Tracking. My first graders use that word to mean following me with their eyes to help them pay attention. A lot of grownups in the educational world use it to mean putting kids on different educational avenues based on their ability and learning pace. Wikipedia defines tracking as, “separating pupils by academic ability into groups for all subjects or certain classes and curriculum within a school. Students attend academic classes only with students whose overall academic achievement is the same as their own.” Interesting concept, no? I’ve thought about it considerably and the jury’s still out.
On one hand, grouping kids into classes based more on the child’s learning pace is much more logical than assuming that the greatest commonality between children is their birth year. For example, some precocious first graders may read at a higher level than is typical while some fourth graders may be at the same level despite their advanced age. And that’s not a bad thing. Having a class of children who are more intellectually similar in their learning style and pace allows the teacher to more effectively access the group and individual simultaneously and thereby facilitate deeper learning for all. And under such a system, the kids who are still getting the hang of things won’t feel the discouraging pressure of trying to think the same way their more mature peers do. Each group can have genuine and meaningful success in its own sphere.
On the other hand, stratifying and labeling people in any context is the premise for many a dystopic cautionary tale. (Think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.) Pigeonholing kids into “smart/fast” and “slow/dumb” classes could have a lasting and negative impact on their development. Being told you’re a little genius can give you a big head and a superiority complex. Being underestimated and talked down to can make you settle for less than your potential or stunt your intellectual expansion. Also, grouping children with those who think the same way they do limits their opportunities for interacting with different levels, thought processes, and perspectives. The fatal flaw of the ability grouping system is its potential for arbitrary decisions based on a limited understanding of intelligence. Such decisions could result in children being misplaced in the system and getting lost developmentally.
On a hypothetical third hand, we have a cooperative model in which the more mentally agile children assist the teacher in guiding the others to discovery. This model doesn’t have much to do with tracking in that it doesn’t stratify children according to ability. But it recognizes and utilizes the gradient of intellectual development by expecting the more savvy children to coach and encourage their peers. On the other side of this model, the more ponderous bunch gets a chance to learn from a variety of teachers (including their classmates) and thereby solidify information. My mentor uses the term “fast finisher” to refer to the children in his classes who do just that—finish the task quickly. He then employs these “fast finishers” to be mini-teachers and help their classmates who haven’t finished yet. The kids who finish first have grasped the concept effectively and are then eager to share their knowledge with their classmates. Teaching helps them retain the learning, and the teachees often absorb material better from peers than teachers. Perhaps with this integrated system, the fast track students won’t get as far ahead as they could on their own, but that idea begs the question of priorities. Do we want our students to come out of elementary school full-fledged smart alecks or decent human beings who can cooperate with their peers? Will tracking even significantly impact that outcome? Is it helpful or harmful or even just neutral in children’s intellectual development? Thoughts, anyone?