The case for grade-level instruction as schools reconvene

In math especially, schools should avoid wholesale, “just in case” review.

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By LauraMarie Coleman

Along with issues of health and safety, concerns about making up for lost learning are a major source of anxiety for educators and parents as we head into this school year. This is no surprise when you consider what’s at stake.

Researchers have projected that, because of school closures last spring, students will have a 30 percent learning loss in reading and up to a 50 percent loss in math at the start of this school year. Combine that with a regular summer break that normally causes students to lose ground and possible long-term or periodic school closures, and you can that see we have a potential academic crisis on our hands.

The idea of providing the intervention and supports struggling learners need is overwhelming in an any year. This year, all students may need supports to address gaps in learning. The decision of how to design instruction to meet these needs is a formidable one. The terms “just in case” and “just in time,” adapted from the business world, represent the two most commonly used options.

In business, “just in case” refers to stockpiling products ahead of time, so they are ready and available in case they are needed. “Just in time,” by contrast, means not ordering or creating a product until there is an identified need. Given what students will face this year, teachers may have to decide between filling learning gaps “just in case” or “just in time.” I hope they choose the latter approach.  

Why “Just in Case” Teaching Falls Short

The “just in case” approach to teaching this fall would be to teach students everything they should know from the previous grade-level curriculum or standards before engaging in any new learning. As in the business world where “just in case” means being prepared with stock ahead of time, this instruction focuses on the idea that students must master the content from previous grades before grade-level instruction can begin.

This approach is very common in math classes when kids are behind, but in my view, it sets up students to face significant barriers as the year progresses. Teachers feeling a time crunch often provide instruction on content from previous grade levels by using an oversimplified “drill and kill” approach, or by simply focusing on procedural learning, to catch students up as quickly as possible. The resulting lack of both context and deep, conceptual understanding make it much more difficult for students to later generalize and apply this knowledge during grade-level instruction

Another, more subtle, side effect of “just in case” instruction is the message it sends to students. In the case of this year, “just in case” instruction might inadvertently devalue efforts students made to keep up with assignments and continue learning during school shutdowns. Put yourself in their shoes:  You have attempted to give distance learning your best shot, working on all of the assignments, possibly without support, and now you realize that as school begins that your work was all for nothing since teachers are just going to reteach the same content. Students may absorb the message, “I know you tried, but it wasn’t good enough. We have to teach it again.” This message could be very detrimental going into a school year where additional closures and online learning time is a significant possibility. Students need to learn that the time and effort they put in at home is important and makes a difference.

Moving Ahead, “Just in Time”

By contrast, the “just in time” approach to addressing learning gaps, as with the business model, focuses on living in the moment, or even looking ahead. Teachers know that student learning gaps exist, just as a business knows there will be a demand for products and orders to fill. In both sectors, “just in time” means that when the need arises, there is a plan in place to meet this need quickly and effectively—but that you shouldn’t stockpile products (or learning content) arbitrarily. In education, this also means that a learning gap must be identified through timely, formative assessments and addressed in the context of grade-level content.

Indeed, the first step of “just in time” instruction is assessment. Many schools collect data on student performance at the beginning and end of the year. The “just in time” approach requires further that teachers assess what students know about a topic before they begin new content. Identifying what students know means teachers can capitalize on students’ strengths and build off that foundation.

Brief, informal, formative assessments can provide valuable data to inform instruction. For example, before a 4th grade teacher begins a unit on operations with fractions, she might ask her class to answer a question a day for five days. The questions might cover 3rd grade concepts such as identifying the fraction of a shape that is shaded, comparing two fractions with the same or different denominators, identifying fractions greater than one whole, and equivalent fractions. These are all concepts students would need to understand in order to be successful with the 4th grade content.

If learning gaps are identified, teachers can provide focused and targeted instruction to either whole group, small group, or individual students. This instruction addresses specific gaps students have, related to and connected to grade-level content—and it occurs either immediately before or as that new content is taught. Based on the assessment data gathered, the teacher can come up with a plan to embed targeted instruction that will bridge the gap and foster connections to the grade-level content.  However, “just in time” supports should never replace grade-level instruction.

Let’s consider some examples of what this might look like.

  • WholeGroup Instruction: If most of the class is missing foundational understandings, perhaps related to the shift from in-person to online teaching this spring, a teacher could do a mini lesson that touches on last year’s content, and then connect that content quickly to the day’s instruction on grade-level content. This way students can fill the gap and then immediately apply that foundational knowledge in context. If more than a mini lesson is needed a teacher might teach a full lesson to build a foundation, but it is important to be cautious of adding additional days of instruction for intervention. These additional days can add up quickly and lead to not enough time to teach grade-level content.
  • Small Group or Individual Instruction: Perhaps some students had access to online learning tools and received support with their learning at home while other students did not, or perhaps some students simply have a gap that is specific to their needs. In this case, a teacher might teach the grade-level content while strategically asking students to discuss and recall foundational knowledge being built upon during the lesson. Once students begin to complete independent or small group practice for this grade-level lesson, the teacher can pull specific students aside to provide additional instruction or scaffolds for those who need it while still working toward the grade-level objective. The students needing additional support will ultimately connect this additional instruction to the context of the lesson. They might finish with a smaller number of practice problems at grade level, in which they apply the “just in time” supports they received. In a distance learning setting, small group instruction might occur in break out rooms during a whole class meeting. Students can be intentionally grouped to ensure that the teacher can drop in on that room and provide necessary support.
  • Pull-out Support:  Some students have larger gaps that require additional support outside of the grade-level math class. Many schools offer an intervention block that allows time for this instruction. The key to treating this as “just in time” intervention is that all content covered should focus on building specific conceptual understandings relevant to upcoming grade-level content. Connections between the support and what will happen in the grade-level math class, for instance, need to be explicitly discovered and discussed. When students can’t be present in the school building, setting up specific times for them virtually with teachers can be a great way to provide this kind of individual support.

When planning and designing “just in time” instruction, the challenge for teachers is to study and deeply understand the content taught in previous grades and how it connects to their grade level. This process takes time but improves the teacher’s knowledge of the content and ability to meet the needs of all students the classroom.

As the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics stresses, the idea is that “just in time” instruction to fill gaps does not stop progress in grade-level content and even supports such progress by connecting prior knowledge to the current lessons. Students internalize the connections between concepts, and each new understanding provides an opportunity to build mathematical knowledge. It allows both teachers and students to be a part of classroom climate where “all students can meet or exceed grade-level standards.”

A Chance to Reset

The COVID-19 crisis has been overwhelming in so many ways. Going back to school this fall, whether online or in person, will be an experience unparalleled by any we have ever known. Let’s use this situation as a chance to reset—and to make sure students know that the work they did at home this spring was important and that their learning, however great or small, in the classroom or virtually, is valuable. We can do that by using what students know to teach grade-level content and provide support “just in time,” when we encounter a moment of need.


About the author

LauraMarie Coleman (@Teach2Abilities) worked in schools for 16 years with special and alternative education students in grades K–10. She now works for Great Minds, supporting teachers and schools in implementing the Eureka Math curriculum.

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