Setting Students Up for Success

Education Next Issue Cover

Create the path of least resistance

By Rebecca Friedman with Chavi Abramson

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WINTER 2013 / Vol. 13, No. 1

What do a successful teacher and a wealthy grocery-store owner have in common? This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but the answer is simple. Both are familiar, even if they don’t know it, with “technical successes” and “technical failures.” Aiming to maximize his sales, our grocer puts staples such as milk, eggs, and bread at the back of the store, as his customers may pick up other items while looking for the staples. Placing the staples at the back of the store is a “technical success,” while placing them at the front constitutes a “technical failure.” In the classroom, a technical success arises when a teacher prepares her students to succeed, and a technical failure exists when she sets them up to fail.

Students need a learning environment that encourages success, but how can a teacher create such a place? In thinking about this question, I explored how the physical layout of my classroom, our academic schedule, and my behavior in class affected my students’ ability to succeed. I also investigated how teachers around me set their students up for success or failure.

Just as a store owner must lay out his store for maximum sales, a teacher must set up her classroom as an effective learning environment. The structure may vary with the teacher’s style of teaching and her students’ needs. A teacher who typically introduces a lesson and then instructs the students to work individually might arrange desks in a “U” shape. The teacher can present a topic with minimal distractions and easily monitor students while they work independently. Students with diverse academic abilities might warrant “clustered” or “grouped” seating instead. Seating students in heterogeneous groups maximizes the learning environment: weaker students see how stronger students learn and approach problems, while stronger students gain a deeper understanding of the subject by teaching it to others, creating a “technical success.”

It is important to think not only about where students’ desks are located, but also about what’s on top of them. Does one student always color on his desk? Maybe he focuses better while doodling. I can help him out by covering his desk with oversized paper and replacing it when necessary. Who knows, maybe he will grow up to be a famous illustrator.

Classroom practices should provide students with the path of least resistance to academic success. Facilitating students’ cooperation, independence, and ability to focus is the key. Consider common technical failures in the classroom, such as asking students to “think hard” right after lunch or recess or to listen quietly when they have a lot of energy. A teacher faced with these challenges can allow students to read independently or write in a journal after lunch or play an educational game that the students can get excited about.

A teacher concerned about students who finish assignments early can create a “must do/may do” chart. This chart can be student-specific or for the whole class, but the idea is that students complete “must do” activities before beginning those in the “may do” column. Students take responsibility for their own learning and time management. Most important, it prevents the technical failure of students who complete their work early and sit idle or, worse, distract students who are still working.

Imagine that we are reviewing last night’s homework assignment and I ask, “Who has the answer to problem number two?” Several hands go up. I call on a student, who asks to go to the bathroom, effectively stopping the lesson. Or I call on one student for the answer and several others shout out, “He stole my answer!” These students may be left so frustrated that they find it difficult to focus. To avoid these technical failures, at the beginning of the year I teach my students a few basic signs in American Sign Language (ASL). If students want to go to the bathroom, they show me the sign, and I silently respond with “yes” or “no.” Likewise, students sign “me too” when they weren’t called on but want to demonstrate that they knew the answer. I acknowledge them verbally or with a thumbs-up. As a result, these students feel good. The use of ASL effectively eliminates student-initiated distractions, a clear technical success.

Rebecca Friedman teaches elementary-school and college students in Baltimore, Maryland. Chavi Abramson studies education at Thomas Edison University.

Comment on this article
  • Melissa Twisdale says:

    Such interesting and meaningful information! I also find that it is important to imbed the “staples” of our lessons in the “back of the store.” Motivating a students by presenting real-world learning opportunities and then imbedding those required skills into this authentic lesson yields the best results. Strategic positioning of the required skills puts students in a much better place in terms of motivation.

  • steve stein says:

    My son, Gavi, had the pleasure of having Chavi Abramson as his teacher. I can say firsthand that she knows what she’s saying in her article. After utilizing her techniques over the course of the year in Gavi’s classroom, the classmates were extremely successful. In addition to her style of teaching, Chavi projects so much love and warmth to all of her students that they are instilled with a drive for success. After all thy wouldn’t want to let their friend down!

  • Kenneth Goldberg says:

    This is a very interesting article. Now, let’s apply it to homework. The author makes it clear that a teacher can think through the physical setting of the classroom to maximize learning. The teacher has no control over the physical setting of the home. So why do teachers put so much emphasis on homework as part of the learning process? It would seem to disempower teachers to base student grades on work that is not done in class.

    Second, the author here talks about must do and may do assignments. When, if ever, do teachers give homework assignments with the labels must do and may do? The author here talks about using this technique in the service of helping children learn to manage time. Without those distinctions, homework works against learning time management since the allocated time can spread out through the night.

    Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. http://www.thehomeworktrapcom.

  • Laura Cooney says:

    The grocery store metaphor is thought-provoking! When teaching a particular topic, or planning a certain activity, it is essential to have the classroom arrangement in mind. Requesting specific furniture for the classroom which will allow for this flexibility is a big help. It also keeps the students guessing what is going to happen as they enter the class, and notice that the arrangement is different from the previous day. It adds an element of surprise and excitement in anticipation of the “leçon du jour” .

  • Philip says:

    This article is solid and highlights best practices and all that good stuff. @ Kenneth, I think we need to shift our thinking in the way we approach homework. I agree that these strategies maybe best used in the classroom and under the close guidance of the teacher. So the approach to homework or home learning needs to be different from the outset. I have been exploring co-constructing homework tasks with students based on their own needs based goal setting which allows them to explore areas needing improvement. There are some staples like Spelling, Math,Reading and these can be much more enjoyable when we take time to include students in the process of finding, recommending, and completing fun, engaging, and meaningful activities. Perhaps a little trickery for good measure, but NOT school type activities to be completed at home.

  • Chris Chivers says:

    You might like to have a look at this article.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Or does giving homework in elementary grades set many children up to fail, because a 30-hour work week is already long enough for a six year old, and more just burns them out?

  • Dr. Harvey Levy says:

    If I take one “pearl” away from an article or a lecture, I consider it a success. This thought-provoking article more than qualifies as material worth pondering, incorporating, and sharing. Well done, teachers.

  • Del Shad says:

    No any doubt it is a very handsome way of teaching at any level in any country. Now my confusion what about a school that has very limited resources or a very limited time to present the subject.

    Now my second solid expectation as an answer fro you, how much this teaching method will support in bringing the true potential of the students?

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