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An Attempt At Individualized Instruction

Brian D. Rude 2009

       The school year of 1975-76 was the last year I was a teacher in a public school. It was not a totally successful year. I had sworn off teaching a few years before, but for various reasons tried it again. I did not return a second year at this school, for a number of reasons some of which were unrelated to teaching. I tried a method of individualized instruction that year. I can't claim success in that effort, but I will describe what I did, and perhaps my experience may be of some use to others.

       I was a science teacher. My previous teaching experience had been as a math teacher and a music teacher. In the previous several years I had taken college courses in science just because I wanted to. I was interested in animal behavior, thinking perhaps I could somehow make a career in that field. I didn't get very far in that, but I picked up some biology, chemistry, and geology courses, enough to be certified to teach high school science, and so I did.

       My schedule consisted of five classes, seventh grade science, eighth grade science, earth science for ninth graders, biology for tenth graders and chemistry for a small class of juniors and seniors. For three of those courses I did not attempt individualized instruction. However for the 9th grade earth science and the 10th grade biology I did.

       Educational fads come and go. One important idea in the 70's was individualized instruction. One size does not fit all when it comes to teaching. Individuals are different and need individualized instruction, don‘t they? This was obviously not a new idea then, just as it is not a new idea now. It is an idea that comes and goes, and as I recall the 70's it had come again. It was one of the more popular educational ideas floating around, or at least that‘s the way I remember it. Of course I was quite aware that just because an idea is given lip service, that doesn't mean that someone who takes it seriously might not run into flack. I figured if nothing else the popularity of the idea of individualized instruction would at least buy me a bit of tolerance, if I needed it.

       But the popularity of educational ideas was not my main motivation. A much more important influence was my recent experience as a teacher in a prison school in 1970 to 1972. In this situation I had to use individualized instruction. Each week I could expect to get a new student or two in at least one or two of my classes, and each week I could expect to lose a student or two, often because a student would have completed his sentence and be released, but sometimes because a student completed the math course that I was teaching and would be transferred to some other class. Most of my students were in general math, roughly what was taught in eighth or ninth grade in schools in that state at that time. I had a few students in algebra.

       The situation made individualized instruction necessary. It was a pretty simple individualization. When a new student came I would give him a diagnostic test, and set him to working through a textbook. In general math our textbook was a workbook, as I remember, consisting of about fifty or maybe seventy lessons. Students would work individually through the prescribed set of lessons. Some would take a month or so to complete the course. Others might take a year or more. Some, for one reason or another, would never finish the course. The course of study was the same for every student, with perhaps a few exceptions, but the pace at which a student would work through that course of study was individualized. There were no deadlines. A student would work through a lessen, and hand in his workbook at the end of the class period when he was done with a lesson. I would grade the lesson he completed, and hand it back the next class period. There was no such thing as homework. This was a prison. Students, inmates, could take nothing between their cells and the school. The only time they had to do math was class time. And they didn’t care how long they spent doing a lesson. They were “doing time” after all.

       The classes were small in the prison school. I don't think I ever had more than twelve in a class. Individualized instruction was therefore practical and comfortable, as well as needed.

       I felt I had learned a lot about teaching and learning in this situation, things that could not be learned in a regular class teaching situation. I welcomed the opportunity to try to apply what I had learned in a regular public school setting. I felt there was much to be gained for students if I could. I am generally disdainful of educational fads, but I am also concerned about good instruction. The idea of individualized instruction could certainly be called an educational fad of the seventies, but it also seemed like an ideal to strive for, or at least to investigate.

       I think it was within weeks of the beginning of the school year, that I settled on a general plan. For ninth and tenth grade courses I would teach somewhat as I did in the prison school. I would set up a course of study for students to work through individually at their own pace. For the other three courses, seventh grade science, eighth grade science, and chemistry I would stick to whole class instruction.

       So the daily routine in these two individualized courses was more or less like this. The students would come to class. I would spend maybe five minutes, possibly ten, on whole class instruction of some topic that I thought would be interesting or appropriate, but then I would tell the students to work on their own. For the rest of the hour I would circulate around the room helping students as needed, and if I could have a little time for myself I would work on grading homework and so on.

       Both of these courses had pretty good textbooks. I wrote out exercises, mostly short answer questions, for each chapter, on duplicated handouts. Students would read the text and work on the homework. When a student finished a homework assignment he or she would turn it in. I would get it graded and back to the student the next day. The student would then proceed to the next homework assignment. As I recall I would have two or three homework assignments on each chapter. Both texts had a good arrangement of topics into chapters and sections. Both texts, in my opinion, were pretty well written for their target audience, and interesting. Therefore I felt there was no great need for me to lecture.

