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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 4: Teaching in Inclusive Classrooms


Parents and colleagues have commented that including within the mainstream classroom children with special needs (any youngster perceived as requiring significant teacher attention) somehow diminishes teacher care for other "regular" students in the class. Teachers have asked how they might go about accommodating for such a wide range of ability within a single class, teach to the whole class and still focus on individual student needs. We have found that Caine & Caine's (1991; 1997) 12 brain/mind learning principles derived from neuroscience research, provide a sound theoretical framework to guide teaching in the inclusive classroom. They are:
  1. The brain is a complex adaptive system. Inclusive teachers recognize that a multitude of mental processes - thoughts, emotions, imagination, pre-dispositions - operate and interact simultaneously.

"On Wednesday morning we stopped our Theory of Knowledge class suddenly and unexpectedly. We asked all students to take a 'single snapshot' of what they were actually thinking about at that moment in time - what was literally "on their minds," - and write it down. The topic that had been under discussion was the role of conformity in ethical decision making. Most of the students mentioned moral judgment in some shape or form, but the range of other related topics was nothing short of incredible. For example, Farah had connected peer pressure with her younger sister who was in trouble at school once again. She was wondering how she would support her sister in front of her parents, and, at the same time, she was debating whether to audition for the school play (her friends had encouraged her to, but she would have to sing; her conservative Muslim parents might not approve and she had examinations coming up). And if she did audition, for what part would she read?

Farah was one of 22 students in the class. The magnitude of cognitive and emotional activity that was going on was nothing short of staggering."
                                                                                                                                       Teacher's Journal, 1998

Employing the entire physiology also significantly increases the likelihood of conceptual understanding. A creative Middle School science teacher had her class of 8th graders role play the circulatory system. Each student was assigned a part to play - some as red blood cells or white blood cells, others as oxygen, etc. After several tries, the class got the system right and the teacher was able to announce, "The patient has survived!" By utilizing a role playing strategy in an innovative way, this science teacher ensured that each student understood the roles of specific elements within the circulatory system.

  1. The brain is a social brain. Learning and behavior is influenced by our social relatioships. Our minds develop and change as we engage with others and with our environment, so that each of us can be perceived as parts of larger social systems. Social interactions are thus natural sources of energy that can be harnessed for learning in inclusive settings.

An 11th grader with a long history of academic and behavioral problems came to the International School of Tanganyika after having been expelled from several schools in his native country. The son of divorced parents, Leigh came to Tanzania to live with his father and stepmother when his own mother became so fed up with his behavior that he was no longer welcome in her home. The first semester in his new school was rough for all concerned - on the home front, the father and stepmother had never lived with an adolescent before, and had to quickly develop new patterns of behavior for family living. Leigh himself had never lived in a household where he had to obey rules. And then there was school. Leigh was expected to attend class, abide by school rules, and achieve a specified grade point average in order to stay in school. There were numerous tense meetings between Leigh and his teachers and between Leigh's father and the school.

But things slowly got better. Leigh even discovered in the next few months that he had a love of mathematics, and strove to obtain the highest marks possible in that class. At the end of Grade 12, Leigh was able to graduate with his class and obtained a full high school diploma.

When asked what was the difference between this school and his previous one, Leigh said, "At this school, everyone wants to be here and everyone studies. At my old school, no one cared if we were in school or not." The social interactions in Leigh's new school milieu had had a profound effect on how he perceived school.

3. The search for meaning is innate. Human beings are hard-wired for learning. We are as unable to stop learning as we are unable to stop breathing. And for good reason - for the past 20,000 years, our survival as a species depended upon our individual ability to learn and to learn quickly. Curiosity is essential to survival (Wolfe & Brandt, 1998; Le Doux, 1996) and historically, thinking was all that separated mankind from extinction. And so it should come as no surprise that we have no choice whether to learn.

Today, our physical survival is rarely dependent upon making immediate sense of meaning from our experiences, environment and relationships; but our social, economic and even spiritual survival often is.

The brain makes meaning naturally and if information is relevant, knowledge is constructed effortlessly. If, on the other hand, information is not linked to a student's prior frame of reference, if data is fragmented and unconnected, the process of learning is as unnatural as asking water to flow uphill.

We cannot stop the learning process, although as teachers, we can help to channel and focus it in our students. We know that the learner's consciousness automatically registers the familiar, but also relentlessly hunts for what is strange and novel. We are fascinated by what is new and challenging. When our lessons are exciting and complex and as lifelike as possible, combining a rich environment with meaningful challenges, we harness the naturally occurring energy in learning. When a student asks, "Why do we have to learn quadratic equations?" his question should be perceived as a part of his personal quest for meaning, not as a challenge to the teacher. Caine and Caine (1991) state that most of the creative methods used for teaching gifted students should be applied to all students (p. 81).

