Teaching Diverse Learners…A World of Different Learners

Nov 13th, 2018 | Category: Columns, Teaching the Different Learner
By Jamie A. Kowalczyk

In this column on “Teaching Diverse Learners,” I ask the reader to problematize the concept of difference. As practitioners, we rightfully spend a bulk of our time focused on meeting the needs of our students through the implementation of appropriate strategies, and as theorists we aim to understand what works and what does not, and why it works or doesn’t. But here, instead, I invite you to pause for a moment to adopt the philosopher’s gaze as Keohane (1976) describes it: While the theorist is watching the “game” to analyze it, the philosopher’s gaze is elsewhere, looking past, underneath and away from the game to understand where and how it fits into some greater whole. Let’s take our eyes off of the “game” of teaching “the different learner” for a moment, and consider difference, the categories and hierarchies it produces, and the power relations that ensue.

So, the first question to ponder is: “Whom is the different learner different from?” Graham and Slee’s (2006) analysis of the discourse on inclusion in education returns again and again to this very question. They examine how seeking to include particular students means first having to recognize them as different and needing to be included. “Different to what? What we do not question (but should) are the assumptions that enable us to think in terms of exceptionalities” (p. 5). In other words, who occupies the privileged space of the normative, unexceptional learner? How do we constitute the normative learner in our theories and our practices?  And finally, what are the power effects of having “the different learner” rather than a world full of all different learners, where difference is itself normative?

In Bernadette Baker’s (2002) “The Hunt for Disability: The New Eugenics and the Normalization of School Children,” she explores how the eugenics movement haunts the categories and logic of education as the hierarchical classifications based on a discourse of normalcy continue to discipline our gaze.  Baker considers the labels that were once used to refer to the “problem populations” and argues,  “These were not just new words–they were ways of enforcing others into the subjectivities assumed associated with the words” (p. 672). She nudges us to question today’s “new words” (p. 676), while acknowledging the pragmatic, and even caring impulse that inspires this production of categories.

There is…no agreement in the disability studies field on whether educational labeling and service-provision models in any form are unilaterally ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather, the questions and criticisms raised revolve around deeper epistemological and ontological issues that preexist debates about services for all children. The questions raised take the complexity of things as their starting point. They assume that pain, suffering, and creativity are real, that privilege is palpable, and that ‘experiences’ and so-called ‘conditions’ or ‘deficiencies’ are constituted through current social relations and institutional structures and are not objectively ‘existing in’ persons. (Baker, 2002, p. 688)

This is my invitation to you: Join me in taking this moment to step back from the numerous decisions we must make when teaching, and consider the complexities that arise when we practice in the name of difference itself. “Why are norms taken for granted as objective? What restricted image of ‘the ideal citizen’ do norms for development embody? How might this devalue those excluded from such images?” (Baker, 2002, p. 688). And,

What power relations inhere in the production of categories such as normal and abnormal? Are these relations worthy of perpetuation? And finally, whether intended or not, is labeling a way of morphing ‘disability’ into the assumptions of an ableist normativity, with all its racial-cultural overtones, rather than questioning certain privileged ontologies and epistemologies to begin with? (p. 689)

That is, why do we privilege certain ways of thinking and being
over others?

Baker next turns the questions onto herself. Let’s do the same: How are these privileged ways of thinking and being embodied in our own teaching? Are our efforts to create spaces for different learners to be included—a move that relies upon identifying the different learners to be included—also a way of re-invoking the very hierarchies and categories that create the privileges tied to norms? I am sympathetic to Baker’s claim that we seem not able to avoid engaging in the effects of power/knowledge because we work in social institutions that have historically enforced practices of surveillance and classification, and because, as thinkers, we are products of those institutions. She ponders if her attempts to “rethink and reshape” (p. 695-696) schools and practices merely reinscribe another privileged norm, and if so, then what? She shows us her answer: she keeps on questioning.

And so I have asked you to walk with me into this cul-de-sac of questioning and more questioning because I believe it is necessary to recognize that this is where we live and teach. It may not be entirely satisfying, but it is the work we are called to: We must be at once in the “game” teaching, watching “the game”  to understand and invent as theorists, and looking past and beyond “the game” to question our most basic assumptions over and over again, and all of it in service to our students and our profession. There are no easy shortcuts and there is nowhere else to go.

Finally, let’s consider one last challenge from Baker (2002) in our inquiry on difference. Before enacting policies and practices for the different learner, we might challenge ourselves to conduct the following thought experiment: “What would happen if before inflicting [policies and practices] on others thought [to be different,] less human, less valuable, less educable, less everything that matters within a school, the whole range of effects of educational policies regarding disability had to hit home through everyone’s sense of self as an outlawed ontology?” (p. 697). In other words, what if we were all subject to those policies and practices recognizing the difference in each of us? As Graham and Slee (2006) call for, perhaps we start our work by (re)thinking the relationship of  “unexceptional” and “exceptional” learners as  just different learners, not in chiaroscuro, but as different together. LEJ


Baker, B. (2002). The hunt for disability: The new eugenics and the normalization of school children. Teachers College Record, 104(4), 663-703.

Graham, L. J. & R. Slee. (2006). Inclusion?. In Proceedings Disability Studies in Education Special Interest Group, American Educational Research Association (AERA) 2005 Annual Conference, San Francisco. Retrieved at https://eprints.qut.edu.au/3832/1/3832_1.pdf

Keohane, N. O. (1976). Philosophy, theory, ideology: An attempt at clarification. Political Theory, 4(1), 80-100.