all the way to the left for a level of concrete learning, while ready-to-go-beyond learners might be on the far right, needing more abstract thinking. Modifications may be made based on any of the following ten criteria:
- Skill level
- The most obvious and frequently used criteria for tiering assignments, skill level can be viewed as what you would do for a student at least one grade level behind, the student at grade level, and the student at least one grade level ahead. A convenient way to tier based on skill in math is to offer a page of problems in three columns, with grade-level problems in the middle column, less challenging problems in the column to the left, and more challenging problems in the column to the right. All students begin by answering the first problem in the middle column. If a student answers the problem correctly, that student then attempts the more challenging problem in the column to the right. If a student answers incorrectly, the student attempts an easier problem to the left to scaffold their understanding up to grade level. See the following document for an example:
- By giving students different reading selections on the same topic but with increasingly more sophisticated vocabulary, teachers are tiering by vocabulary. This might also be a justification for having different reading groups or literature circles utilizing different books. Math activities might be tiered by offering more sophisticated vocabulary, such as introducing isosceles, equilateral, and scalene triangles in first grade when other students are learning basic shapes. Even centers may be tiered by vocabulary. See the following document for an example:
- By adding more parts to the instructions or the learning itself, teachers can increase the level of complexity. Video games are designed with this same criteria to maintain the interest of the player. Each level adds new rules, characters, settings, or challenges. See the following document for an example:
- Level of thinking
- Whatever taxonomy of thinking is used, the levels can be “served up” simultaneously. A common mistake in the implementation of any taxonomy is to assume that all students must move up at the same pace. If students have mastered knowledge, comprehension, and application, they should be engaged with the same objective at the evaluative level, while others are acquiring that knowledge and understanding at the same time. See the following document for an example:
- Interest level
- Not all students share the same interests, but the more we incorporate students’ interests into the learning, the more likely they are to be engaged. By tiering assignments based on student interest, students at different levels of mastery can interact respectfully. See the following document for an example:
- Students not yet ready for that grade level’s Standard Course of Study objective need concrete examples, explanations, and experiences. However, students needing a challenge beyond the grade level need to think and reason abstractly. This might mean moving students in mathematics from manipulatives to complex symbolic representations. It might mean organizing the first tier around a concrete theme such as animals, but making interdisciplinary connections over a longer period of time around an abstract theme such as power for the third tier of instruction. Even class discussion about a piece of literature or a historical or scientific document might be tiered around abstractness, with more concrete questions included for students who are more concrete thinkers, and more abstract questions targeted to students reasoning beyond their grade-level peers. The benefit of this approach is that all students experience the whole of the discussion to allow for exposure to all levels. See the following document for an example:
- Sophistication of research
- While all students need to be involved in research, no teacher would expect the same level of sophistication of techniques or materials of a second grader as of a tenth grader. Students at the first tier in a second-grade classroom might be given an excerpt from an encyclopedia, while students in that same classroom at the third tier might interview professionals in a related field. While the first tier might be asked to summarize the reading, students at the third tier might develop a hypothesis and then design the interview questions to gather evidence. See the following document for an example:
- Openness of process/product
- Students at tier one might be given instructions that clearly describe what is to be learned, and what product is to be produced. Students at tier three might be provided parameters around which their products should focus, or criteria for assessing the effectiveness of their products without being told exactly what to do or how to do it. See the following document for an example:
- Perspective/real-life roles
- By giving students real-life roles through which to view the Standard Course of Study, teachers are better able to engage all learners. However, roles and perspectives that are closer to a student’s own experiences might be more appropriate for those completing tier one, and perspectives involving habits of mind that are farther from a student’s experiences and more complex might be best for challenging tier three. (The article “Who Cares?: Using Real-World Perspectives to Engage Academically Gifted Learners” contains a more thorough discussion of this topic.) See the following document for an example:
- Real-life products
- Real-life applications should be experienced by all learners. However, for a first-grade classroom studying fractions, applications such as cutting a pizza into fractions can be understood by all learners. Conceptualizing musical notation as fractional units and developing rhythmic patterns from equations would be a real-life application more appropriate for students ready to go beyond the first-grade curriculum. See the following document for an example:
- Slideshow: Tiered student work
- Photographs of student work illustrate a project in which students chose their assessments.
- Decide how those tiers will be managed. Instructional management differs depending on the grade level, subject area, and composition of a class. For primary grades, the instructions in a center might change as a different skill-level group rotates to that center, possibly even using the same materials in a different way. For older students, small groups might be determined by readiness or interest, with the tiered assignments being given to each group, which allows all students to gain further understanding when the groups share their outcomes. Tiered choices might be put onto a learning contract or a think-tac-toe board. Teachers decide if the tier is indicated or not. If the amount of time invested in the contract is the same for all learners, it is more likely that students will choose appropriately for their level of need. (The idea of time investment will be discussed later in this article, where the question of fairness is addressed.)
