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Customizing Your Lessons for Different Learning Levels

Since man became aware of the ability to learn, there have been numerous discussions about the different facets of education. Scholars have done many studies looking for the connection between intelligence and success in life, and there exists a dearth of information and case studies to that effect. Consider that in the animal kingdom, dominance is usually achieved through strength; the alpha of a pack is the animal that cannot be defeated in a fight. With humans however, the alpha tends to be the person that can outsmart and out think the rest of the pack. Keeping this in mind, the question arises; how does a human achieve intelligence? Is it something you are born with, or can it be taught? The resulting research has created many ideas and theories. These theories vary greatly in their theoretical construct, however the research always converges to the central idea that everyone can be taught, and everyone can improve their intelligence. This paper will begin with an overview of three popular theories on intelligence, and then discuss the implications of these theories on life achievement, why these theories are tools and not the only way to address human learning, and finally how to customize lesson plans to work with different learning styles.


Three Theories

When beginning a discussion of intelligence, Alfred Binet is the usual starting point. Binet created the intelligence quotient (IQ) test and did a large quantity of research using his daughters as the main subjects. Binet wanted to turn intelligence into a quantitative number that fell on a linear scale. In addition, Binet was trying to improve the Paris educational system. Using the information from the IQ test, he was trying to determine the deficiencies of the curriculum and create a plan to improve the IQs of the students system wide. Although many researchers do not agree with using the IQ score of a student as a sole predictor of success, most would agree that high achievers have high IQs (Plucker, 2007).

The second researcher to be examined is Harold Gardner and the Theory of Multiple Intelligence. This theory says intelligence is not a single number, but intelligence can be explained with seven categories; linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligence. The theory states that each person will be more advanced in at least one of the categories. Therefore, each approach should be addressed in the educational setting and students should be encouraged to improve in as many of the different intelligences as possible. The students should then select a career path that takes advantage of the category they are strongest in to guarantee success (Armstrong, 2007).

The most controversial theory to be discussed is Herrnstein and Murray and the Bell Curve. This theory states that in any population all the IQ scores will fall on a bell curve. With the average score of the population showing up in the middle, and an equal number of high and low IQs falling to either side of the average. The implications to educators are that an IQ test score determines a student's ability. Then, a determination is made to create learning expectations based on that ability. Finally, the educator must help the student achieve those learning goals. The controversial element of the research is that it guarantees that in any population there must be people falling well below average on the IQ scale. It states that educators need to accept this fact in order to become more effective teachers (Beer, 2008).

Connecting To Success

When Binet created the IQ test, his intention was not to create a fixed scale that was the only determiner of success. The actual purpose of his research was to try and determine how to improve education through the use of the IQ test results (Dweck, 2007). Scores on an IQ test can be used as a predictor of life success, and having a strength in logical, linguistic, and special skills can guarantee success in the classic educational setting (Beer, 2008). Meisenberg, Mikk & Williams (2007) stated that countries with higher IQs tend to have better educational and home environments. Therefore, it can be said that high IQS create a self-fulfilling prophecy of success, as the high IQ leads to a better overall environment. This would lead the educator to try and force students to achieve higher scores on the IQ tests. Herrnstein and Murray completed a study with findings that implied that some people have mental limits and will never grow intellectually. These two researchers believed that most students learn better when they are not pushed beyond the limits of their ability - that students pushed beyond their limits are the ones that begin to hate school (Beer, 2008). Gardner believed that while it is not possible to narrow intelligence into one score, he did show proof that children that excel in one of the seven intelligences tend to achieve more success later in life (Armstrong, 2000). So the question becomes, how do we as a society guarantee future success?

What Does This Mean?

One of the problems with exclusively following any one of these research projects findings in order to help students achieve future success, is that there are problems with each system. Not one of these systems can be an answer for every situation. The researchers looked at a problem and reached their conclusions using critical thinking skills to answer a narrow question. Brookfield (2010) said the use of critical thinking skills to solve a problem makes it impossible to find a single finite solution. As a solution to any part of a problem is found and implemented, other issues quickly arise. Critical thinking is continually reevaluating a problem in order to keep coming up with improved solutions for a problem. Therefore, finding a single solution is impossible. Although all of these researchers found that high IQ and success are connected. No matter which theorist an educational institution chooses to implement, there is one factor which is not addressed by this research; motivation.

