“When a teacher begins a math lesson with direct instruction they completely disregard and ignore their students’ background knowledge and strengths. Resources that promote this approach contradict a focus on equity and access.” So tweeted Drew Polly, an associate professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
That is quite an indictment of direct instruction—yet I wholeheartedly agree. My experience and research have highlighted the importance of knowing precisely what individual students understand and can do, so that teaching is tailored to meet their unique learning needs. All of which bring us to the notions of instructional equality and equity.
Providing equal instruction to learners means teaching every student the same lesson in the same way. Equitable instruction, on the other hand, calls for lessons that offer each student what they require to be successful, and teaching that constantly adjusts in response to students’ strengths and weaknesses. Students who may have already mastered or who quickly master what is being taught are challenged to dig deeper. On the other hand, students who have gaps in prerequisite background knowledge or skills are given extra support to close those gaps as they learn new mathematical content. Note that neither providing additional challenges nor filling gaps in background knowledge and skill should preclude teaching new content to all students.
Yet the conundrum teachers face is how to address the learning needs of students who have insufficient foundational knowledge and skills without focusing on remediation at the expense of teaching new content. But moving into new content areas while students still lack the prerequisite knowledge needed for success is a major challenge of teaching equitably.
With one-size-fits-all, whole-class instruction lessons, some students languish because they aren’t challenged, while others find new concepts and skills difficult to understand. This type of instruction is hardly equitable and often denies access to many students.
In classrooms where equitable mathematics instruction flourishes, teachers are intimately aware of their students’ background knowledge and strengths. They also teach flexibly to their students’ learning needs, while introducing all learners to new content in a timely manner.
What might this look like in the classroom? Using small-group lessons, teachers target learners’ specific needs as they work with groups of students who have similar learning needs for a given lesson. Lesson plans describe a basic lesson, but also include ways to concisely close gaps in background knowledge as well as ideas for adding extra challenge to the lesson. While for some groups, the lesson begins with brief instruction to fill gaps, every group is introduced to the new mathematical concepts and skills of the current lesson. By having simple differentiation options included in their plans, teachers are able to offer planned differentiation and even adjust their instruction to meet newly discovered learning needs mid-lesson. That previous content is prerequisite for success with the new lesson, so students continue to engage with it as they complete the basic lesson. And, because teachers are aware that the gaps may not yet be completely closed, they closely monitor and support learning throughout the lesson.
But, some may ask, isn’t this a return to ability grouping? Unlike the small groups of the past, there is no static high, middle, and low grouping in Guided Math small-group lessons. Instead, group composition varies based on the needs of students for each individual lesson. In addition, students are given support to address their particular learning needs, while still having access to the new mathematical content being taught the rest of the class.
In moving from whole-class direct instruction to the flexibility of small-group lessons in my classroom, I found that teaching to my students’ immediate learning needs became more manageable. I was able to offer each student more equitable, rather than equal, mathematics instruction. If you are searching for alternatives to direct instruction, I suggest that you consider the benefits of Guided Math small-group lessons.