When I played baseball as a kid the most tedious (and longest) part of practice was batting practice. This generally consisted of one player taking cuts at the pitches thrown by the coach, with the rest of the players scattered throughout the field chasing the occasional hit. Most of this time was spent standing and watching as one player after another took their allotted cuts, and one player fielded a ball.
As I got older some of my coaches began using the time much more effectively by breaking players into smaller groups to practice hitting whiffle balls, bunting, working on pitching, etc. while only a few players collected the balls from batting practice. The difference was that all the players were engaged in some worthwhile practice. There was no standing around. We were involved with something useful all the time.
One of the most important characteristics of an effective classroom is that all students are engaged in learning all the time. This can be challenging in situations where group instruction focused on one student at a time is thought to be most useful. In any whole-class learning we want to avoid the 'batting practice' scenario above where one student is engaged in learning (answering questions, giving a speech, reading, working at the board, etc.) and other students can tune out. Or, think of a DMV line--one person actively engaged and many others waiting passively for their turn.
So, how do we avoid neglecting a class of students while we engage one or a few at a time? It isn't enough to just have them 'follow along' or 'pay attention' to what's going on. We want them to be mentally engaged with the learning at all times. Below are a few things that teachers can do to get started thinking about this very real challenge.
- have students correct their own work, fill in blanks on a study guide or fill in a graphic organizer
- have students use a grading sheet or rubric to assess student presentations or speeches
- stop occasionally and have students write three questions they have, or summarize the main point; or have them tell how they did the process differently, or would do it differently
- stop and have A tell B, and a few Bs tell the class a main idea, question, or point of difference
- if reading aloud is being used, have students not reading use active reading marks; have them show their marks occasionally to you or to another student
The items above are just a few of the strategies teachers can use to be sure that all students are engaged all the time in class. There are many ways to do this, of course. The main point is that we need to be sure that we don't have students 'standing in line' waiting for their turn or standing in the outfield staring at the clouds while a few students do something meaningful.