Moving Away From The “One Assignment For All”

This post starts with a story.

Many years ago, there was a little girl. She was in Grade 4. She worked hard — really, really hard. But sometimes it seemed as though that hard work was never enough. One day, she came home from school with a Ziploc bag. Inside the bag were all of the provinces of Canada. It was a puzzle. All she needed to do was put together a map, glue it on a piece of paper, and colour it in. Easy, right? Never did this little girl struggle so much. She couldn’t manage to fit those map pieces together. The provinces were upside down. The water was in the wrong spot. Her sister, also in Grade 4, had the same homework and was done in about 15 minutes, but she struggled for hours. Her parents, both educators, hated to see their daughter so upset, so they worked with her. They found a map. They showed her the different lines and different patterns, and they helped her see those lines and patterns on her smaller map. They gave her a guide, and they helped her use this guide to meet with success for this map assignment.

This little girl was on an IEP. She had a non-verbal learning disability, and geography was a struggle for her. She couldn’t do the same assignment as everyone else, but she could still be successful — with support, with modifications, and with a different plan. I was this little girl, and I still remember this map activity. I still remember how I felt that night. And I think often about this “one assignment for all,” and how I needed something just a little bit different to move from failure to success.

I’m sharing this story now because on Friday, I was talking to a friend of mine. She has a daughter in Grade 2, and the teacher is doing Mad Minutes to review the math facts. Her daughter knows the math facts, but she’s consistently failing the Mad Minutes. Why?

  • The timer is making her anxious. As soon as she hears the ticking start, she shuts down, and doesn’t know where to begin.
  • She’s overwhelmed by the number of questions on a page. She sees all of the questions, gets nervous, and is reluctant to start.
  • She has fine motor difficulties. Forming the numbers is hard for her, and keeping them small enough to fit into the spaces on the page is a challenge. Her answers end up everywhere, and so the teacher doesn’t know what to mark.

When her daughter brought home the marked Mad Minute the other day, the mom asked her one of the incorrect answers. Her daughter gave her the answer right away. She knew the other ones too. I wonder what would happen if each of the Mad Minute questions were written on cue cards. What if, instead of writing down the answers, she went into a quiet corner of the classroom, used a device, and recorded a video of her holding up a question and saying the answer. Maybe by eliminating the need to write the numbers, navigate a busy page of questions, and stare at a ticking timer, this student would succeed. It’s a small change, but would it work?

Curriculum expectations may apply to everyone in a given grade, but students aren’t all the same. As teachers, it’s up to us to figure out how to reach each of our students. My own struggles in school remind me of this even more because I was often the one child that didn’t get it. I was often the one child that needed more time. I was often the one child that needed a different way. But small changes had huge benefits, and I’m a teacher today because there were teachers that made these changes so that I could succeed. How do you reach all of the students in your class? What have you noticed as you try to do so? I hope that we can share our stories here. As teachers, we have the ability to make a positive difference in a child’s life. Let’s make that positive change!


17 thoughts on “Moving Away From The “One Assignment For All”

  1. Your story is a prime example that we cannot have one assessment fits all attitude. There are so many factors when it comes to teaching. It is these factors that I turn to when I talk about teaching. I think that everyone can or has the capacity to teach but teaching itself is an art and it takes training and ongoing learning to meet the needs of all our students. We have to be adaptable to change and even recognize when to change for the success of each student. I find the more we open up the task the more we meet the needs of our students. A writing task doesn’t need to be just marked on the final outcome but maybe just the process for some.

    Your mad minutes is an interesting example too because I too struggle with it, though will admit have done a lot of this year in my classroom (more because of student direction then personal belief). I tell my students that it is not about speed but efficiency and for those with efficiency I say then set a speed goal. I few them more as learning goals than anything else. My students set the goals. Some are five questions right, some are ten, etc. what is important is it’s their goal. They reflect and they strive to meet it. I think that making it their own learning g helps with the adaptability and meeting these learners needs.

    As for changing life’s I like to think yes but I am also satisfied knowing I was apart of some amazing students in some way whether I find out I was or not. Only time will tell. Thanks for blogging.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jonathan! I absolutely agree with you about the value in open-ended tasks, and this definitely allows for multiple entry points.

