Среда 3 октября 2012

Опубликовано в печатной версии журнала. Вып. № 5.

Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


current mood: fabulous

keywords: individual differences,
varied levels,
active participation

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As a sci-fi buff, I have often taken my inspiration from a what-if future scenario. Many science fiction movies in the past showed us a society where people’s minds are all joined together in a single collective mind like in the case of the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) — when one person learned something new, the whole collective instantly assimilated the same knowledge. There have even been films that showed that learning a skill or a language is simply a matter of uploading a program like in The Matrix (1999). But still, since none of these fictional scenarios have come to pass in our society, and since all of us are so different from one another, we should try to incorporate different techniques that may give our students the chance to demonstrate their progress.

Today’s students are very different from the students our educational system was designed for. They are exposed to much more information from the media and the digital world at a much faster rate. Their brains process information differently, and they need information to be presented in a diverse way in order for their brains to be able to process it. Children are born with an innate ability to learn and absorb information from the world around them. As they grow and become more cognitively mature, they become unique.

Depending on the socio-economic and cultural variables that may influence their lives and their learning choices, they will demonstrate differences in brain dominance, memory and retention, skills and talents and even speed of learning. Due to advanced technological instruments, we are now aware of the notion of “brain plasticity”, which means that depending on the experiences and the education of each individual there is a unique and complicated network of neural pathways that keeps changing and reforming constantly in each of us. In other words, our students’ brains keep physically changing. Since this is now considered to be a fact, we can now assume that each human brain is as unique and as individual as a fingerprint. However, regardless of their individual differences, students are expected to master the same concepts, principles and skills.

Helping all students succeed in their learning is an enormous challenge that requires innovative thinking.

The neurodevelopmental framework-understanding how the brain works-can serve as an organizing structure to help teachers understand learning and learners. We can no longer presume to teach so many different and possibly more advanced minds by simply using techniques devised in the previous century. Research on neuroscience, cognitive psychology, child and adolescent development and related fields about how the brain functions and how these functions affect student learning and performance at any point in a student’s development has steered us all on a very different journey to the one we set out on decades ago. Since childhood, a scene from a very old science fiction series back in the 1970s called Battlestar Galactica has been carved in my mind, in which I remember seeing a classroom aboard a spaceship where the students were being taught History. They were split into groups with different assignments each and different means — such as interactive desks and holographic projectors — at their disposal. I remember thinking, “Why can’t my classroom be like this, too? If it were, it would save the teacher’s energy and the lesson would be so much more stimulating for all of us!”

Now, many years later, I understand that as teachers we need to recognize that different students enjoy doing different types of activities. Some prefer more creative and challenging activities, which trigger their interest and curiosity, while others prefer more well-structured, guided task types, which leave little space for personal expression. With this in mind, we need to consider the varied levels of readiness, learning needs and interests of each student. Teachers can do this most effectively by using a range of tools, including technology, to engage learners at varying levels of readiness in multiple ways and by offering students options to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of the material.

Having observed a range of classes all around the world, including various age-levels and different educational systems, I realize that there are still teachers who focus on the tree and miss the forest. Sometimes there is too much valuable time lost in less important tasks that should simply serve as building blocks instead of focusing on the more important activities that would address the needs of the class. Time spent on activities that require every single student to do or say the same thing can often prove extremely boring to both observer and participants. Sadly, I have also observed a tendency to reward the more enthusiastic students who perform better in the chosen tasks, while the students who do not show the same level of enthusiasm are generally ignored or negatively categorized.

However, as we should all know lack of motivation to participate, or even to perform better in a class, is not something that students are always directly responsible for. This could sometimes simply be the result of lack of appropriate process of information or lack of understanding. It could be the side-effect of a learning difficulty, or lack of challenge. The chosen activities themselves might appear uninteresting and uninviting to the more creative students. Content and information processing may have a different impact on different students.

While some students may prefer to listen to a dialogue or read a text about an exotic festival, others may prefer to talk about a festival in their country or conduct online research to find information related to a festival of their choice. It is important that we provide the opportunity for students to find their own way of expressing their thoughts in order to participate.

We all agree that reading and writing tasks are essential, but let’s not put aside all the many other ways of stimulating young minds. Music, poetry, literature and drama also hold the key to unlocking a treasure of stimuli: they are not merely for reading and writing purposes! They are a rich source for a varied approach to learning. Instead of merely using them for reading and writing, we should be asking the students to utilize them for performance and improvisation, especially in the case of dialogues and exchanges. The purpose of learning a language is not only to pass an exam, or answer a comprehension question, or fill in a cloze text; it is also to be confident and comfortable enough to use English in real life situations. Given the chance, and free from constant spoon-feeding and instruction, children are apt to amaze you with their creative ability, and the classroom should be an arena for this. This is not to say we let them run rampage as creativity needs to also be based on a solid foundation!

This is why a variety of techniques is necessary if we are to unleash each and every student’s full potential. Current educational systems largely focus on indicators, test scores and teacher performance, while there is a shortage of discussion of how we can exploit what is known about how students learn in our efforts to improve the quality of learning. While exams continue to be an important part of school life, we must not ignore the fact that exam-taking focuses on only a fraction of the ways in which children learn.

Therefore, our role as educators is to support teachers and provide opportunities for them to discover the many ways students learn. Once teachers take on board the latest research on how the students of today learn best, we will begin to see disengaged students decreasing in number and the tragic underperformance of students in our schools disappearing. The need for tasks and materials designed with a multiple intelligence orientation is crucial if we, as educators, have the desire to encourage the individual rather than instruct the masses.

Targeting an individual student’s intelligence with consideration of gender, cultural background and recognition of the preferred learning styles is a challenge that today’s teachers must rise to.

Effective teaching requires providing maximum opportunities for all students to learn as well as providing the necessary learning environment and learning experiences that enable students to learn through making meaning from experience. To achieve success, we need to create a supportive climate in which students feel comfortable asking questions and contributing to lessons, without inhibition or fear of ridicule. It is also our duty to provide lessons during which students can actively participate in and to determine when and how we need to adjust our presentations, learning tasks and assessment tasks to match all levels and needs.

Differentiated learning “is not a strategy — it’s a total way of thinking about learners, teaching and learning.”[1]


[1] Tomlinson, C. A. (2000, August). Differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades. ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document No. ED443572). http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED443572.pdf/a>


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