Monday, 25 March 2019

Understanding the Diverse Nature of Learners. Responding to and Celebrating Individual Learning Styles & Difference

I’ve been rather disturbed as a teacher and researcher in recent years, to observe that many of our nation’s educational administrators, some of our leading teacher educators, many parents, and some business leaders and varied professionals, seem to assume that the way to improve educational outcomes is to test our children. Not so! Only teaching and student support of learning will improve educational outcomes. I hope that few Christian schools and their parents fall into this trap, but I suspect that many do. Principle 7 of my pedagogical framework deals with this issue.


Testing our way to mediocrity

I've written in other places about this disturbing phenomenon (see HERE and HERE). Testing and assessment should always have as their goal to inform practice. And in particular, to help teachers and parents to tailor instruction and support to the needs of the child. But somehow, we’ve lost sight of this most fundamental of educational principles and I see schools and teachers doing more testing than teaching. And perhaps worse still, their teaching becomes increasingly directed towards achieving desired grade standards as judged by test administrators, rather than responding to student needs to help them to learn and grow.

The desire to constantly test our children has many detrimental impacts on them as learners. I know a child who when she started school could already read. She reached the end of the year and said to her mother, I didn’t learn anything new this year at school. In her second week in Kindergarten she was excited to be taken to the library and to be allowed to borrow some books. She looked at the picture books and saw few that she hadn’t read before, and others which didn’t capture her interest. She moved to the junior fiction shelves only to be reprimanded by the librarian and told that she couldn’t read those books because they “were too hard for her”. “But Miss”, she pleaded, “I can read these books”. “Go back to the picture books” the librarian replied. She left that day without a book to take home. When she entered her second year at school she again reached year’s end and said quietly to her mother, “This year was just like kindergarten, I haven’t learnt anything new this year either”. “Mummy, when will I get to learn some new things at school?”

In her third year at school she was excited to be in a composite class with children from the grade above her, surely her mother thought, this will be a chance for her to learn new things and be stretched. But alas, the school in its ‘wisdom’ had decided to pair the weakest grade 3 students with the best grade 2 students. Why you might ask? I’m not sure, but it seems to me that it was probably to ensure as narrow a spread of ability as possible so as to make it easier to teach a common program across the composite classroom, or at the very least, to allow the bright grade 2 children to teach themselves. It might also have been to concentrate on the struggling year 3 students to help them pass the tests, while the year 2 students worked alone. I find any of these options depressing for they show little concern for individual differences in our children. Constant system wide testing has pushed many teachers down a path towards teaching to a common grade by grade standard irrespective of children’s abilities.

Curriculum that dumbs down and ignores diversity


The use of curriculum and teaching practices that assume all students are the same, and teaching diverse classes a common program and with identical expectations, couldn’t be further from the way education should occur. God made us different, and this wasn’t by accident. Varying abilities and even learning styles weren’t an unfortunate accident of creation. All of our students will have different strengths, weaknesses, and needs (Rom 12:6). Christian teachers, classrooms, and schools should demonstrate this understanding in word and action. We are to do this by responding to, valuing, respecting and building on our children’s varied needs and gifts. Teaching to the middle, or application of restrictive methods to the point of frustration for some, is not an option that should serve as an appropriate goal or acceptable practice. We are to encourage and help students who are slower to learn, and enrich those students who show specific gifts, and develop those who have learning difficulties. God has made our children to be different, hence we need to educate as much as possible to extend and grow all of our students as learners and people.


Embracing, celebrating and working with difference

Having children of different abilities in our classrooms is an uncomfortable reality for teachers, even when we carefully grade our classes. But rather than seeking to minimize differences, or ignoring them, we need to embrace them and help each and every learner to grow. In the midst of this ‘growing’ we might just see that our children who might perform differently on narrow test regimes (to their detriment), will begin to demonstrate different gifts and abilities. The best reader in grade one might be not so good at maths, and perhaps even hopeless at sport, public speaking and in demonstrating the varied basic human virtues like respect, loyalty, honesty and so on.   

In my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’, I also stress in my 7th statement about Christian pedagogy that as well as accepting difference within our classrooms, we need to identify how unique our children are and seek to develop social harmony amongst them.

In the tradition of shalom1, we are to seek the flourishing of all in our care. Our children come to us each day with varied gifts, lived experiences, ethnicities, abilities, and pasts. On any day, we will have troubled and difficult children in our classrooms. As Jesus neared the crucifixion, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Safety and the assurance of physical needs was not what Jesus was promising. Shalom meant much more than this. While shalom can mean tranquility and peace in our classrooms in the sense of freedom from harm, it also means unity and accord among people.

While true spiritual harmony involves restoration with God, Christian classrooms must be places that demonstrate shalom in the sense of harmony within the community, peace among students, love and service to one another, and a culture of restoration of differences with others.

 

Footnote

1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. Edited by Clarence W. Joldersma and Gloria Stronks. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.