Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Accelerate vs. Remediate

I had a conversation the other day that is likely a common one, but why it’s common (or even an acceptable practice) is a mystery to me – I’ve accepted it as “normal” for so many years – recently, however, a very bright lightbulb lit up in my brain 💡, and I finally have enough light to see a better path....

I’m not sure that there was a specific “thing” that flipped the switch to light the path, but here’s an interaction that was the driving event behind this month’s post.

I saw the special education teacher in the hall and inquired about the progress of a student we had previously discussed. 

Me: Hi, Mr. Soenso. How did Jenny do trying the compensation strategy? Did it help her wrap her head around subtraction a bit better? 

Special Education Teacher: Yeah, it was a good start. Today I’m working with Jenny on rounding because she struggled with it during math class yesterday. She has always struggled with place value concepts, so I’m on my way to pull her for some remedial support now.

I'm willing to bet that conversations like this one take place in your school, too. They are so common, in fact, that you may not even notice what I'm trying to point out. 

Often when we provide instructional support to students, we “put the car in reverse” and back up to the things the student was unable to do during regular instruction while the rest of the class continues to drive forward.

I was talking about this observation with a colleague, and she said, “This reminds me of a book I’m reading, Learning in the Fast Lane. I think you'd like it. The beginning part of the book aligns exactly with what you are saying.” So, I, of course, got a copy of the book, and, sure enough, the author put many of my thoughts right in the opening chapters of her book. 

My conversation with the special education teacher was not unique to the role of special educators or to students with IEPs; we do the exact same thing in our general education classes during small group instruction, too. We plan our small groups based on who was or was not successful on the lesson that we taught to the whole group – I know this is pretty typical because I planned the small groups in my own classroom using this exact same model for many years.

It looked something like this: I knew that some of my students did not have the foundational knowledge that would be needed for the next lesson, and it was unlikely that they would "get it" during whole group instruction, so, in my plans, I included small group instruction that would follow the whole-group instruction. I would group these students together with the plan of going over the material with them again while their classmates completed independent practice work or played partner games to reinforce the concepts. 

Now let’s consider an alternate (yes, better!) plan: I knew that some of my students did not have the foundational knowledge that would be needed for the next lesson, and it was unlikely that they would "get it" during whole group instruction, so, in my plans, I included small group instruction that would be taught the week BEFORE the whole-group lesson. During this small group instructional time, I could work with the students who I already knew needed more support learning the specific foundational skills required to fully participate in next week's whole-group lesson. And because they arrive in the whole-group lesson armed with new, relevant foundational knowledge, they participate more, they connect ideas more, they learn more. They are not trying to catch up to their classmates during whole group instruction; they are working alongside of them. 

This way of planning instruction is referred to as acceleration. It takes a pro-active approach to small group instruction and is designed with the expectation that the whole group will be able to engage in the whole-group lesson during core instruction. Acceleration enhances many skills: (1) Students gain increased ability with the skill; (2) they have a broader understanding of one or more strategies; and, most importantly, (3) student confidence increases during the on-grade level whole group lesson because the student had an opportunity to PREview the skills and strengthen foundational skills before that whole-group lesson occurred -- and student confidence probably has the greatest effect of all when it comes to learning and achievement. 

Think about the structure and purpose of the acceleration lane on the highway.... The acceleration lane is designed to help drivers "get up to speed" so they can merge smoothly into the flow of traffic. Similar to the acceleration lane on the highway, the purpose behind using acceleration practices/strategies in the classroom is to help our students "get up to speed" on the specific foundational skills required to engage in the upcoming lesson WITH their peers, not after their peers have zoomed past them on the highway of learning.


The term “acceleration” is one that has been around for a while. If you’re like me, you haven’t used it the way it is currently being used in educational circles. So for the purpose of this post, let’s establish a common definition: 

For me, acceleration previously brought images of students doing work that is beyond the scope or depth of what is considered typical for their grade level peers. My school district’s Accelerated Math 8 class, for example, allows students to work on their high school Algebra content while still in middle school.  We will, however, be using the term acceleration differently today – and we’ll mention the term remediation, too. Here is how remediation and acceleration are described in Suzy Pepper Rollins' book Learning in the Fast Lane:

The primary focus of remediation is mastering concepts of the past. Acceleration, on the other hand, strategically prepares students for success in the present—this week, on this content. Rather than concentrating on a litany of items that students have failed to master, acceleration readies students for new learning. Past concepts and skills are addressed, but always in the purposeful context of future learning (p.6).

Remediation is based on the misconception that for students to learn new information, they must go back and master everything they missed (p.5). By backing students up to reteach “everything”, we are not closing the gap at all, in fact, we are widening it! As the gap gets wider and wider and students fall farther behind, motivation decreases and we now have a student who not only struggles in math, but actually hates it.

Let’s be PRO-active rather than RE-active

If we anticipate which students will need support with the foundational skills that are necessary to actively engage in the whole-group lesson, we can (and should!) use our small group time helping these students gain those “just in time” skills in the days prior to the whole-group lesson. Rather than allowing these students to sit through an entire lesson, gain nothing, and then have to repeat (not only that lesson but also provide instruction to address foundational gaps), why don't we spend our time more effectively by anticipating the needs and meeting those needs before the grade-level lesson.