Motivation is the one unaddressed factor of all this research. As students with high IQs progress through the school environment, they are not usually challenged. This tends to create the idea that being intelligent means school is easy. Therefore, once school becomes difficult students begin to doubt the previous belief in their own intelligence, which leads to less motivation. As humans move through a world where everything can be found at our fingertips, the populous begins forgetting that the only way to achieve anything is through hard work. Dweck (2007) addressed this idea and developed the concept of having either a fixed or a growth mindset as it applies to learning. A fixed mindset is described as a person that believes they can no longer grow as a learner. Alternatively, a growth mindset belongs to a person that understands that learning is a process - that anyone can continue to learn and grow by focusing on the process of learning. They must be willing to fail in order to improve the future results. This concept took all of the previously mentioned research ideas and added the idea of motivation as a factor that can be used to raise a student's IQ through education. One of the issues brought up by the opposition to Binet, Gardner, and Herrnstein & Murray is that these theorists do not explain the best way to educate students, regardless of IQ level. When adding the element of motivation to the popular theories, the teacher becomes empowered to do more than just present information. The educator can help each student improve individual IQ scores. Understanding that high IQ equals future success is very valuable from the standpoint of looking at the future. Being an effective educator always includes deciding the best way to present information in order to improve student IQ scores. Using this research adds one more tool to the educator's toolbox.

Grade To Motivate

One of the biggest problems with educating students in a class room is that every student does not bring the same motivation. This is what creates different levels of learners in the same setting. Since this is a simple fact in the American education system, it becomes the teacher's job to address this issue. The best tool teachers have is that they can use their grading system to motivate. During the elementary years of education motivation is less of a factor since the students tend to still want to please adults. Elementary students will stay motivated, if for no other reason to make their teachers happy. However, as students move into the middle school setting, this changes. Students begin to decide what they believe they are good at. This causes them to shy away from activities they have determined are too difficult. The adolescent mind begins to believe that if they are not good at something, they should try to avoid it. This can cause teachers to throw up their hands wondering what can be done. The simple truth is that teachers have the one thing students want - grades. This means that how a teacher handles the grading of assignments can go a long way to motivating students, therefore improving how much the student learns.

While it is always important to have the highest of classroom standards, if a student refuses to work those standards mean nothing. The teacher can begin to address the different learning levels of their classroom by putting all students on a level playing field. This can be done initially by having all students complete all of their assignments. The main reason students do not complete assignments stems from a fear that they will fail no matter how hard they try. The teacher should begin the school year by creating a nurturing grading environment. This is accomplished by taking an assignment and not grading it for correctness. In other words, grade it in a way that encourages the students to redo the assignment. The teacher should point out all of the corrections that need to be made, but grade the assignment for completion. After the students makes the corrections then re-grade the assignment. Using this system, students make the appropriate corrections to improve the assignment without an unwanted grade going in the grade book. The student will slowly gain confidence and, after one or two assignments, students will begin to try harder on the first attempt.

This approach not only creates a nurturing grading environment, but it shows the students that you as a teacher are there to improve their skills not just point out what they do not know how to do. This grading approach also improves the student's confidence in their own ability, which is the second part of creating lessons for different learners.

The classroom environment - including the teacher – needs to be calm. Most teachers will tell you that when they get loud and aggressive with a classroom, it is because they care so much that they get frustrated. While this is true, it can stop learning, not increase it. The teacher must stay in control and keep an understanding that while scaring the students may get work done. It does not promote learning.

Learning Should Be the Focus

If a teacher just wants many grades in the grade book to justify their own existence, it is easy to be a teacher. You can give ten worksheets on every topic, let the students work together, and even give the students the answers. This approach gives students many chances to earn a grade. The problem is that teachers should not be there to allow students to earn grades. Teachers should be there to teach their students new knowledge or a new skill. At the very least, teachers should be trying to improve the skills the students already possess. This requires a different approach to the classroom.

