One of the biggest challenges facing educators today is how to go about meeting the needs of individual learners. Educational discourse today centers, to a greater degree than at any time in the past, on such concepts as individualized learning and differentiated instruction. I’m don’t know for sure whether in the students we are teaching today are in fact a whole lot different, in terms of their relative abilities or disabilities, or their relative inclination or disinclination to buy into what we aspire to teach them, than they were, say, thirty years ago. My hunch is that in fact they are. Certainly I’ve seen a lot more students in recent years who state flat out that they dislike reading and, given the choice, would prefer not to have to do it at all. Where this comes from is, it appears, anybody’s guess. Less time with primary caregivers and more time in preschools? Lots more time watching television and less time sitting in someone’s lap reading a book? Too many distractions (video games, DVD’s, cell phones, laptops? Organized sports programs from first grade on up)? A cultural shift away from print and toward images? Everyone’s got an opinion. Nobody knows.
In what many teachers and parents would like to think of as the good old days, you could count on some basic assumptions. Even kids who struggled with reading or with math would at least concede that the struggle was necessary. I was talking to a grade seven teacher two years ago, who has since retired, and she told me that for the first time she had students showing up in her class who were simply declaring “Well, I’m not a reader. I’m not into that.” That feels like something new to me: the idea that a student would feel it was acceptable to simply opt out. I don’t do reading. So sue me.
Throughout my teaching career I’ve tried to be responsive to the individual needs and learning styles of all of my students. Most of the adaptions I have made have been guided by instinct rather than a solid grounding in educational research. I’ve always tried to frame my classes, and my assignments, in such a way that there are multiple ways for students to demonstrate what they know and what they care about. I’ve tried to provide them on the one hand with carefully sequenced activities that build reading and writing and thinking skills through a variety of modalities: reading, writing, speaking, listening, moving, looking. On the other hand, I’ve tried to create spaces for student choices about what to read and what to write about and what kinds of projects they want to do and how they want to be assessed. I’ve tried to balance individual activities for the kids who like those to collaborative group activities for those who like those.
And most of the time, for most of the students, it’s worked. By and large, I’m proud of the work my students have produced, and I think that even in the worst case scenarios I have managed to send the struggling students away untraumatized by their experience in my classes.
But now I’m out of the classroom, in a K-12 supervisory role, and I’m a little reluctant to continue to rely on gut instinct. When teachers, or parents, or kids, or visitors from other schools come to visit our school, I think we need to be able to come up with a better explanation of why we are doing what we are doing to meet the needs of individual learners than, “Whatever feels right.” Which is why I’ve embarked a reading program for myself on differentiated learning and the development of 21st century skills, and why I’ve been attending a number of workshops and presentations on these subjects. And so far, it’s been a little discouraging, because despite the enormous amount of time and energy and resources that have been devoted to these questions nationwide, and despite the knowledge that we have been accumulating about the physiology of the brain over the last twenty years, the answers to the basic questions remain murky. There isn’t a whole lot of black and white. Everything is shades of grey.
Take ADHD, for example. Just the other day I was at a workshop where a presenter (who was excellent, by the way) presented the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. After checking the audience of parents and educators to see if there was anyone present who was prepared to make the argument that ADHD is bunk, and getting no takers, she gave us a handout with the clinical rundown:
Diagnostic Criteria for ADHD:
Six (or more) of the following symptoms of inattention have persisted for at least six months to a degree that is maladaptive and inconsistent with developmental level:
- often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
- often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
- often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
- often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
- often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
- often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort
- often loses things necessary for tasks or activities
- is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
- is often forgetful in daily activities.
Now, I’m sure this is a useful list and I’m sure it’s the product of many an hour of rigorous debate in whatever committees were responsible for its generation. But what strikes me as I look at it from my point of view as an educator are its many overlapping zones of indeterminacy, the grey areas. That word “often,” for example. How often is “often”? My wife can testify that I myself meet every criterion on the list often enough to get her attention. Pretty much everyone does some of the things on this list some of the time. So how much is enough? Why six of the symptoms? Would the efficacy of the diagnostic criteria be significantly compromised if the number were five? Or seven? And who makes the call about those matters of degree? What exactly do we mean by “maladaptive?” Given the many variations in developmental levels even at the same age within different parts of the brain, how far out does a symptom have to be to be adjudged “inconsistent with developmental level?”
From a purely practical level its important to have some kind of working definition so that students can be identified as in need of particular services or adaptions such as extended time for testing or remedial assistance. But I would suspect that the diagnoses that result from this particular instrument have an awful lot to do with the point of view of the person doing the assessment.
Or, for another example, take dyslexia. Throughout the forty years of my teaching career I had been under the impression that dyslexia was one particular kind of organic learning disorder. But Maryanne Wolf has this to say, in the book I recommended in a previous post:
As we embark on the study of dyslexia we find very quickly that it is an intrinsically messy enterprise. There are at least three sets of reasons: the complex requirements for a reading brain; the fact that so many disciplines have been involved in its study; and the perplexing juxtaposition of singular strengths and devastating weaknesses in individuals with dyslexia… What’s missing, ironically, is a single, universally accepted definition of dyslexia itself. Some researchers eschew the term “dyslexia” altogether and use more general descriptions such as “reading disabilities” or “learning disabilities.” And despite the fact that Plato and the ancient Greeks were aware of the phenomenon, there are some who still argue dyslexia doesn’t exist. (167-8)
Well, great. That’s certainly good to know, but not necessarily helpful. But that’s where I am at the start of this particular educational odyssey: in a grey room in a grey building. If and when I find myself encountering some primary colors, I’ll be passing them along.