Imagine the journey of a martial arts master, expert violinist, professional electrician, or star athlete. They begin their first year in a giant class of beginners. But, as they move forward, their classes get smaller. These students work more closely with experts as they advance. When we recognize great potential, we partner students up with an individual instructor as fast as we can.
We know that direct, careful guidance is key to moving forward in any domain. And the more advanced the student, the more direct that guidance should be. I mean, look at the number of coaches each professional basketball team hires!
The best in the world need hands-on guidance!
- Yo Yo Ma did not became an expert cellist just by playing his cello alone in the corner. His instructor (aka his dad) purposefully led him through Bach suites two measures at a time as a kid.
- Damian Lillard, basketball star for my own Portland Trailblazers, learned to shoot from half-court (!) under the guidance of two instructors – not just by practicing on his own.
- My cousin, who has a masters degree in piano performance, still gets lessons! I asked him, “What the heck do you practice?” And he named three weaknesses his tutor had identified. My cousin wouldn’t have spotted these problems had he just practiced on his own.
The more advanced the learner, the more advanced the content, and the more careful and customized the guidance needs to be.
Imagine A College Program
This was even true for me in my lowly undergraduate college experience. I was in an honors program, so my classes were significantly smaller than the general classes. As I moved through my computer science program, those classes kept getting smaller as the content grew more advanced. I had increasing interactions with my instructors. My degree culminated with a one-on-one research project with a professor.
My college did not say, “Wow, this kid has potential. He should stop working with teachers and do an independent project!” Quite the opposite! They partnered me up with an expert to guide me — we met every week in his office.
Whether they’re athletes, artists, builders, or university students, when people become more advanced in a domain, their teachers pull them closer to offer more guidance.
Yet, I Did The Opposite
So why oh why did I do the exact opposite with the most obviously advanced students in my class?
In my class, the more advanced the student was, the more likely you’d find them skipping instruction and working by themselves in a corner.
- You are a brilliant writer! Go write a story by yourself in the corner. I’ll (maybe) read it when you’re finished!
- You have a knack for science! Go do a research report over there. Come up with your own questions!
- What a fantastic mathematician you are! Look through this book and find a math project to follow on your own. I’ll come by later to check-in.
When kids showed that they were a cut above, I let them work by themselves, run their own research project, and be as independent as possible. That is the opposite of what happens in every other domain!
My students’ “research projects” were these self-guided independent projects that had little structure and were rarely even finished. But my own research project at college was the one time I sat with a professor by myself every single week!
Why was my class so different from even my own experience as a student, musician, and athlete?
To be honest, I was overwhelmed by these advanced kids! I didn’t know what to do with them. They finished the worksheet, so I sorta pushed them to the side and let them fend for themselves. They were already meeting standards after all! Ugh 🤢.
Now, I know that I need to stop planning for the middle and start my planning with the top in mind. It’s far easier to scaffold down from a great idea then to try to scaffold up from a mediocre task. My colleague Lisa clarified this for me.
Design Tasks That Have Room To Stretch
That means designing high ceiling, low floor tasks that have room for my top students to stretch (and scaffolds for everyone to climb higher).
These tasks give me the chance to say to the highest-ability kid, “This is great so far, but here’s something you can keep working on” rather than my typical, “Wow! Perfect again! Now, uh, go read by yourself in the corner…”
Tasks with a high ceiling give me a reason to spend time each week purposefully working with my advanced students in a small group, because small group instruction is not just for struggling kids.
So consider how real experts get better:
- Yo Yo Ma’s dad worked with him two-measures-at-a-time to learn Bach suites on the cello.
- Damian Lillard’s two coaches gave him specific feedback to improve his half-court accuracy in basketball.
- My cousin hired a tutor to find specific holes in his piano playing, even after earning a masters degree.
These folks are engaged in tasks with a high ceiling. They can spend their entire lives getting better and better. And nothing will accelerate that growth like an expert who can provide specific feedback and guidance.
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