The Optimal Match: The Goldilocks Solution

 Nancy Robinson and Phyllis Aldrich
Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children and Youth
US Department of State Office of Overseas Schools

The Optimal Match, the “mother” of differentiated teaching, is a simple concept – that “sweet spot” that identifies what a student is almost ready to learn. Almost every educational theory from the 18th Century on has included some such notion, but alas, it is too seldom actualized.

In any classroom, when the degree of challenge is too great for a student, the results are confusion and avoidance; when the challenge is too little, the results are boredom and apathy, and, furthermore, no substantial learning occurs. For students with typical development, the optimal match usually occurs at or a bit above the readiness level to which you are accustomed to teaching, and teaching to the “sweet spot” occurs rather naturally. Remember, though, that no student is altogether average! Students who are not, however, in the usual ballpark, including those whose overall development is slower or faster than average, those who show significant discrepancies from one domain or learning modality to another, and those still struggling to learn English, especially need adjustments. Teachers who approach the process thoughtfully are rewarded not only by their students’ learning and satisfaction, but by their own sense of accomplishment as their students flower.

Let us take, for example, a student whose pace of development in one or more areas has outstripped that of all or most of his/her classmates. And these strengths can sometimes be disguised by language or attention difficulties. How can a teacher know exactly what kind of quirky kids she is dealing with?

  • Identification. You might spot such students by positive signs such as advanced work, language, and sense of humor, or by more negative signs such as irritability, inattention, homework hastily done or not at all, depressed mood, or even blatant misbehavior. Parents are a prime source of information. (Believe them! Seek out their observations.) Previous school records and test scores, and previous teachers may all help to shed light. You will probably need to refer to your school’s resource personnel for above-grade-level testing to pin down specific information about the student’s learning profile so you’ll know where to start.

  • Considering the options: Flexibility within your classroom.
Experiments.” Ask the student to try some things with/for you, to see whether they are a better fit, a more engaging challenge. It helps to start with a topic in which the student is already interested, because there may be a built-in reluctance to appear “different” in classmates’ eyes. Be sure to get feedback, so you’ll get more ideas of what to try next. There may be another child in the class who shares that interest so some stimulating peer collaboration might evolve.

Substitute assignments. Before starting a new unit, get a sense of what all your students already know and don’t waste their time or yours. For those who already know most of the material, try giving alternate homework and classroom assignments that are more advanced and deeper than those the other students are doing. Differentiate by content, pace, thinking process, product, and above all, level. Adjusting product assessments planned for most of the class by simply offering to any student the change to design their own “above and beyond” category for earning credit opens up options and challenge. Don’t use this opportunity for students to work on weaker areas unless they want to, otherwise it will seem like punishment! And try to avoid needless reinforcement or what they already have shown you they can do.

Assess to fit. Too hard? Still too easy? Does the student require additional skills to succeed, such as specific math procedures, parts of speech, speed of writing (dictating, keyboarding may help), library/research skills? They can usually pick them up easily with a brief exposure. Try again! For kids who are advanced, but can’t get organized, set up a task plan that they are responsible for following on their own with pre-set times to check-in with the teacher.

On-line resources. There are not only numerous enrichment sites available on-line, but also many on-line courses (with real tutors!) that might be substituted for the work of your class. Since looking for these can take a little time, consider inviting a parent volunteer to winnow out a few promising enrichment sites for your evaluation.
  • Flexibility across classrooms. Cross-grade accelerative options may provide a best fit – permitting elementary-age children to do some of their work in a higher classroom, for example, or admitting a secondary-age student to take one or more courses at a more advanced level. (Small schools may have scheduling problems, but be creative!) Sometimes, skipping a grade is called for.
  • Think about friendships. Although your advanced students may or may not be popular with classmates, do they have “soul-mates” who “talk their language,” share their interests and depth of reasoning? Try to increase their choices by providing opportunities to be with older students in after-school activities such as Great Books, chess or math clubs, orchestra, or whatever. Often, the age-segregation during recess, lunch, and after school is even greater than rigid grade distinctions. Adult mentors in the community can sometimes add not only enrichment but supportive relationships.
  • Summer opportunities. Encourage students to engage in challenging summer programs offered by stateside talent searches or other programs on campuses or on-line virtual classes.
  • Start small and keep trying! As you try more and more options, and adopt them as part of your daily teaching strategies, you’ll probably find yourself expanding your efforts for the sheer joy of seeing your students’ eyes light up when you’ve created that Optimal Match! You’ll find that same satisfaction when you’ve hit the sweet spot, and seen the light in the eyes of your students who were previously struggling for one reason or another. Hang in there! And let us know if we can help, at (Robinson) or