Education is becoming increasingly personalized. Gone are the days of purely ritualistic repetition and writing word-for-word paragraphs from a textbook. With an influx of hands-on activities, interactive experiments, and virtual field trips, what it means to teach in a classroom has evolved.
Teacher of the Gifted, Theresa Rodriguez knows that “encouraging curiosity, self-motivation, and a deeper appreciation of our universe” amongst her 4th and 5th-grade classes is central to “expanding student knowledge and love of space”.
Theresa emphasizes an individualized teaching approach, which involves providing different tasks for each learner and support at the individual level. The Education Endowment Foundation (2021) notes that this method is based on the idea that all learners have different needs, and that therefore an approach that is personally tailored— particularly in terms of the activities that pupils undertake and the pace at which they progress through the curriculum — will be more effective.
Though effective, the application of individualized teaching is challenging, particularly when students are at different learning levels. Some suggestions point towards allocating different tasks or activities to those learning at a more advanced level. However, when teaching young learners this requires intentional planning that becomes increasingly time-consuming the more classes are being taught, something Theresa herself has experienced.
So, how can one teacher approach teaching at mixed levels simultaneously?
One solution is to assign the same project or activity for all students but set different objectives. Theresa uses Starter Quests “to lead my students as a whole class through the activities teaching ELA, Math, and Critical Thinking concepts, skills, and strategies.”
This allows the teacher to link the activity directly to skills and concepts being taught in the classroom. By firstly completing introductory information, students are prepared to independently explore the activity in a way that is suited to their ability and needs.
As Johnson (2000) notes, technology can provide a tool, an inspiration, or an independent learning environment for any student, but for high achieving students it is often a means to reach the appropriate depth and breadth of curriculum and advanced opportunities. Education-focused technology can cater towards varying levels of ability when there is a clear learning progression. “I like the variety of Quests, both in topics and level of difficulty” Theresa notes, all of which can be filtered for by grade level and difficulty. As the “Quests are well laid out” Theresa “doesn’t review them ahead of time, [I] just choose a Quest that Slooh describes as a good choice for beginning and matches my students’ interest.”
Theresa leverages The Online Telescope’s Quest progression by allowing students to “select additional Quests to complete independently.” By assigning the same activity to complete as a class before encouraging students to complete independent activities, students of different abilities are able to make progress whilst incorporating their own interests, skills and perspectives.
Often students will “create their own Missions” or telescope bookings, selecting objects in the sky that they find particularly interesting and going on to explore additional information in Guides. One of Theresa’s students “chose a vocabulary word for which he didn’t know the definition, set up Missions to capture images to use and filled out the template.”
This multi-level teaching approach minimizes preparation time. By leading students through a class before providing independent learning opportunities, all students are able to progress efficiently whilst starting and ending around the same time.
Students can even be encouraged to collaborate on activities and learn from one another. Theresa notes how her students are developing these skills by “helping each other and sharing their findings even though they may be on different Quests.” By learning together before engaging in individual learning activities, students apply their own interests to the activity leading to increased levels of engagement throughout the process. Noting the STEM literacy, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills her students are developing alongside ELA and critical thinking, Theresa articulates how her students “thoroughly and enthusiastically explain their learning process, facts about space, and questions they have to school and district visitors.”
When returning this multi-level individualized teaching approach back to the front of the classroom, students are able to reflect on their learning, having individually developed the defined skill set by leveraging areas of personal interest. For example, one of Theresa’s students “tends to be shy, and struggles when presenting to the class. She completed a research project of her choice using only Slooh captured images from her Missions. She was very excited to present her Slooh research and had a great time giving her presentation to her peers.”
Individualized multi-level teaching is possible but it can not be executed effectively without the continued encouragement from the teacher by looking out for, emboldening, and supporting all students. Regardless of prerequisite knowledge, all teachers are able to use The Online Telescope as a “fabulous resource in both its high functioning design and finger-top availability” to explore STEM, mythology, and more. The beauty of astronomy is that it has its roots in every culture and discipline, serving as the perfect gateway subject for multiple student interests.
What’s Theresa’s advice for educators wanting to get started?
“Just jump right in! Not knowing very much about Slooh or space allows students to take the lead. They are ready to explore, discover, and explain space and how to navigate Slooh. It’s a wonderful opportunity for student growth in all areas, including collaboration.”
Education Endowment Foundation. 2021. Individualised instruction. [online] Available at: <https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit/individualised-instruction> [Accessed 3 March 2022].
T. Johnson, D., 2000. Teaching Mathematics to Gifted Students in a Mixed-Ability Classroom. [online] Available at: <http://jukebox.esc13.net/estar34/estar34_d1_gifted_article.pdf> [Accessed 03 March 2022].