      I love how you let students set their own goals for Mad Minutes (and increased math facts), and how they strive to meet their own goals. I struggled in this situation because it was as much the actual writing and number of questions on a page as it was the timed factor of the test that impacted on this child’s success. Do all students need to do Mad Minute in a written format in order to do the task? What about questions on cards and oral responses? What about strips of questions (with students finishing one strip and then getting another one)? What about various options (from the Mad Minute pages to various math games and activities that align) and then letting students choose the option that works best for them? Couldn’t they still set goals and keep track of success, but by eliminating this timed/test taking component for those that struggle with this? I don’t know here. I’m just thinking out loud. I’d be curious to hear what others say.

      And as for “changing lives,” as someone that’s been in your class, I know without a doubt that you’ve changed many! Thanks for doing all that you do!


      • Aviva, yes, yes, and more yes. Just like you said do all assessment need to be the same? Why does mad minute. To be honest I give them fifteen minutes only because we do it with fifteen minutes left in the day. But it doesn’t need to be there and it is not for those that don’t finish the work. For them it is how many the can do. Where I struggle with is, over the past couple of years I do see the benifit of students who know there facts and can recall them In A reasonable time. However, just knowing your facts doesn’t mean that you know how to problem solve. Back to time. The reason I started it was to help students with mental math and to recall these facts in a decent time. It doesn’t need to be super fast but they can’t sit there for forty minutes and solve one question. This is why I have them set goals for the fifteen minutes. Don’t know if that answers the question.

        • Thanks Jonathan! This helps a lot! I do like the idea of varied ways to do this type of Math Drill activity. I must admit that I have a lot of reservations about Mad Minute, but I agree with you that there’s value in students knowing their math facts. My students this year have been working really hard at learning their basic multiplication and division facts, and this is helping them as we move onto more difficult problems. As you said, this doesn’t mean that they can problem solve, but it’s still important. I like your 15 minute idea, and maybe within these 15 minutes, there could be options. Students would still be setting goals, the 15 minutes might help with reducing the anxiety about time, and students would be choosing a method that works best for them. I do like this option!

          This post may not have been about Mad Minute per se, but I’m glad that we were able to take a “one assignment for all” activity, and differentiate it to meet more varied needs!


          • So very true. I too had my reservations. In fact I still do but my students asked so I tried to work it into a frame work that I think would work with my philosophy of teaching.

            Sorry for highjacking the blog with mad minutes but it does show that we have to be able to change our assessment practises to help our students, bottom line. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

          • Thanks again for the comment, Jonathan! As you said, I think that this discussion on Mad Minute has illustrated the need to change assessment practises to meet the needs of all students. This is a good thing, and I’m so glad that we’ve had this discussion!

            Thanks for always pushing my thinking! I appreciate it!


  2. It’s always important to generate this sort of thinking. Not every student understands nor thinks the same.
    Teachers have the power to move away, as you said. This story is a very powerful example that even when things seem hopeless, there’s always a way out.
    You never really ARE in a maze, because sometimes you end up being lifted out.
    What is your way to cope with students that need help of a kind?
    Why do you do it? What are your strategies to understand?

    • Thanks for your comment, Yusra! I think that it’s important to remember that all students can succeed. It’s up to us to figure out how. There are so many ways that I do this:

      – lots of 1:1 and small group support.
      – visuals to help illustrate a point.
      – videos or screencasts to help demonstrate concepts & allow for repeated viewings.
      – peer support (when possible).
      – giving lots of choice about how students share learning to ensure that all students have an entry point.

      A lot of the time it depends on the task. I often work with small groups, which helps me see these problems when they occur and offer support as needed.

      The bottom line is, I want students to do well. I’m determined to see this success, so I’ll happily try anything for students to meet with this success. Seeing these successes makes teaching the BEST job ever!!

      Miss Dunsiger

  3. Aviva,
    Your post reminds me so much of a book by one of my favourite authors, Patricia Pollaco. Thank You Mr. Falker has a great message; my instinct is you have read it and shared it with others.
    Have a great week!

    • Thanks for the comment, Derek! That’s one of my favourite books and certainly a great one to share. I didn’t even think of it at the time, but yes, I can definitely see the overlap.


  4. Pingback: #OSSEMOOC: March 24, 2014 | Ontario School and System Leaders Edtech MOOC

  5. Thanks for your reminder to us all that we need to modify and accomodate for our students who learn differently. Given our understanding of this as educators in a diverse and challenging world, and the vast resources at our disposal (and sufficient prep time), I find it particularly distressing when I see teachers not making these changes to address the needs of their students. Please keep reminding us regularly!

    • Thanks Paul! As you know, this is something that I’m incredibly passionate about, and this is one case where I will always be willing to speak up and share a reminder or two. As educators, I think that meeting the needs of ALL of our students is one of the most valuable things that we can do!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *