How do teachers cope with? 1) Different learning needs

go Parents frequently express admiration for the skill of their child’s teachers, and wonder how they manage to cope under sometimes difficult circumstances.

http://bayousolar.com/bottega-veneta-auction-228.html I’ve therefore decided to write a short series about how teachers cope with the some of the conditions that they meet every day in their classrooms.

see First, how do teachers manage to teach a class of children who have a wide range of individual learning needs?

Historically, we need only go back a few decades to a time when teachers did not have the skills to ‘differentiate’ (that is the term used for it) for the learning needs of every child in the class. Some schools tried to account for differences by ‘streaming’ children into separate classes or groups according to ‘ability’. This was a crude device, not based on research evidence, that may have suited some teachers (many others knew better!) but did not meet the children’s needs.

Today, in many classrooms teachers have learned the essential knowledge and skills needed to accommodate for different needs in order to enable every child to succeed. The skills of differentiation are one of the hallmarks of a great teacher.

There are different models of planning for differentiation, and below I will summarize just one. Like all models it is based upon the fact that the teacher knows how each of her students learns, and that she also has a deep knowledge of the curriculum.

The planning model for a unit of lessons works as follows:

  1. The teacher sets the same high expectations for every child. The learning goals are the same for all. No child is ‘written off’ as incapable. (Just imagine how you would feel if that child being ‘written off’ was your own son or daughter!)
  2. Every child’s final work is assessed against the same criteria. The teacher wants every child to acquire the same deep knowledge.
  3. Children may be allowed to demonstrate their understanding in different ways. The teacher may give the children two or three ways to show that they have understood what they have been expected to learn. This won’t always happen; for example, sometimes the teacher may ask every child to write an essay or draw an annotated diagram. But consider this: if a child is just learning to speak English, how can the teacher expect him to write an essay to show that he has understood? There are countless reasons why children may benefit from having a choice of ways to show that they have understood. But all children are expected –eventually – to meet the same criteria!
  4. When the teacher first introduces the students to the subject to be learned the teacher may give them a choice of initial learning activities. Not always, but sometimes. The skill of the teacher lies in knowing where and when to give the students a ‘menu’ of learning activities and choose the one they prefer.

That’s how teachers plan for differentiation. If this is the first time you have seen this model, you may have noticed that the end (the learning goal) comes first! That’s not a mistake: it is called ‘backward planning’. It’s the same process, for example, that athletes, generals and company directors use: they all start by visualizing the desired result.

There are some circumstances in which the classroom teacher’s differentiation skills may not be sufficient, for example in the case of a child with very severe learning or physical needs. In such cases specialist teaching and support may be required. But increasingly, children with even the most severe needs are being integrated into the same schools and classrooms as their peers.

One last point: you may think that your child’s teacher does not differentiate for your own child’s learning needs. However, maybe the teacher is doing this but hasn’t told you about it. Just ask!

Thank you

P.S. if you’d like to find out more about how teachers differentiate in their classrooms, you could refer to the work of the following experts: Carol Ann Tomlinson, Jay McTighe, Ochan Kusuma-Powell and William Powell. There are many others, but these will be a great place to start.

The role of memory in your child’s learning.

Modern approaches to education have moved away from the expectation that children should learn vast tracts of information by heart and be able to reproduce or recite it whenever called upon to do so.  We should be grateful for that!

However, the opposite extreme is possibly even worse. This is the belief that children should not have to store any information in their brains because everything is available at the click of an internet button. This idea is not helpful. In reality the brain needs to store information because information is the raw material of knowledge-building. Put another way, the brain needs to remember information in order to think. Fortunately, the brain is rather good at this, but we need to give it a helping hand.

One theory of how our memories work is called the multi-store memory theory. This theory posits that the brain has three levels of information storage, as follows:

  1. The ‘sensory memory’ is what the brain remembers of what we see and hear around us. This is extremely short term. We forget these things almost instantly, within three seconds at the longest. That is a blessing! Can you imagine if you could remember everything you ever saw or heard in your life? We may be unreliable witnesses in court cases, but at least we retain our sanity!
  2. The ‘short-term memory’ is our working memory. This is the memory we use when we are thinking. We cannot hold much in our short-term memory, and only for a short period of time. This is why when we are researching a topic from a book we keep having to return to the book to re-acquaint ourselves with the information that we have already forgotten. We can remember small chunks of information that we can ‘rehearse’ (repeat to ourselves) within a time limit of a second or two (such as a telephone number) but beyond that we soon lose it. However, there is a solution to this problem: we can transfer the information to our long-term memory.
  3. The ‘long-term memory’ lasts forever. It is only cut short by accidents to the brain or by diseases such as dementia. The problem is that we are not very efficient at uploading information into our long-term memory for storage. Nor are we very good at down-loading it again when we need to use the information in our short-term memory in order to think. That is why children – and adults – find learning so difficult!

The multi-store theory of memory has several implications for parents and teachers wanting to help their children become good learners. Here are three of those implications:

First, if you overload the child with too many facts when she is trying to learn something new, she will not remember it. The short-term memory cannot cope. The learning will be lost forever.

Secondly, if teachers and parents teach facts alone, their children will not be able to use this information for thinking effectively even if they manage to transfer lots of these facts to their long-term memory. It will be useless information, because the facts are random and not linked together. That is why teachers and parents should help their children remember facts within the framework of higher level concepts. Concepts are like the drawers in an office filing system, making knowledge easy to find and use. Here is an example: If you teach a child lots of facts about the various ways in which we generate electricity, she will almost certainly forget most of it. But if she is taught about the methods of generating electricity within the wider concept of ‘energy is convertible from one form to another’, she will have a framework in which to remember the facts. The facts will make sense to her. She will be able to use her knowledge in any situation,  and approach new learning on the subject at any time in the future.

Thirdly, do not think that your child cannot thing conceptually just because she is rather young or because it concepts are ‘difficult’. They are not. By not teaching at a conceptual level we place limits on our children, something good schools and knowledgeable parents never, ever do.

If you’d like to learn more about all this, you may wish to refer to the books mentioned below.

Thank you

Hattie J., and Yates G. (2014). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. This is a wonderful book that I have mentioned before. It is based on the latest research in many areas of student learning, and is arranged in short and highly readable chapters.

Jean Piaget (1970). Genetic epistemology. This and Piaget’s other writings are absolute classics. His research on children’s cognitive development remains a bedrock of modern education. However – Piaget is not such an easy read!