The weight stack from a Cable machine.
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In strength training, so the common wisdom goes, if you want to tone the muscles you have, use moderate weight and many repetitions of the same exercise. If, on the other hand, you want to bulk up and build more muscle, higher weight and few reps will do the trick. I’m no exercise physiologist, so I can’t tell you whether this is actually true, but I’ve been thinking lately about how the principle should be applied to learning new skills in school.

Think about the typical classroom math lesson: introduce a skill, model it, walk the class through an example or two, then a set of eight or ten problems to practice the skill. This is not arbitrary or simply traditional. For the average student, it takes at least five to seven correct repetitions of a new skill before it begins to become automatic. Most students in your classroom, then, need to be guided through this process each time a skill is taught. And we need to use the same process each time a new variation in the skill is added. (Think subtracting without regrouping, then with regrouping, then regrouping across zeroes, for example.)

There are students in your class for whom this approach is inadequate, however. Some will need more practice before they begin to master the skill—these are the ones who you pull aside for extra help from time to time. We often forget, though, that there are students in the class who not only got it the first time they tried it, they are already extrapolating the variations you’re going to teach for the next three days.

So what happens to these kids in a typical lesson? They start the classwork before they’re instructed, they finish their homework before it’s assigned, and they start to daydream because they’ve already finished the thought that you haven’t finished explaining yet. And typically we treat this as misbehavior: students who aren’t on task, aren’t following directions, and are disrupting the flow of the lesson and the learning of the students around them.

The reality, though, is that these kids are ready to move on and do something new, and being asked to continually repeat over and over what they already understand is actually disrespectful. Here are two strategies that can help you address these kids’ needs without undue stress and extra work on your part:

Stay With Me or Go Free

A colleague of mine recently explained this strategy she uses with her class. After introducing a skill to the class, she will pause before starting the practice session and tell the kids, “You can stay with me, or go free.” Students who feel confident with the concept may choose to use the time for other work. Of course, she has already established routines in the classroom which are conducive to this, such as wait-​time folders and extension menus with challenging activities for the students who can handle them.

Most Difficult First

This strategy, described by Susan Winebrenner in her book, Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom, is appropriate for situations where you need more accountability for the students. When planning an assignment, identify the four or five most difficult problems in the set. When it is time for independent practice, any students who feel ready may opt to do the most difficult ones first. If they are all correct, the students are excused from the rest of that assignment and also are given a reduced homework set.

When you see students who are off task, working ahead, or seem to be daydreaming, consider the possibility that they may already get what you’re working on. What are some other things you do for students who are able to finish quickly and move ahead? Share your ideas in the comments.

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