       When a student was ready for a chapter test he or she would tell me and I would provide it. But how does one do that? If there is only one test for each chapter, and if students take it at different times, won't the items on the test become general knowledge through the student grapevine? After a few students have taken the chapter one test, won't they tell all their classmates just what's on it, and isn't that bad?

       One possibility is to have one test for each chapter and to keep it under wraps, so to speak, as best we can. The student sees it only when he or she is actually taking the test. The knowledge of the test that is circulated through the grapevine must be considered one of tradeoffs to be made. Is this a good method? I don't know. This was not the method I used.

       Another possibility is to have four or five versions of each chapter test. Some information would still circulate among students, but it couldn't be too specific.

       Maybe another possibility would be to give an oral chapter test to each student. I don't think I ever thought about that at the time.

       Maybe projects could take the place of a chapter test. I don't think that ever occurred to me at the time, and it doesn't appeal to me now.

       My method for giving chapter tests was this. For each chapter I put questions, mostly short answer questions, on three by five cards. I would have the same question asked in different ways on different cards. The questions would be pretty much the same as the questions I put on the homework handouts, but with at least somewhat different wording. Then for a chapter test I would just shuffle the deck, pull out an appropriate number of cards, either at random or perhaps with some thought, and that was the chapter test for that student at that moment. The students easily learned that they had to keep the cards in order so that I could then check the student's answers against those cards. I would guess that I had probably fifty or sixty question cards for each chapter, and would pull out probably twenty five or thirty to make a chapter test.

       Is this a good method of doing chapter tests? Is it valid? Is it reliable? Is it perceived as fair by the students? I can't say. At the time it seemed to pass the common sense test. Students never complained about the method. I believe I allowed retakes, as I remember. How could I not if I were to claim individualized instruction that responds to the needs of the learner? If a student gets a low score on a test we do want him to go back and do a better job of learning the material, do we not? At the time this method seemed to work and to work quite satisfactorily. That is a subjective opinion, of course. But at that time I did have five years of teaching experience to base my judgments on. My subjective judgment was that the students were pretty well engaged and learning pretty well.

       I was somewhat aware that maybe kids don't always want to work individually. There is a social component to any teaching. Is that important? Or is only learning of the subject matter important? Do kids want large group interaction? Or do they care about that sort of thing? Kids are going to socialize outside of my class of course. But should a certain amount of something more than individual work be a part of a biology class? I'm not sure about these things, but I did think it sensible to start each class with some sort of whole class activity, and so I did. One thing I could do was to spend a few minutes reviewing previous material. But what is previous material for a fast student may be future material for a slower student. But maybe the "review in advance" was of some benefit for students who had not reached that particular topic yet. Another thing I did was to bring in topics that were related to the subject matter and which I thought were of some interest. Another topic was the metric system. In the seventies there was some national conversation about America switching to the metric system. The switch seemed inevitable then, and therefore made that topic seem worthwhile.

       My concern about whole class instruction came from an experience I had in my first year of teaching, in 1964. I was full of ideas about the wonderful things I could do as a teacher, and the idea of allowing the more capable students to surge ahead at their own pace was very appealing. One result of that was I tried having the two smartest eighth graders learn algebra. This took them away from the regular eighth grade class. They did learn some algebra, all right, but they didn't seem too happy with the situation. I concluded after some time (can't remember how long) that they didn't like being separated from the classmates for math. I like to think they were also motivated by the chance to learn at their own pace ahead of the rest of the class. I don't have much of an idea if they were or not. Primarily they were willing to do what the teacher wanted and not complain. But it did become quite apparent that they were not totally happy with the situation. Remembering this experience I decided right from the start that my biology and earth science classes would have at least some whole class activity at the beginning of each class period.

       A few weeks after starting this routine students began to press for a definite idea of how they were to be graded. I had not really thought this through at the time, but realized from past experience that this is important to students. After thinking about it for a day or so I announced to both classes a definite policy. I don't remember the details for sure, but it was something like this. I will consider six chapters as a target for a nine week grading period. Each chapter test will be worth 100 points. I will award grades at the end of the nine weeks on that basis. I suppose I used a 90, 80, 70, 60 curve for A, B, C, D, and F, though I don't remember that for sure. If a student only covers five chapters in that time, he or she will still be graded on a basis of 600 points, making it impossible to get an A, and hard to get a B. However if a students covers seven chapters in a quarter, then an A would be relatively easy.

