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Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 7: A-2. Student-specific knowledge

April 19, 2005


A second critical dimension for inclusive teaching is to gather student-specific knowledge. Research in the area of multiple intelligences and learning styles underscores our individual patterns of cognitive strengths and learning style preferences, and suggests that we each - including students - learn differently. As educators, our teaching will be enhanced by a greater understanding and knowledge of our students and their learning needs. Theodore Sizer (1999), in a recent interview, states it plainly: "We cannot teach students well if we do not know them well . . . It is inconvenient that students learn in different ways and that they are attached to differing enthusiasms. But unless we face up to that inconvenience, we will not teach well (pp. 6, 10)."

"To know" students includes learning everything about them that makes them unique: their background information, including previous school experience, family history, medical and psychological records and cultural and linguistic background. It also includes learning about each child's learning preferences and special learning needs, including any developmental disorders they may have. This means that if a student has a learning disability, or has special academic talents, or is unused to English as the medium of instruction, it behooves us as teachers to learn about those exceptionalities. We would not expect all teachers to go into classrooms as experts in specialized fields, but we would expect teachers to be expert at finding out about them.

There are many sources of information about specific students, with some of these described below:

  • School Records: There is a wealth of information about each child contained in previous school records. Patterns of student academic achievement and behavior and patterns of teacher comments can be gleaned to provide valuable information about the child's educational history. See whether other teachers have noticed similar student behaviors. Check also for previous school testing.
  • Health Records: If there are suspected health problems check school health records and follow up with school health professionals and parents. Check for recent vision and hearing tests.
  • Reports: As well as school records, students may come with reports from external agencies. These may include medical reports and psychological evaluations. While the language of these reports is sometimes specialized, often the consulting doctor or psychologist is willing to clarify anything that may be unclear in the report and offer suggestions as to how the findings work.
  • Previous Teachers: The turnover rate of teachers and students in international schools is often high. However, if the previous teacher(s) and the student continue within the same school, last year's teachers are helpful in putting the child's learning needs into perspective.
  • Specialists: Some international schools are fortunate to have ESL, LD and HC specialists on staff, and these individuals should be perceived as tremendous resources for the community. Stevens (1997) suggests three reasons why classroom teachers need to confer with specialists: "to solve problems that are preventing the student from succeeding; to make major decisions about therapy, program and placement; and to report progress and adjustments of the program (p. 115)." Her book Classroom Success for the LD/ADHD Child has many practical suggestions for how class teachers might interact with specialists for maximum benefit to the child and points out the need for specificity and precision with language in such interactions. According to Stevens, an exceptional child in a regular class is a group project and requires a team approach.
  • Parents: It goes without saying that parents are experts about their children and can be quite willing to share this knowledge with teachers. Frequently, however, if parents have residual fears of teachers stemming from their own previous difficulties at school, they may be quite reluctant to come for a conference. Stevens (1997) urges teachers to speak "plain English" when dealing with parents and to treat them gently, reminding us that very few adults ever get over their fear of teachers (p. 140). Teachers in international schools are also well aware of cultures in which parent conferences are viewed only as meetings to discuss the misbehavior of a child. In such cases where the parents also speak English as a second or third language, there is much room for misunderstanding. It is always a good idea to establish a relationship with all parents early in the year to help bridge the distance resulting from adult fears of school.
  • Students: Ask the students! Students often know what they need to learn more effectively and will make it explicit when given the opportunity. An instrument that helps students and teachers identify student interests is The Interest-A-Lyzer (Renzulli, 1997), available from Creative Learning Press, or the interest survey presented in Teaching Kids With Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom (Winebrenner, 1996).
  • Observations: In-class observations frequently yield information about a child's preferred learning style and helps teachers to focus on any specific learning needs. A handy reference on observational methods and recording styles can be found in the Instructor's Manual of Idol and West's (1993) Effective Instruction of Difficult-to-Teach Students. In it the authors give a brief description of the various types of observations (e.g. of student work, of events, etc.) as well as how to define behaviors for observational purposes (e.g. talking out, on-task behavior, etc.). They also describe the dimensions along which data might be collected (e.g. by rate, by duration, etc.).

    Observations should focus on overt student behaviors that may indicate problem issues, and problematic behaviors should then be coded. Look for patterns of student behavior, clustering behavior into obvious categories and pose questions for each category of behaviors.

If there are students who have difficulty staying focused and on-task, teach ers will find it useful to document when and in what context attention wanders as well as those situations in which attention is sustained. A log of daily activities, including day of the week and time of day can be very helpful in identifying when, where and under what conditions students' behaviors change.

Another effective and efficient observation technique[1] is to write down observations of students on adhesive labels which can then be transferred into the child's folder. By including the date and the time, teachers (and parents) can later put together a picture or pattern of child behavior during class. During parent conferences, this technique offers not only concrete evidence of student behavior, but also demonstrates the teacher's interest in the child. The latter can be an unspoken but crucial step in forming a parent teacher partnership. While making observations of a full class of 25 children is overwhelming, targeting four or five students per week and putting them on a rota basis for observation makes the task more manageable.

As teachers become more skilled at making observations, patterns of behavior and "early warning signals" will become easier to identify.

[1] The technique described in this section was contributed by Tammy Schaapherder, Beira International School, Mozambique.

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