This begins with looking at what students should know, as well as what you would like them to know when they are done. This can be done by starting with the simplest of tasks. As an example let us look at an American History assignment. Begin with the vocabulary, have the students write down the vocabulary for a section. Create two or three assignments that will make the students write the words and their definitions. The number one barrier to reading comprehension is vocabulary, so these assignments will be working to improve that. Next, have students copy notes created by the teacher on the section. Encourage them to ask questions about the different concepts they do not understand. Next, have students read and answer the reading questions at the end of the section. When the students are done, model how to find the answers to the reading questions. Explain to the students the correct answers, but also where and how you found them. Then create a quiz based on the test questions for this section. Finally, have the students write a summary of what he or she learned in the section.

This series of assignments begins with the lowest skills the students will bring to the classroom, which is copying something from the book or from the board; it then moves to basic reading comprehension; and it ends with the highest of reading comprehension skills: summarizing. All along the way, the teacher is involved and continues modeling what is expected. This not only helps the lower-level students, but it helps the higher-level students actually work at a higher level. For the last assignment covering this section, the students should be given a collection of different assignments to choose from. Draw a picture, or write a poem, maybe even a narrative story, as this will allow the students to take advantage of the skills they possess to create learning that they get to select.

Of course the proof will be the test scores, and it may not be completely successful with the first try, as students will still not totally trust the teacher yet. However, taking the time to address every skill from copying to demonstrating knowledge gained by summarizing will begin to pay dividends each time it is practiced.

This series of lessons is based on Bloom's Taxonomy. This was created by Bloom (Clark, 2010) and is a good way to design lessons. The idea is that every lesson starts at the lowest level and moves up the ladder. As the students move from one level to the next, expectations need to change for the different students. Taking the level they bring with them into account, each assignment should be graded slightly different. By grading each assignment based on the student's ability, all of the students are doing the same assignments – just at different levels. This will eliminate the lower achieving students from being self-conscious about doing completely different assignments than the higher achieving students.

Sum It Up

All teachers need to become teacher leaders and stop discussing how the students are lazy and how hard it is to get them to complete even the simplest assignments. While this subject is probably discussed in every teacher lounge across the country, this is an example of the educators deflecting blame from themselves to the students. In today's climate, students come to school with very diverse backgrounds and needs. Due to their age and maturity level, middle school students have extra problems with internal motivation (Dweck, 2007). In order to continually push students to higher levels of achievement, their backgrounds, needs and internal motivation must be taken into account when planning instructional lessons. With this in mind, an exploration of these issues can only serve to improve education in America and the world. When examining the needs of students, Maslow (2009) is the first researcher that should be looked at. His Hierarchy of Needs explores not only why humans achieve, but also how this motivation can come from within. It becomes very important to make sure the emotional needs of students are addressed so that they can focus on school and learning. Greenleaf's (2008) Servant Leadership is another way to create an environment to promote self-motivation. This leadership style promotes students taking their learning into their own hands. Using these two seminal theorists in addition to Bloom's Taxonomy teachers can begin creating a classroom environment that not only promotes learning for all, but also addresses the needs of students with different learning levels.

In order to create an environment where the students use curiosity in order to self motivate, teachers must get rid of rote memorization and begin using an approach where students investigate the subject and develop their understanding of the subject matter through this investigative approach. This requires educators to create more imaginative lessons in order to capture the students' interest (Barzun, 1991). Shihusa and Keraro (2009) found that using advanced graphic organizers can improve motivation in students when it comes to learning more complex subjects such as biology, and Jossey- Bass (2010) suggest a strong leadership style is needed in order to change a learning paradigm. If educators can develop their understanding of servant leadership and pair that with using imaginative lessons that include graphic organizers, then a paradigm shift to a classroom where the students will use curiosity to internalize motivation can be created. Thus this internalized motivation should then improve the rate of assignment completion and in turn the amount of learning as the students will begin understanding that the assignments are tools to discover what they are learning.

Final Thought

Being a teacher can be one of the greatest jobs on Earth. However, the daily challenges that face every teacher can sometimes make it seem like an impossible task. Taking the time to create lessons that address the different learning levels of every student in the classroom is the basis of becoming not just a good teacher, but a teacher that the students want to learn for. No student is beyond learning; some are just harder to reach than others. This is what separates good teachers from great teachers.


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