The Problem With Teaching to the Middle

The Tier 1 Myth

As an educator, have you ever struggled with the great mystery of how to differentiate Tier 1 instruction? Most teachers can say they have spent a great amount of time, energy, and resources on individualizing Tier 2 and even Tier 3 instruction, trying to close the gaps for learners who aren’t quite learning on grade level, or maybe struggling with more significant learning problems preventing them from mastering the standards. 

However, when it comes to Tier 1 instruction, educators have historically been taught that this level of instruction must be universal. Or in other words, Tier 1 instruction must be “one size fits all.” But is this really true? Must our primary level of instruction be this generalized? 

What if there was a way to embed Tier 2 and 3 instruction into the fabric of the learning experience for every student?

Lessons from a Pandemic

Educators now have three “pandemic semesters” under their belts, beginning in spring 2020 and wrapping up with the ‘20-’21 school year. The level of uncertainty throughout this time has been unprecedented, but educators have continued to innovate to meet learners’ needs time and time again. 

There are many takeaways from these unparalleled semesters. Many of these lessons were positive:

  • First, children are resilient. They are capable of adapting to new situations and circumstances, perhaps sometimes even faster than we do ourselves. 
  • Second, students love to be seen and recognized. Even if it is through the screen, most students crave personalized connection.
  • Third, we can connect virtually. While it hasn’t been easy, we have found a way to continue to teach, and our students have continued to learn. 

Some lessons, however, have showcased the chasm in Tier 1 instruction, many of which educators were already very aware of: 

  • The existing concept and skill gaps between students were highlighted. Many of these gaps existed prior to the pandemic, but were exacerbated by distance learning.  
  • Students learn concepts and skills at different speeds. Because of this, many are overwhelmed by whole-class instruction, or in some cases, underwhelmed. 
  • A “one size fits all” instructional method no longer works – if it ever did.

So, if learners are adaptive, long for personalized, recognitive instruction, and are learning and mastering standards at different rates, why is Tier 1 instruction still considered something that must be standardized? 

“Teach to the Middle”

If you’ve been in education for any amount of time, you’ve heard the old adage “teach to the middle.” While the concept in theory is based on inclusivity, in practice it’s very exclusive. As with most things, students fall across all ranges on the learning spectrum, and very few actually land in the middle. 

For students who aren’t yet learning at grade level, teaching to the middle leaves them behind as they struggle to catch up to where instruction begins. And, while most educators work especially hard to recognize and help students who are academically behind reach at least grade level, how many teachers struggle with knowing what to do for the students in their class who are above grade level? Unfortunately, in the current mindset of education, being a student learning above grade level simply equates to more work, not necessarily more in-depth instruction. 

So, not only are learners being left behind in whole group instruction, many are being abandoned on their road to learning because they are simply too far ahead. 

The concept of teaching to the middle is also appealing because there is only so much one teacher can teach in a day, right? In a classroom with 20 to 30 children, how can one educator be expected to individualize their lesson to every student, going up and down the ladder of content to reach the students on every rung? There has to be a better way to meet the needs of all learners through individualized instruction that won’t also leave the teacher running around the classroom, wishing they could clone themselves – times ten.

Enter, the Buerk Method for Learning 

Given what we have experienced in the past 18 months, the ‘21-’22 school year may well be one of the most significant in modern history. Educators are being asked to close the gaps in students’ learning that have either emerged during or been exacerbated by the pandemic. Their role has been amplified, as they now not only must teach the current standards and help students learn at grade level, but must also make up for lost time. But how can one teacher possibly meet the varying needs of 20-plus students every day? 

Well, what if it were possible to create something that was able to guide learners individually through the standards, working their way from where they are to where they need to be? 

Enter the Buerk Method for Learning. The Buerk Method provides a standards-aligned, personalized path to learning that breaks down and scaffolds the entire learning experience into four skills levels. This enables the teacher and the learner to get the clearest picture possible of their current reality and the next step for growth. It creates differentiated, individual Tier 1 instruction for all learners.

The Buerk Method is a way for educators to take a skill and instantly scaffold it, creating resources, activities, and assessments that allow a student to move through the standard at their own pace. It doesn’t require the teachers to guide the students through the standard, or provide whole class instruction. Instead, all of the levels of learning are provided for ahead of time. 

Key to the successful implementation of the Buerk Method for Learning is the Buerk Rubric. Whereas a traditional rubric is primarily product-focused and utilized for grading, a Buerk Rubric is a student growth tool that is process and behavior focused. The Buerk Rubric is the primary learning tool that teachers can give their students. By breaking down a skill into four levels, a teacher can differentiate the standard for their students, and then the students can move at their own pace through the standard. What does this look like?

In a Buerk Rubric, a student who is on-level or meeting expectations begins at level three. Levels one and two meet students who are below grade level, giving them a place to begin, while level four provides more advanced or in-depth learning opportunities for students who are ahead. Most importantly, the Buerk Rubric can be used by students to set goals, create a plan for learning, and track learning along the way. 

So how can you implement a Buerk Rubric in your classroom? 

Introducing indipath

indipath Logo

indipath is engage2learn’s newest system for learning acceleration, and it is exactly what you need for differentiating in the classroom. Whether your learners are there in person or connecting virtually, indipath is a blended learning tool that weaves instruction and technology, helping you create a Buerk Rubric that will then help your students work their way through the standard independently. 

indipath allows the teacher to create the rubric, breaking the unit down into four conceptually clustered standards, all identifying level three as meeting expectations. The rubric identifies qualitative, leveled behavior or thinking that increase in depth of application or complexity from levels one to four. These leveled resources then provide the learner with scaffolded, differentiated, standards-aligned opportunities to grow. After taking a quick pre-assessment that plays like a game, indipath lands learners on the level they register, and then they can move forward at their own pace, following a to-do list provided by indipath to guide them. 

As an educator, your time is valuable. Differentiation and scaffolding are noble pursuits, but they take a great deal of time and effort. You might be thinking, “Okay, this all sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work.” 

However, with indipath, every standard that has already been covered by a teacher is there within the app for you to use. Educators can look up the standard and find every single rubric for that standard that has been created, and then, indipath allows the educator to customize the rubric as they see fit for their students. 

indipath provides differentiated Tier 1 instruction to each learner in the classroom, no matter where they are on the learning curve. The teacher sets the rubric, gives the students the resources, and then the learner takes it from there. 

Creating Autonomous Learners 

At the end of the day, learners need five things to thrive:

  • A clear entry point that matches their initial level of mastery; 
  • A goal they have set for themselves; 
  • Leveled resources to build their knowledge;
  • A plan to guide them through;
  • Feedback along the way. 

When they have these things, learning is no longer about generalized, monotonous instruction. Learning becomes engaging, dynamic, and personal. Learning becomes something they have ownership of. They are now the hero of their learning story, and the educator is the guide along the way. When they have these five things, learners become autonomous. And indipath is the tool to get them there. If you’re ready to provide differentiated Tier 1 instruction to your learners, request a demo today!


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