Once every decade, we take the temperatures of the last 30 years, average them together, and refer to this as the “normal” temperatures for a location. For example, when you see on the nightly weather report that the “normal high for today is 84 degrees,” that’s simply the average of all the highs for that day from 1981 to 2010.
The number 84 is an average. Very few, if any, days in the record will actually have had a high temperature of exactly 84!
The same goes for our students. In any given class, the number of “average” students, perfectly in the middle of the distribution, will be quite small.[Footnote 1] My argument is this: if we teach to the middle, we alienate and bore our upper tier of students (who are our future colleagues) and at the same time work over the heads of weaker ones who may need the most help. We likely reach those few students who are truly in the middle of the distribution, but overall to me this is a lose-win-lose situation. Losing two battles every day is not how I want to spend my career. Furthermore, the standard we “set by teaching to the middle is a standard of mediocrity.” It’s okay to be average, kids. Everyone gets a ribbon.
What, then, is the answer? Is there one? How can we possibly differentiate learning when faced with 100 students, or even 40 or 50? Facilitating a classroom that promotes learning already requires lots of work, and most academics I know don’t believe they have any additional time to devote to it. Here are some rough ideas, certainly a non-exhaustive list but maybe a starting point at least.
1. Variety in course assignments. Some of our students will be math stars, while others are incredible artists who struggle mightily with college algebra. Offering different types of work — calculations, concept mapping, figure interpretation, opinion essays, etc. — allows all students to take part. I like to believe everyone is good at something.
2. Variety in in-class activities. I pray that the days of lecturing for an hour a day three days a week are dying (an albeit gruesomely slow death, but still dying). And reading text on slides as they appear on the screen doesn’t teach to anyone, let alone the middle. In-class activities and discussions can be like #1 above and also varied in level: a mixture of easy concepts, medium concepts, and the occasional mind-bender sets up a class that everyone can get something out of. Structured group and team-based activities, discussions, or even quizzes (yes, group quizzes!) help also.
3. Structure in assignments and activities. “You need structure. And discipline!” In a room of professionals, we could get away with the activity ‘hey let’s pull up today’s 500-mb map and just talk about it for awhile.’ However, this will likely fall flat in a room of mixed majors or gen-ed students. At least when I’ve tried it, it has. Even off-the-cuff activities need structure and scaffolding (take small steps: first let’s find the ridges and troughs, and the vorticity, and the temperature advection, and then ask where are the likely surface features, etc.).
The bottom line here is that we have to find ways to involve everyone (or, realistically, as many people as possible) in the room in the learning process. If “teach to the ____” is just code for “at what level do I pitch my lectures?” the problem goes much deeper. To me, the room is more about what learning will be taking place, rather than what teaching will be taking place.
We’d be hard-pressed to find a string of perfectly “average” weather days, instead finding runs of hot and cold which both have their own fun and own beauty. And each of our classes is made up of much more than a blob of “average” students who are the only ones to deserve our attention. A classroom includes a spectrum of abilities, and everyone learn something when courses are thoughtfully organized for more than just what we believe the “average” student is capable of doing.
Footnote 1: Some readers will want to start talking about normal distributions at this point. I ask, are the students that are at +1σ and -1σ at the same skill level? What’s really the “average” group, then? +0.5σ to -0.5σ? That’s now less than 50% of your class. The bounds get smaller and smaller…