4. The search for meaning occurs through "patterning." Learning is a process of active construction by the learner, seeking connections between the new and the known (Wolfe & Brandt, 1998). For a long time, we have presented curriculum to students in isolated fragments as separate academic subjects, and left it to the student to find the connections between different curricular areas. Ironically, by the time students are actually able to make these connections on their own, educational systems in many parts of the world are demanding that they specialize!

Patterning is the process by which information is linked and connected, deliberately organized and categorized into knowledge. The brain is capable of both identifying patterns (evolution, relativity, Freudian psychosexual theory, etc.) and actually creating patterns (Hamlet, The Magic Flute, apartheid, etc.).

Traditionally, many schools have ignored patterning, especially at the secondary school level. How often have we heard our contemporaries describe the surprise with which they came to realize that the romantic movement in poetry corresponded in time and themes to a similar movement in music and in art?

Inclusive teachers recognize that learners need to find meaningful patterns. They create opportunities for each student to extract patterns from content and prompt the making of connections between subjects. Recently, we have seen the emphasis on patterning in interdisciplinary studies, particularly the "areas of interaction" within the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, the whole language approach to reading, and the development of "units of inquiry" in the IB Primary Years Program.

5. Emotions are critical to patterning. As students, we were sometimes told to "leave our emotions at the door" when we entered the classroom for learning. We now know that it is impossible to separate emotions from cognition (Pert, 1997). Thus, while it is easy for emotional information to invade our conscious thoughts, it is hard to gain conscious control over our emotions (Le Doux, 1996). Admonitions to "leave emotions at the door" are unreasonable and unworkable.

When we asked a series of adult colleagues and friends to remember the most meaningful teacher from their own school days, they inevitably selected an educator for whom they had an emotional tie, not necessarily someone they liked at the time, but someone who showed a genuine personal interest in them and who was sincerely respectful of them as individuals. Often, these "significant teachers" were described as creating a classroom climate that was inclusive, caring and trusting, but not necessarily so comfortable that challenge faded into complacency. These were teachers who, for the most part, were in touch with the feelings and attitudes of their students.

When a student is depressed, upset or has diminished self-esteem, these emotional conditions may influence learning. The research on stress and its effects on memory formation (Le Doux, 1996; Sapolsky, 1999) suggest that the influence can be profound and long lasting (Goleman, 1995) - especially when stress or depression are in effect over prolonged periods. Inclusive teachers recognize the importance of emotions in learning and provide support both in and out of the classroom.

6. Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes. The brain is simultaneously analytic and synthesizing. At the same time, it can reduce information to its component parts and bring fragments of data together into a coherent pattern.

Primate researcher Jane Goodall tells of when she first arrived at Gombe Stream to study chimpanzees. Until then, the classic anthropological feature that distinguished humankind from our primate cousins was that man was seen to be a tool maker and a tool user. This was mankind's defining characteristic. During the course of one of her early observations, Jane Goodall recorded chimpanzees using long blades of grass to extract termites from a mound. Realizing that what she had observed went contrary to what was "known," Goodall sent an excited telegram to her mentor, Louis Leakey in Nairobi. Leakey replied with wry humor: given what she had observed, science would now either need to change the definition of "tool" or "man".

The parts and the whole are conceptually interactive.

In presenting a lesson, it never fails to surprise us which aspects of the lesson different students will announce that they enjoyed. Invariably, some students will focus on the whole while others focus on specific events within the lesson. It is very likely that each "type" of student would have difficulty learning if either the whole or the parts were overlooked in the planning of the lesson. Our brains process wholes and parts simultaneously and interactively, and curricular units need to be well-planned so that concepts are interwoven over time to develop student knowledge.

7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception. What we absorb as learners comes both from our direct field of attention as well as our peripheral vision. We extract what we may consider to be important and focus on it while we monitor the context (Sylwester, 1995).

When Ochan was teaching her psychology students the difference between sensation and perception, Bill purposely interrupted a lecture on the structure of the human eye by entering the classroom with a large, plastic shopping bag. He walked directly to the front of the room and extended the shopping bag to Ochan. As she reached out for the bag, Bill released it and the bag fell to the ground. Without attempting to pick it up, Bill turned on his heels and walked out of the classroom, leaving Ochan to retrieve the bag and its contents from the floor. Ochan then resumed her lecture. Several minutes later, Bill returned to the classroom, and together, Bill and Ochan asked the students to write two separate lists - one list of what they had observed in the handing over of the shopping bag and one list of what they had perceived.

When the students came to understand that we had staged the handing over of the shopping bag, their relief was evident in their laughter. "I thought you and Mr. Powell had had a fight this morning," said one student. Another added: "I thought you were getting a divorce."

Much of the meaning we construct, even illusory correlations like the example above, comes from our " peripheral vision." Every stimulus we encounter is linked with a treasure trove of complex associations that we carry into the present from our personal histories.

