I recently met with a fifth grader. HIs mother thought I would be the best person to catch her son up so he could be in the top math group. Her son was very disturbed because he was not placed in the highest math class. When asked why that was important to him, he replied, “I want to get into a good college, and to do that, I have to be in the highest math class.”
His belief about placement and the focus of being in the high math class will be detrimental to his overall success.
A little background is necessary to understand why.
- His mother shared how he was always playing catch up. He would start the year slowly and then in February pick up steam and catch up.
- He was the youngest student in his class. He hadn’t turned 10 until the first of October. Some of his classmates were turning 11 in December. One wouldn’t think a whole chronological year would make a difference, but it does.
- It was believed that he was always playing catch up.
Catching up doesn’t happen. What does happen is the brain experiences 6 months growth. The part of the brain required to understand the concepts gets the development needed to process them. It’s somewhat like being a weight lifter. In September a 5 pound weight feels heavy, but adding one pound a day to an exercise routine helps build the muscle strength that is required to lift a fifty pound weight by February.
The proper placement is not determined by intellect, but by developmental appropriateness.
For 25 years I taught the lowest math class in third grade. The children weren’t dumb. They were quite clever when solving higher level thinking problems. Many of them had formed a negative mindset about math determined by the fact that they struggled with memorizing addition and subtraction math facts. Once they were taught in a way that was appropriate for their brain development, they changed their view of math and began begging for more.
If taught at the appropriate time in their brain development, students will surpass those who might have been in the high math class in third grade.
Many of my developmental math students have gone on to win math awards in high school, become physicists in college, and one attained multiple degrees in astrophysics. My former students have become engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers, inventors of a solar refrigeration unit for African villagers, and a developer of an app to assists policemen. Some found their niche and report that they still remember the way they learned multiplication that they still use 30 years later. There are some who decided college wasn’t for them and became successful entrepreneurs. With 48 years in teaching, I have countless examples of struggling students in math who became successful individuals because they were placed properly in elementary school.
We need to meet children where they are and not be worried about getting them ahead. The right placement might be the lowest reading or math class. The emphasis needs to be on growth not on the group one is placed in.