Meeting diverse learning needs

Neeraja Raghavan

THINKING TEACHER (http://thinkingteacher.in/) brings to you a series called IN THE STAFFROOM through TEACHER PLUS.

Ideally, teachers should be able to discuss (over a cup of tea, maybe?) several academic as well as classroom management issues in the staff room. However, we know that this is seldom possible due to the rush-rush-rush of a teacher’s day. Therefore, we felt that the sort of discussion which should ideally take place in the staff room (but perhaps doesn’t, as often as it should,) could easily happen in the leisurely pages of Teacher Plus.

As in any discussion, everything depends upon the richness of participation. While we have sparked off the first discussion in this issue with a question that THINKING TEACHER actually solicited, the discussion will roll on only if you, dear reader, pitch in with your own questions and responses. You must have many issues that call for discussion – it could be help with an issue that you are facing, e.g. a particular concept that you wish to master, or an innovative pedagogy that you are searching for – in order to teach that concept, or a Classroom management issue, etc.

Email your question to thinkingteacher22@gmail.com.

Once we receive these queries, we will post one in the next issue of Teacher Plus as well as on www.thinkingteacher.in – for readers to respond with their thoughts.

So step into this staff room, sip that cup of tea and join this discussion.

Our discussion this month was triggered by Sitalakshmi Natarajan of Rishi Valley School. She posed a question that many other teachers resonated with strongly:
In my 15 years of teaching across different levels, the following question has been my constant companion – Good students seem to do well despite the teachers. How do we, during our teaching hours, reach out to and help academically weak students? How do we differentiate instruction in classroom more effectively according to the needs of each student?

As we sent out this question to teachers across the country, we found that most respondents admitted that they had themselves been grappling with this question all through their teaching career! [Even as we write this, some teachers are still trying hard to articulate their response.] Eventually, almost all agreed that there is no single answer to this question.

As Indrani Barua put it: My answers may not apply to other situations and other teachers. We all have to find our own ways out, haven’t we?

So, do read the rich responses that slowly rolled in, bearing this in mind.

We could group the responses under three broad heads:

  • Examining the question
  • Pedagogical strategies/attitudinal changes in the teacher
  • Administrative support in the school

teachers-meeting Examining the question
In the first of these three categories, Geetha Iyer (26 years’ teaching experience) articulated it thus:
Who are good students? Those who sit quietly and let the teacher go on and on and memorize so as to repeat verbatim? So, by good students are we referring to those who are submissive and well behaved and learn exactly what the adult wants them?

Or are ‘good students’ those who will ask smart, intelligent questions in class, sometimes ‘wowing’ the teacher and yet once outside the class forget a lot of what happened in the classroom, to do what pleases them most? This may not result in doing well in exams but doing well in what interests them! Are they not good students?

She adds: The question starts with a certain confusion. And this confusion of semantics is the reason why we are not able to reach out to all students in our class. Once the semantics in education is cleared, learning will be a smoother process…

Aruna V Jyothi (21 years’ teaching experience) elaborated on the terms used in the question thus:

  1. The common misconception about differentiated instruction is that it is about catering to each and every child.
  2. The instruction needs to be differentiated to cater to different learner types and needs, and not to each and every child’s needs.
  3. Once the instruction/concept is introduced and taught in different ways, as many learners will be able to relate to it (simple because we all learn in different ways). This will ensure that as many students get actively involved and engaged with the material.
  4. If even after this there are children who are falling behind, then we get into catering to individual needs by giving individual attention by identifying their problems.

Indrani Barua (with over 20 years’ experience) has vividly described her initial approach as resulting from precisely such a misunderstanding:
In the initial years of teaching I was able to spot slow learners after an entire week of taking classes. That was terrible! The rest of the year was spent with this fixed idea that I needed to treat these kids differently – through easy tasks, talking down to them, extra coaching, even ‘baby-talking’. The very thought makes me blush even now! I had actually already defeated the slow learners by my differential treatment. Once they understood my unconscious labelling, they gave up trying.

It took me years to get out of this rut. Slowly I understood the folly of what I was doing. It actually takes an iron will not to show your feelings about any student however much you are disturbed by his/her slowness. Then you start comparing that person’s progress with the progress of the other students in your class. Harmful, to say the least!

Strategies
Now, let’s take a look at the second category of responses – those that pertained to classroom practices. Sneha Titus (with over two decades’ experience) wrote in as below:
The very act of reaching out to academically weak students seems to defeat the purpose, as being singled out for such attention sends their already shaky confidence nose-diving to new lows. After many such attempts, I realized that my efforts needed to be much more subtle and should have – as a primary objective – ways in which to increase the student’s confidence. At about the same time I attended a workshop by Charlie Gilderdale – here I was introduced to the concept of ‘low floor, high ceiling tasks’. I found that this was a great way to deliver differentiated instruction subtly. What it involves is the creation of a task which starts off fairly simply. The initial levels can be attempted successfully by all the students in the class. The more able students sail through these levels but the greater advantage is that even the less able students are able to get a start on the problem. This boosts their confidence and sustains their interest. As the task proceeds, the challenge level increases. But the earlier steps provide the scaffolding that can help students attempt these levels. There is also opportunity for students to make conjectures based on observations and even prove these conjectures if they are motivated enough.

Teachers may find the development of such tasks rather challenging but a good collection will prove invaluable. Jo Boaler’s youCubed has started putting together a series of such math tasks which you can access at http://youcubed.org/teachers/2014/back-to-school-tasks/#more-212.

The discussion moved on to sharing of several other strategies, which we will carry in the next issue.

The author is the Founder-Director of Thinking Teacher, an organization that is working towards creating a network of reflective teachers who seek each other’s views on a range of issues pertaining to teaching and learning.