- Determine who needs which tier at that given time. Pre-assessing is key to tiering instruction and assignments, and should be done as efficiently as possible. If inviting students to write a journal entry of all they know about the upcoming topic helps you assess their mastery, that is sufficient. For math, most textbooks provide two assessments for each unit. One of those may be used for pre-assessment. The key is to ensure that the grouping is flexible and fluid, changing who receives any given tier based on mastery of that unit of learning. This avoids any hint of the much-maligned practice of tracking or creating elitist attitudes. Every student has an opportunity to demonstrate prior mastery of learning.
- Assess for mastery of learning. Keep in mind that for assessment to be fair, it should reflect mastery of the Standard Course of Study. That may mean the same assessment for all tiered groups, and it may mean different assessments, but it should not penalize any of the groups for differentiation.
- Video: How to Implement Tiering
- In this video, classroom footage and teacher interviews emphasize important points in adopting tiered assignments.
So if different students are doing different things at the same time, how do we ensure that we are being fair? How do we address concerns of students, parents, and administrators about fairness and equity issues?
The first step is to define the criteria for fairness. If we are to be judged by whether or not all students are “getting to do the same things” at the same time, we are not fair. If instead we are judged by whether or not we are addressing each child’s needs, we are. It follows that agreeing on the criteria for fairness is critical, and communicating those criteria to all parties involved is essential.
In that regard, there may be multiple acceptable criteria for fairness, but I have found the following four to be sufficient and accurate:
- Every learner will be challenged.
- As the first and most critical, this statement both sets the tone and clarifies the goal. If children learn at different rates, what challenges one learner cannot challenge another. This is most readily understood in the realm of psychomotor gifts. If all students are lined up and told to run, inevitably some children get to the finish line before others. No one asks that they all run together at the same pace. No one asks the fastest runner to spend all of the allotted running time helping the slowest runner. The only respectful way to address the differences is to have every individual run as fast as he or she can run at that given time. Either some finish early or, as in our model for differentiating, everyone runs for the same amount of time. Which brings us to the second criteria for fairness.
- Every learner will invest the same amount of time in learning.
- Ask any experienced elementary or middle-school teacher which population of students invests the least amount of time in school-related learning and you will get the same answer: Gifted or advanced learners. These students usually finish their work (that is, the same work that is prescribed for all students) first and fastest, and seldom invest extended time on homework. This is not because they lack discipline, but simply because they learn at a faster pace — which is a large part of how and why they are identified. Some would argue that this is fair: If you finish early you should have lots of time left to do what you want. The most detrimental effect of this line of thinking falls on the gifted and advanced learners themselves. They soon equate fast with smart, less effort with greater ability. They define themselves as the ones who do not have to study for the test, who don’t need to begin work on a project until 9 p.m. the night before it’s due, and who finish all of their homework in class. When a challenge is finally offered at the appropriate level for such a student, the fear of finally investing his or her time and effort into a product or preparation for a test overwhelms and confuses the student. The thought that being “smart” means you do not have to work hard is so ingrained that many gifted students facing a challenge fear they might not be smart any more. This is the greatest contributor to underachievement among bright students. Tiering combats this problem by placing the same expectation of time investment on all students.
- Another problem addressed by making time an equity issue is one of the most common responses of teachers to different students’ products. An advanced student may bring in a product that looks quite similar to that of a struggling learner. The teacher, having different expectations for different students, may be tempted to say to the advanced learner, “That’s not what I expect from you. You did not put any effort into your product.” She may, however, feel unjustified in making such a statement because she deems the struggling learner’s product acceptable — or even laudable. Usually, the teacher’s disappointment results from a lack of investment of time — not just effort — into the product on the part of the advanced student. If time invested was stated clearly as a requirement for all learners, the teacher has a more justifiable objection. It also would explain why advanced students might be expected to read a 300-page book, and struggling readers a 50-page book. The equity lies in expecting all students to invest the same amount of time in their learning.
- Every learner has a right to learn something new.
- In most typical classrooms, the learners least likely to learn anything new are the ones who already know the most. Ironically, they are also frequently the ones with the greatest capacity to learn. No one would ever apply the same principle to athletics — that is, the ones able to run the fastest would run the least often. It is not enough to say that advanced learners will be busy doing, or teaching others what they already know. It is imperative that every child continues to learn.
- Every learner has the right to an equivalent amount of fun.
- This doesn’t mean that every day and every activity will be fun. The key word is equivalent. No tier of learner should consistently participate in activities that other students would agree are fun, while others do either drill and practice with no engagement, or Latin conjugations with no relevance or interest.
If done appropriately, tiering instruction provides a challenge to every learner, develops habits of lifelong learning, and encourages respect for individual differences.