       I didn't like being pinned down to a specific grading policy. I would much prefer to just wait till the end of the quarter and figure out grades then. However I had enough experience at that time to know that would be perceived by the students as a hardship at least, as probably unfair and capricious.. They want to know what they have to do, and that is understandable. So I announced my policy and waited to see how it would work.

       In one sense this grading policy was very successful. I gave a lot of A's, more than common sense would indicate were warranted. Students quickly learned that they could study a chapter, do reasonably well on the test, repeat the process a few times, and proceed to guarantee themselves a good grade for the quarter. Poor students, in a few cases, were elated at how that was working out. A few parents were also elated. Their children who had been poor students for years were suddenly making good grades. I didn't feel elated. I felt stuck in a system that was not satisfactory. It was too easy, or certainly could be perceived by others as too easy. When you give A's to over half the class, people wonder about it. I felt the system did motivate good work. I felt that the learning was going well. But I had no basis to back that up. It was just my opinion.

       This system obviously took a lot of work to set up. I had a lot of worksheets to make up, and a lot of question cards. I didn't think too much about that at the time. I expected to take work home every school day, and to put in more work on weekends. Idealistic teachers are like that, especially in their first year of teaching, or, as in this case, my first year in a new school. I think it did cross my mind that this amount of work was not sustainable year after year, but I reasoned that once I get it set up the first year then subsequent years would be much less work.

       Advocates of “hands-on” laboratory work in science classes will certainly fault me for neglecting that. We did some laboratory things in biology, as I recall but that was not high in my priorities. I had decided in previous years that we do indeed learn by doing. We learn to manipulate mental concepts by manipulating mental concepts, and that mostly means reading and doing assignments, not by following a recipe for a laboratory exercise. However in biology we did a fetal pig dissection in the spring, which I will talk about shortly.

       And advocates of the "discussion method" of teaching would fault me for slighting that. Students mostly worked alone at their desks in my class. Anything approaching a classroom discussion would have to happen in the first ten minutes of the class period. This did happen some times, I think, but it was not of much importance to me. I have never believed that the "discussion method" could even begin to approach the status of being a "method". Rather it was just one ingredient among others that can be used, or not, according to the teacher's judgment and the needs of the moment.

       And so the school year went by. Mostly it was routine. The system seemed to work. It was individualized instruction, an ideal being touted at the time. My system was at least accepted by the students, parents, colleagues, and administration. Of course I never knew if it was anything more than tolerance.

       I would love to report that this system eliminated all discipline problems, but I can't. I had the usual discipline problems now and then. The community had good values. Parents expected their kids to mind the teacher and do the work, and for the most part they did. But problems would arise, and I was never very good at discipline. The occasional problem that occurred would always weigh heavily on my mind. I had long realized that I really like the good parts of teaching, but I really don't like the bad parts. I don't think my system of individualized instruction affected discipline one way or the other. One important thing that did affect discipline was the administration’s attitude that teachers were on their own in handling discipline problems, and should expect no help from administration. I think it was that year when I realized, or at least strongly suspected, that administrators are generally no better at handling discipline problems than are teachers. I also think it was that year when I began to think about the "tools" that a school must provide to teachers to maintain discipline. The contrast with my experience at the prison school gave me much to think about.

       I didn't realize it at the beginning of the year, but to the students of this school the traditional dissection of a fetal pig at the end of the school year in biology was a big deal. Early in the spring, maybe in February, students began to ask, "When are we going to dissect a pig?" I realized if I didn't order those pigs in time I would have a problem on my hands. And I also began to wonder how to make it a real learning experience, as opposed to a waste of time, and how should I fit the experience into the individualized instruction system that I had set up. If I say the pig dissection counts the same as a chapter in the book, and must come between chapter 25 and 26, or whatever, there are some problems. The slower students might never get there. That violates the school tradition that in tenth grade biology you dissect a fetal pig. It was clear from what the students said that I didn't want to violate that tradition for any of the students. If it counts as a chapter, how do I assign a grade?

       I got the pigs ordered in plenty of time, and by the end of school everyone was happy with the pig dissection. I don't remember all the details. I suppose I graded them on the dissection, but I don't remember how. And I probably had the whole class do the dissection at about the same time, regardless of where they were in the book, but I don't remember clearly just how I did that.

