Zachary Herrmann is a candidate for the Doctor of Education Leadership degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a former math teacher who researches and writes about teacher innovation. Follow him on Twitter at @zachherrmann.
I said the word “welcome” about a hundred times a day as a high school math teacher. I made a ritual of standing outside my door before each class to greet my students with a warm smile and that single word. Of course, I would have liked to say more. I would have liked to engage in some conversation, ask questions, and build relationships. I would have liked to know a bit more about my students’ preferences for the day and what confused them from yesterday. But when 30 students enter the room in the final two-and-a-half minutes of the five-minute passing period, it’s difficult to get much else out.
Even without knowing specifics, I knew quite a bit. I knew that each student was complex and unique, with vast differences in needs, preferences, and interests. As I stood in the doorway, I often wondered: Will today’s class work for everyone?
At any given time, perhaps a third of my class was bored with the content and ready to move on, a third was close to understanding but not quite there, and another third was so far behind that the idea of continuing to try might have seemed like a fool’s errand. Perhaps a quarter of my class enjoyed talking and discussing, another quarter always had questions but felt uncomfortable asking them in a large group, a third quarter found it difficult to sit still for an entire period, and a final quarter just wanted me to explain everything to the entire class at once.
Compound these examples of diversity with differences in prior achievement, confidence, identity, and aspirations, and you’re left with what most teachers face every day: 30 students who need and want different things, and 42 minutes to make something special happen.
But for many of us, those 42 minutes won’t include much personalization. The design of our day requires us to take a “batch processing” approach: Everyone listens to the same lecture, everyone completes the same sample problems, and everyone listens to the same students share their opinions. And the reality is that this inflexible approach does not work for everyone.
What can teachers do to manage the complex needs of many different students? How can we make our classrooms more flexible — and turn the diversity into an asset?
Here are seven teaching strategies, all informed by research and theory, that I presented at a social justice workshop on teaching for equity at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I’ve found these strategies to be effective at meeting the demands, and eventually leveraging the assets, of a heterogeneous classroom.
1. Build positive relationships with students. Teachers do themselves and their students a favor when they take the time to get to know their students, communicate and express care for them, and leverage those relationships to help students succeed. Research suggests that relationships between teachers and students may be even more important for the success of students who historically struggle in school or are otherwise marginalized in society.
2. Communicate high expectations through what you say and what you do. There is plenty of research on the power of setting and communicating high expectations. While many teachers focus on communicating explicitly, through words, it’s important to consider implicit messages communicated through actions — the complexity of tasks teachers assign, the types of behaviors they tolerate and reinforce, and the support they give. Accepting sub-par effort rather than supporting students to reach higher can have significant consequences, particularly when we let our personal biases affect which students we continue to push and which students we let off the hook.
3. Help students feel like they belong by focusing on effort, not ability. As a math teacher, I constantly struggled with my students’ personal ideas and perceptions about who “belonged” and who did not. When students believe that their success depends on innate characteristics that they either possess or they don’t, it is hard to create an environment in which all students can thrive. Teachers can shift the conversation from ability to effort: “You don’t belong in this math class because you are smart or because you are a math person. You belong here because you apply yourself, work hard, and learn as a result.”
4. Prime students to believe that everyone has something to offer. Students are constantly aware of their status within a classroom. Who am I “smarter” than, and who is “smarter” than me? Whether or not these perceptions are based on anything real, their impact is real, and teachers must be aware. Teachers can intervene to highlight the intellectual contributions of students with low status (sometimes referred to as “assigning competence”), create learning tasks that require a wide range of skills and abilities, and structure activities in a way that requires participation from everyone.
5. Give the right kind of tasks. Tasks that are complex, open-ended, and have no “right way” to be completed give students a genuine reason to collaborate and work with each other. When a task can be approached in a variety of ways and utilize diverse perspectives and ideas, there are far more ways for students to engage.
6. Get students to depend on each other, not you. A classroom that relies on the teacher as the sole source of knowledge, feedback, and management is limited in what it can do. Collaborative learning, when done right, allows a classroom to be more flexible, more efficient, and better meet the diverse needs of students. During highly effective collaborative activities, I could have eight different groups of students talking at the same time, each discussing a different question, explanation, or idea that was immediately relevant to the individuals in that group. Collaborative group work is not appropriate at all times, and is often misused or structured ineffectively, so teachers should be thoughtful about goals for the class, the nature of the content, and the background knowledge of their students.
7. Design your classroom to help you learn about your students in real time. When students are working in groups, the teacher is free to move around the room and gather information. Some of my colleagues and I would refer to this as “taking a lap” of the classroom. It was remarkable how much I could learn by closing my mouth, opening my ears, and moving my feet. I would use this data to consider my next moves as a teacher — what content will I focus on? Which questions will I pose? Who has a unique way of thinking about this idea? What misconceptions do I have to address?