A few of the educational terms that come readily to mind with this discussion are the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) and “scaffolding.”
“The zone of proximal development is the gap between what a learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development)…. In a classroom setting, the teacher is responsible for structuring interactions and developing instruction in small steps based on tasks the learner is already capable of performing independently — an instructional strategy known as scaffolding.” -Heather Coffey (http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/5075)
For another good read on understanding scaffolding, check out this previous post.
Now, this is all well and good when you’re in the classroom with your students and planning learning activities and objectives for next week after having observed how they’ve done this week. Or if you’re an experienced teacher who knows second graders pretty well because you’ve been teaching a batch of them for years. But that’s not always the case.
Precise estimation of a group’s ability is key, and when you haven’t met the group yet (as first year teachers haven’t) such precision in estimation seems almost unfathomably difficult. Not to mention it’s an oxymoron…
If you underestimate their abilities, the students will be underwhelmed and bored. They may also read your estimation as a limitation on their capacity. Their self-perception of their ability could diminish and they could stop trying.
On the other hand, if you overestimate your students and have unreasonably high expectations, they may get disheartened and give up.
Erring on either side could have detrimental effects on your students’ achievement.
I’m finding myself needing to gauge the choral potential of a mixed group of third through sixth graders without having met the students. My plan as of right now is to solicit advice from my colleagues and mentors and have enough pieces in my repertoire to adjust as necessary once we get rolling. I imagine this is a hurdle most first year teachers face, and I welcome any discussion on the matter.