So HOW do we get started?

Step 1: Shift our mindset about small group instruction. I believe small group instruction is important, but I don’t think that every student needs it every day for the exact same amount of time. For some of my students, small group time is the optimal time to work on just-in-time foundational skills that will enable them to participate (with their peers!) in next week’s whole group lesson.

Step 2: Determine which skills are foundational to next week’s lesson. You may be wondering how to do this? In math, I rely on Achieve the Core’s Coherence Map tool. First I select the standard that will be addressed next week during the whole-group lesson. Then I simply click on the linked standards that are foundational to the selected standard (look at the standards to the left when viewing the Coherence Map). And that brings us to Step Number 3.  

Step 3: Assess which students will need additional support with foundational skills necessary to access the upcoming lesson. This can be a formal or informal process. I prefer quick formative assessments and the wealth of teacher data I collect just from being observant and listening to my students share their mathematical ideas.

Step 4: Plan small group instruction that will occur PRIOR to whole-group instruction. This time should be purposeful in its attempt to level the playing field for your students so everyone can engage with the content and join the discussion during the upcoming whole-group lesson.

Step 5: Engage the targeted students in activities that create BRIDGES that will CONNECT the work done in small group to the grade level standard that will be taught in the coming days during whole group. And remember, the targeted group of students should not be a static list – during Step 3, consider which students need support with these specific skills. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: And if you have a co-teacher (special education teacher, Title I teacher, instructional assistant, etc.) who delivers some or all of your small group instruction to any of your students, be sure to communicate daily with that teacher so they, too, can plan small group instruction that is that is both pro-active and aligned to the upcoming core lesson.

Drivers, start your engines and let's get in the "FAST LANE"!

Wednesday, February 3, 2021


Think-Pair-Share Gets an Upgrade


How many years have we used the Think-Pair-Share routine in our schools?

  • 4 years – c'mon, it was definitely in our classrooms prior to 2017, right?
  • 14 years – Yes, I remember using this around 2007, so 14 years is possible
  • 40 years – definitely didn't use it when I started 32 years ago, was that just my inexperience?
  • 140 years – surely, it hasn't been around since the late eighteen hundreds, has it? 

The Think-Pair-Share collaborative teaching strategy is credited to a professor from the University of Maryland named Frank Lyman, PhD (go UMD Terps!).  He was formerly an elementary teacher and was one of the first in the U.S. to use cognitive mapping with students. His research investigated how the Think-Pair-Share routine could improve oral communication and motivation for students, and his research results first appeared publicly in the University of Maryland publication Mainstreaming Digest in 1981.  [Click on the book and you'll notice an inscription on the cover of that university publication] 

There is no denying that the Think-Pair-Share routine transformed the way we thought about education. It encouraged collaboration and required students to do most of the talking during class times (scandalous, I know!). It has been a staple in the world of education for 40 years, and my own instruction was greatly enhanced once I began using this as one of my key instructional tools (a full decade after the research results were published).  

It's time for an UPGRADE!

Let me begin by confirming that I do not work for, nor is this blog endorsed by Curriculum Associates, the maker of iReady (or any other company or agency, for that matter). I say that because I am going to talk about their version of the routine which has been subtly, yet powerfully modified. This upgraded version of the original routine has transformed (yes, transformed) the way I think about student-to-student collaboration and discussions in the mathematics classroom. 

Before I dive into the upgraded version of this instructional routine, let's do a 1-2-3 review of the original Think-Pair-Share routine (or at least how it worked in MY classroom prior to my use of the upgraded version). First, students were presented with a mathematical problem and asked to THINK about it. Next the students would PAIR off and discuss their ideas with a partner. Then I would ask a few students to SHARE their ideas during our class discussion. Sound about right?

Well, here are some of the problems my class consistently encountered with Think-Pair-Share:
  • during the think time, many students just waited quietly without doing too much thinking at all  – they knew if they kept a low profile, others would carry the discussion
  • once paired, students didn't always talk about the math - sometimes the discussion was about the new puppy one of them just got
  • when they were talking about the math, some students didn't have much to say on the topic, so the discussion fell flat or most of the talking was done by just one student in the pair 
  • as I walked around monitoring conversations, it often looked like good conversations, but really some students were not listening to their partners at all because they were so busy planning what they were going to say when it was their turn – or still thinking about that puppy
  • our sharing time was often just students repeating what they had said earlier in their pairs without a single revision or consideration for what their partner had told them


So all of THAT has led up to THIS:  The Think-Share-COMPARE routine.

The designers say that this routine helps students "achieve greater mathematical proficiency and rigor within a collaborative structure" – Want to hear how it's different? 

Check out the chart below:  I share my step-by-step instructional plan for facilitating the Think-Share-Compare routine with students (and the adults I work with during professional development), and I explain why I love this upgraded version so much. 

*Unless you have really great vision, be sure to CLICK on the CHART for a BETTER VIEW