We are able to take advantage of peripheral perception when we organize the environment and teaching materials in a way that acknowledges the learning potential that lies beyond the direct field of attention. The importance of peripheral learning is understood intuitively by early childhood educators who fill their classroom walls with language-rich displays, labels and posters, confident that constant exposure to these abstract symbols will help young children ultimately to crack the code of reading.

8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes. As teachers, we frequently recognize only that content which we intentionally present and may be unaware of other unconscious learning that may be taking place. Researchers such as Le Doux (1996) consider that it is only the outcome of cognitive and emotional processing that enters conscious awareness, and then only in some instances.

We now know that students learn a great deal more than the relatively narrow band of what the teacher had planned, or, and perhaps even more importantly, what the student had consciously understood. We know that we can teach a child to play the flute, swim the length of the school pool, or write an expository essay. We are also aware that at the same time as the child is learning these skills, she is unconsciously developing dispositions and attitudes towards them. A child can learn to sing on key and learn to hate singing at the same time (Caine & Caine, 1991). These dispositions are critical to continued learning.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the power and influence of unconscious processing. How many times have we deliberately suspended conscious thought on a particularly thorny problem in order to "sleep on it" only to find that our unconscious processes have provided a new perspective and solution to the issue.

When students reflect on what they have learned as well as how they have learned it, they are more likely to create personal meanings for themselves. Our teaching needs to be designed to take advantage of both the conscious as well as the unconscious.

9. We have at least two ways of organizing memory. There are many models of memory that exist, but essentially there are two types of memory, one that is natural (spatial and autobiographical) and does not require much in the way of rehearsal, e.g. a description of what the student had for breakfast that morning or the recollection of the plot of an interesting movie; and another type of memory, referred to as 'taxon memory' (Caine & Caine, 1991), or semantic, declarative knowledge (Marzano, 1992; Sylwester, 1995; Le Doux, 1996) which requires recall of relatively unrelated information, e.g. the multiplication tables, irregular French verbs, or the sequence of the alphabet. Unfortunately, much of the supposed academic rigor that parents often expect for their children from quality schools relates directly to their own memories of the "hard work" involved in the memorization of unrelated data. While there is no question that use of taxon memory is important, teaching that focuses heavily on rote learning almost certainly ignores relevance and critical thinking (application and transference).

Much of what we present as content in class is unrelated to students' personal knowledge or experience and as such is difficult for them to associate and integrate in meaningful categories and procedures. By ignoring the student's pre-existing frame of reference, we may actually be inhibiting effective learning.

10. Learning is developmental. Our brains are shaped both by our experiences as well as from predetermined sequences of development in childhood. While there is no limit to our capacity for growth and continued learning, there are opportunities which are better introduced to children at a very young age, e.g. the arts and new languages, to take advantage of developmental stages at their optimum.

A student transferred into our Grade 6 from a local Tanzanian school where she had studied all her life. Coming from a school system where the curriculum was focused on rote memorization of facts across a narrow range of subjects, this was Bini's first introduction to art and music classes as well as to lab sciences. Through such exposure, Bini discovered she had a love and a talent for music which had been dormant until then. After graduating from high school, Bini went on to do a degree in music at Oberlin and later reflected that changing schools in Grade 6 had changed her life forever.

11. Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat. Richard Lavoie (1990), in the "F.A.T. City" video on the frustrations, anxieties and tensions experienced by learning disabled children, shows clearly how stress can serve to shut down the brain to the point where individuals are no longer able to respond even to simple questions. This type of "downshifting" of the brain not only occurs in children with learning disabilities, but in all people who feel threatened or anxious. (Many of us have had the experience of standing at the blackboard in front of a class and being unable to recall the spelling of a commonly used word.)

However, we also know that students learn optimally when appropriately challenged. Psychologists have shown that challenge is as necessary for cognitive growth as nutrition is for physical growth (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). As inclusive teachers, we need to create for students a state of comfortable discomfort, or relaxed alertness (Caine & Caine, 1991) that is low in threat and high in challenge.

12. Every brain is uniquely organized. How many of our school mission statements contain a sentence about the uniqueness of each and every child, and how often do we actually consider the classroom implications of that uniqueness? That consideration is at the heart of inclusion.

Learning changes the structure of the brain - not just in terms of what we know or what we can do - learning actually changes the brain physiologically. The more we learn, the more unique our brain becomes. One of the immense challenges of the craft of teaching is to plan and deliver a lesson for a class of 20 unique brains.

Every student, whether "regular" or "special" has his own unique set of experiences and preferred learning styles. Inclusive teachers understand this and teach to varying modalities (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) and to differing intelligences (Armstrong, 1994; Gardner, 1993). Inclusive teachers provide a range of choices so that individual students can make optimal use of the way their own brains function best.

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