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TEACHING TO THE BELL CURVE

Rogers' bell curve
Image via Wikipedia
Do we expect students to adapt to the way we teach or do we expect teachers adapt to the students we have? Those are two lines in the sand that have been drawn pretty deeply in the teaching profession.  One that says we are doing a complete disservice to our students by not meeting their learning needs and the other that says students need to learn how to learn using the style of the instructor, because they will always have someone different and should not be “mollycoddled” when they leave high school.  Then we have the “wild card” of what the school administration requires.
In my online communities I have a sneaking suspicion that 90% or more would go with the the teacher adapting to the students they have (to some point) and adapting their curriculum to meet the needs of the students.  I just as strongly believe that there are many teachers who do not participate in the online world (and maybe a few who do) would go in the opposite direction and fully expect their students to adapt to their teaching style and the curriculum.
There is no one real method of teaching in the United States, irregardless of the hype and publicity that the media, standards-based proponents, NCLB or other educational reformer would have the public believe OR want. Actual teaching in the classroom is done by individual teachers who have distinct personalities, strengths, weaknesses and abilities, no amount of legislation, hype or reform will change this.
Teachers are in the classroom and will teach how they feel most comfortable until they are replaced or leave.  We all may whine, complain and bitch a bit about how other teachers teach, but we do not have the ability to affect measurable change most of the time once those classroom doors shut.  That in my opinion is what bothers many people outside and inside education – the lack of control of what goes on in the classroom for good or ill.
The method that is probably the most prevalent method of teaching that I have seen, is teaching to the middle of the class.  Which does not do too much for those who need more challenges or those who need more help, but it does satisfy what the majority of the class needs.  It is the Bell Curve method of teaching and it is reality in more classrooms than some more progressive or conservative educators/administrators want or are willing to admit.
Most teachers have good intentions, but the overwhelming time constraints and workloads that most of us face, make it necessary that we make choices to do the most good in our classrooms and we make decision on how and what we actually teach that are not completely based on student’s needs, but based on the reality of the teacher’s abilities.  What is taught in the classroom is more often based on the needs, wants or ability of the classroom teacher and will be for the foreseeable future (whether it claims to be student-centered or not).
Educational reforms are all the news, but how many ever really make it to many classrooms and become incorporated in the curriculum?  Or do many teachers, simply just keep teaching based on their own individual methods and educational beliefs behind the closed doors of their classroom, pretty much ignoring the “reform du jour”, while sort of listening for the “next” reform, but keep teaching to the Bell-Curve of their student’s abilities?
Is this a valid view of our profession or am I way off base?
“Do the right thing for the right reason and make a difference.”
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3 Comments »

  1. Dear Mr. Shaw,A well delivered question, albeit the archetype of all arguments, (i.e. "this OR that"). So often I find that the resolution to such a question is not an "OR" answer, but rather an "AND" answer. Clearly, in special education, we are federally mandated to meet the specific needs of the individual student (IDEA), and just as clearly, seriously endangered and restricted resources limit the extent to which we can individualize our efforts, forcing us to "economize in the interest of all". I think the expectation – that we adapt to out students' needs AND that we expect our students to adapt to us – is not unreasonable. The process of social interaction, i.e. learning, is a reflexive process. That being said, I think the issue is not so much one of education theory, but rather one of uninspired apathy and lack of reward and/or recognition. Furthermore, we do not sufficiently recognize and reward the special "expertise" sectors teachers have…which may be the reason they resort to what they already know, as opposed to what's innovative and coming up next. We do not teach our teachers to value change…we teach them to delivery consistency, to deliver the same lessons, with the same outcomes – although we claim to set them free by allowing them to change the details of their teachings as long as the outcome is the same.I think teachers are good people who want to do the right thing, and who care about their students' outcomes; I also think that being a teacher has become a profession of last resort, as opposed to first choice. Until there is a cultural change in the perceived value of teaching, until teaching is supported by an economic infrastructure that predictably rewards student based outcomes based on teacher efficacy, until teachers can teach to the highest common denominator and succeed with the majority, until then there will be little change in teacher disposition towards the job.In the end, it's all about our students and their functional independence outcomes. We know that individualizing the programs of children with special needs works; we get measurable results when we play a student's weaknesses off against their strengths, and when we use one to offset the other. We need to continue to do so. If along the way, we encounter "either/or" constructs we should endeavor to find an "AND" solution in the interest of the student. With much respect for the issue at hand, and your point, I suggest the issue (teaching to the mean)is not theoretical, but deeply practical.

  2. Teaching to the mean is practical and effective for the majority of our students, I think we just have to openly acknowledge that is what actually occurs in many of our classrooms and we don't do that. Sometimes in my efforts to get to a point, I talk too much and dilute the point I am attempting to make. Thank you for your

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