We know that in any given learning situation students arrive at different places. When I first started my teaching career at the intermediate level, I was quite convinced that if only the previous teachers had taught them better, my students would know what I needed them to know before I started with my part of the curriculum. Really, how is it that they could arrive in grade 7 without understanding fractions, or the capital of Canada, or how to use quotation marks???
And then, I had to teach grade one. I had to teach them how to read! And, worst of all, everyone would know if I didn’t because I’d have no previous teacher upon whom to place the blame. But, what I discovered was that even in grade one my students were entering the school system with a wide variety of skill, knowledge, behavioural and interest levels. Despite all my efforts, some of them just weren’t ready to read yet.
For a while now I haven’t liked the term “diagnostic assessment” because when I was assessing my students at the beginning of a learning cycle based on the end-of-the-cycle expectations, mostly I figured out what I already knew: they didn’t know much. Leveling student achievement at this point wasn’t that helpful to me. What is helpful is figuring out their entry point: what do my students already bring to the table that will help them access the skills and knowledge I want them to learn?
When I begin to design the early tasks and activities that students will do, I want everyone student engaged, curious and be able to add something. Each student needs to feel s/he is successful at the beginning of learning if I am going to have any hope of convincing them to keep trying and learning. Let’s look at some easy ways to do that:
In science, I eventually want the students to learn about density. If I start with having the students read definitions for density and scientific explanations about density I risk losing a bunch of them right away. But if I begin, like a science teacher I know, by posing the question, does the weight of an object influence whether it will float or sink, every student in my class can participate. Every student can create an experiment and observe what happens. Every student is now intrigued and curious about what happened. I can move into the science now, in whole group and small group lessons, with everyone on board. I may still need to differentiate by reading the textbook, providing more guided practice to some and so on, but I have a much better chance at succeeding now that everyone is on board.
In math, if I give out a fractions worksheet, the students who understand fractions are bored. The students who don’t are stumped. But, if I present an intriguing problem about fractions such as how could we fairly divide 4 chocolate bars among 8 people? Or 3 people? Or 7 people? And even offer students a choice about which problem to solve, then everyone is involved. Everyone is learning about fractions. I also have the added bonus of being able to figure out a lot about what my students CAN do with fractions, not just that they can or cannot do the worksheet.
In reading, I could have my students all read the same novel and do the same reading assessment tasks. Except, my classes have always had students with a wide variety of reading and interest levels. Even if it is my favourite book of all time, chances are there are some students who are just not interested in that text. Are their assessments really a valid representation of how well they read if they hated the book so much that they didn’t finish, or didn’t attend? And what if the book is too hard for them? What if it is too easy, or they’ve seen the movie, or read it before? If I give students some choice (not complete choice because it has to be manageable for me, too) I am much more likely to get a truer sense of my students as readers because there is a much better chance that they will actually be reading the book.
When we talk about multiple entry points to learning we are talking about two main ideas. One, I need to recognize that my students come to the table with different background knowledge, interests and abilities. If I don’t start where they are, I risk losing them all together. Think about learning to ski. If you had never skied before, and started on the black diamond hill, would you really learn? Would you go back for lesson two? And secondly, I need to create activities, tasks and problems that will allow all students to access the learning at the level they are starting at, not the level I wish they are at. Open-ended tasks will work much better for that than closed. Our goal is to get every student to the same end expectation, but if we don’t begin the journey at each student’s beginning, we risk not getting them to the end at all.