Monday, 6 January 2020

Understanding & Responding to the Diverse Nature of Learners - Principle 11

One of the most depressing things that I observe in schools is the tendency to adopt a core and common curriculum taught using a limited set of teaching methods. Even more depressing is the fact that this approach takes no account of varied learning styles, nor does it consider the individual needs, interests and abilities of the children in the classroom.

The use of curriculum and teaching practices that assume all students are the same, and teaching diverse classes a common program with identical expectations, couldn’t be further from what Christian education should be. God made us as unique and diverse creatures, and this wasn’t by accident. Varying abilities and even learning styles weren’t an unfortunate accident of creation.

All students will have different strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Romans 12:3-18 is the place in Scripture we go to when we think of different spiritual gifts. But just as God has given his people varied spiritual gifts, he has also created us with different abilities, strengths, interests, skills, personalities and so on. The diversity evident in any classroom is extraordinary and needs to be accepted and addressed. This will be demonstrated by using varied methods, techniques and strategies for the varied abilities and gifts we will see represented in our classrooms.

"4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully." (Romans 12:3-8)

 Christian teachers, classrooms, and schools should at least grasp and demonstrate these basic understandings in word and action. We are to do this by responding to, valuing, respecting and building on our children’s varied abilities, skills, 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. We must also develop those who have learning difficulties. God has made our children to be different, hence we need to educate, extend and grow all of our students as learners and people.

Recognising pedagogically that we understand diversity and difference

God delights in us as learners and has given us the ability to learn in varied ways. Learning can occur in formal and informal ways within the family (Deut 6:1–9) and likewise the school. We should use varied methods to accommodate the differences that we observe in our students. The Bible offers many examples of the diverse ways that humans learn, as well as clear and practical examples of how great teachers work. The actions of teachers across the Old and New Testaments demonstrate the varied activities used. These include planning diverse activities that respond to our observations and experiences, a strategy that Jesus used often (e.g. Luke 13:18–21). In other places in Scripture we see how narrative and parables were used to teach (Ezek 17; Luke 8:4–8). On other occasions learning was framed using allegories and metaphor to help learners grasp profound truths (Isa 5:1–7; Ezek 16). Good teachers in the Bible also offered and used first-hand experience to reinforce key learning (Luke 9:1–8; 10:1–20). Learning of course throughout the ages has often occurred within the general activities of life, as discussion and questioning were used by parents and teachers to help children and adults grasp new ideas and concepts (e.g. Luke 24:13–25). The Bible also has many examples of signs and symbolic acts being utilised to bring home significant truths (1 Kgs 11:29–39; Isa 20:1–6).  

In many ways, the above diverse approaches are similar to what the educator would call experience based learning. And of course, direct expository teaching through the spoken and written word is common and needed as well. Do we exercise our freedom to use sound and varied methods that equip our students for the whole of life? This diverse array of models for learning from the Scriptures should encourage us to think broadly about the possibilities for shaping teaching and learning in our classrooms.

In summing up, let me say that experienced teachers know almost intuitively, that just as there are many different and unique learners in every classroom, there are many methods we can use in teaching that match the different types of learners. As I stress often in my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’, and already quite specifically in the 7th Principle, we must never assume that all students are the same. God made us as individuals. No two of us are exactly the same and all have a part to play in God's world (1 Cor 12:27) as well as in any classroom. God also gave each of us different gifts to be used. The Apostle Peter reminds us that each of us “should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet 4:10).

Teachers have a great responsibility to use diverse pedagogy to assist learning and teaching. This is to reflect student diversity, and to encourage the diverse gifts and abilities that we see in our students. With such diversity within our students, it should be obvious that diverse methods are needed to help our students to learn and grow into independent and mature learners.