       One thing I do remember, though, seems of some importance. Before I would allow a student to begin the pig dissection they had to pass an anatomy test. Among other equipment in the biology classroom we had a plastic human model, about a foot high, with all the internal organs. It was not very sophisticated. Probably some previous biology teacher had picked it up for about $10 in a toy store. However it did have a pretty complete set of internal organs that could be disassembled and reassembled. So I decided I would make that a preliminary test. When a student had studied the relevant chapters in the text and thought he or she knew all the parts, perhaps fifty parts to be identified, I would give that student an oral test with a checklist. Many of the parts were obvious, or course, like the heart and lungs, but there were also enough small and obscure parts that it took some careful study before a student could identify them all. Advocates of a lot of laboratory work in the teaching of science would again fault me for using the plastic model. They would label that as “inauthentic” I presume. But I felt it worked very well. It ensured that the students had some basic knowledge of anatomy before doing the actual dissection.

       There was some resistance to this requirement when I announced it. Students seemed to be a bit resentful of that test, as if the plastic model were beneath them. So for several days, maybe more, no one was willing to try the test. However finally one, and then more students, decided they'd do what they had to do to get on to the pig dissection. Things went smoothly thereafter. I don't remember much about the pig dissection thereafter, other than the general feeling that students did indeed learn anatomy to the level that I thought was appropriate for tenth grade biology. I also remember that when it was all said and done I felt pretty good that no students had cut their fingers with the razor blades that we used. (Sure, we had dissecting scalpels, pretty dull after being used as pry bars and tinkering tools for years.)

       I have not said much about the ninth grade earth science, but it went very much the same as the tenth grade biology.

       I was vaguely aware through much of the school that in the spring we go to "contest", as I believe it was called. This was an academic contest, held in a neighboring town. I presume different towns host it each year, rotating among the schools in the district. The "contest" is an academic contest. As the year progressed and I became more aware of this I had dreams of our school doing very well in science as a result of my methods, and me getting a reputation because of it. We had some smart kids in my ninth and tenth grade classes. I felt those kids were learning a lot. I felt the promise of individualized instruction was working especially well for them. They were not held back by the rest of the class. I can't remember well, but I think several of them went through twice the number of chapters that I had identified as expected for a given time period. Surely that would prepare them well for this contest in the spring.

       My visions of a dazzling performance in a quiz bowl format with cheering parents were not realized. It turned out the format was not that. The participating students were bussed to the site of the contest, took a written test or two on whatever subject they had signed up for, and at some point received awards based on that written test, or tests.

       I never got clear cut feedback from the contest. It took place right at the end of school, and results were not available until a week or so after school was out. I did get some feedback later. Two of our kids did well enough to have their names mentioned. But I never got comprehensive results that I could analyze.

       Is this a good way to teach high school science? I don't know. I was aware that the superintendent was wary about my approach. (This was a very small school, probably no more than a hundred students K-12, so the superintendent acted as principal.) He never said much, but it was plain to me that I was sticking my neck out. Other teachers, as I recall, didn't say much, but I presume they were aware of my method. I am no good at socializing, but I took part in the usual gossip over the lunch table with several other teachers. We didn't talk shop very much. I didn't get any meaningful feedback from them. It was very plain early on that the students were not entirely happy with the situation. I can't explain just what they said or did, but my impression was that they knew how school should be taught, and this was not quite it. I had discovered a few years earlier that students can be very conservative in ways. It is mostly in educational fantasy that young people are open to new ways. They are not. They expect teachers to do what everyone knows they should do.

       However, as I have mentioned, some students, and some parents, were very happy with what I was doing. The kids were making good grades, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Were they also learning as they should be learning? I think they were, but I don't know how to establish that.

       What are the important lessons to take away from this experience? I'm not sure, though I have pondered that question now and then over many years. I think the main lesson in my mind is the power of cultural expectations. I was not teaching as expected, and therefore nothing else seemed very important to anybody (except the few parents whose kids were making good grades for the first time). The experience made me realize how little I know and understand the dynamics of what goes on in a classroom. Conveying subject matter is important, or at least we say it is. But a teacher is also expected to be a member of the community, perhaps in ways that I could neither understand nor fulfill.

       At the end of the year, when I was thinking about returning the next year, I was in quite a quandary about whether to continue with individualized instruction or not. The advantages seemed substantial. The drawbacks seemed substantial. Were the drawbacks mostly a result of breaking with cultural expectations? If so, the next year would be much easier. I would not be plowing new ground the next year. I would not be fighting the ghost of last year's teacher and how he did things. Or were the drawbacks more intrinsic to the method itself. I don't know. It was a relief when my wife and I decided to move on, and I didn’t have to worry about what to do next year.