Teaching the Different Learner…What is different?

May 25th, 2018 | Category: Columns, Teaching the Different Learner
By Andrea Dinaro

In psychology, we know that it is natural to notice difference, but to judge difference is not natural, it is learned.

In his book, Neurotribes—The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (2015), Steve Silberman described two competing perspectives on autism from mid-century research, one from Dr. Hans Asperger, and the other from Dr. Leo Kanner. The dominant understanding of autism from Dr. Kanner, unfortunately, became a narrow view of people with autism as something negative and rare that needed to be repaired. This “different as negative” narrative became so ingrained in our society it is still a challenge to shift, or even explore other ideas. However, we can, we will, and we are. Fortunately, a broader and more inclusive criterion identified in the 1950s from Dr. Asperger, was uncovered in the early 1990s and provides progress with its dynamic understanding of people with autism as having varied needs, talents, and ways of being. The concepts of different/difference/diversity are influenced by perceptions (awareness) and attitudes (beliefs or actions).

For example, in a school setting, imagine all of your learners and their typical personality variations. Then include additional differences, such as disability, learning style, advanced/gifted, dually-exceptional, Deaf/hard of hearing, learners living in poverty, learners dealing with personal trauma or living a changing family situation—such as a parent deployed in the military; learners that are culturally & linguistically diverse (previously known as EL), and/or demonstrate a need for academic, functional independence, medical, or behavioral supports. It is unknown how many of these learners are seeking knowledge and skills in Lutheran education, but I imagine every reader of this journal has taught one student with one of these differences.

As educators, I believe one of our strengths in our ability to teach relies on our ability to adapt. Therefore, confirming an understanding of different is important. Different can be demonstrated by any learner who is or has experienced navigating an environment that is not designed for them, or who have lived in exceptional circumstances, such as:

a. may not be typically developing or

b. respond to teaching in unique ways, or

c. are new to their way of learning or

d. are accustomed to other structures.

I am confident that educators believe most of their students have many differences, that those difference can and will be met in the classroom. But as we reflect on a historical context of ‘different,’ we shall acknowledge that we have been conditioned by society and education to identify or find students who learn differently, speak differently, and act or respond differently. These differences could be noticed in speed, accuracy, interest or the lack thereof; in other words, we specifically are taught to look for students who may require a different approach. Thus different becomes our sphere of influence, our creativity, and our ability to adapt our approaches, rather than our ability to merely label difference.

Broadening our lens: A disability perspective of different

So, whatever our label, cultural identity, or lived experience, how can we, as a community of educators, provide and embrace difference and address diverse communication, language, social, emotional, physical, virtual, and health-related access needs to model awareness, acceptance, and equity?

Dr. Suzanne Stolz (2010) reminisced about her experiences as a student with an IEP and brings her diverse perspective as a researcher to understand and identify the “discursive frameworks [that are] apparent in young people’s conceptions of disability.” She identified that teachers hold a wide range of intentional and unintentional pedagogical tendencies that help to create the conception of disability that youth develop.

Teachers have an unlimited number of tasks and responsibilities each day through which they may interact with disability…A teacher’s questioning of stereotypical depictions of disability in textbooks can show an understanding of variation in disability. During any interaction, teachers can convey contrasting views that disability is a form of diversity to be valued or an unwelcome inconvenience, a need for accommodation or a need for kid gloves, something expected or an oddity. Teachers can suggest forms of interaction and participation and set up forms of organization or structure that avoid or preclude them. (p. 83)

Stolz (2010) and Silverstein (2015) provide ideas of what contributes to knowing difference and the implications of our message as educators and researchers, as well as consumers of knowledge and producers of knowledge. As we acknowledge how we shape our understanding of teaching for the unconventional learner, the crucial components of personal context, individual accessibility, and equity rise as most clear and imperative. Teaching to reach all learners encompasses providing a foundation for all, such as (a) Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (http://www.cast.org/), then in addition providing (b) differentiation (http://differentiationcentral.com/what-is-differentiated-instruction/) of content, process, and product, and finally (c) concurrently incorporating individual access needs such as assistive technology (http://www.at4il.org/), so that our teaching is approachable and their learning is successful. It is important to admit that it may not be easy, but it is worth it.

Tools and Resources

Lastly, I recently reflected on my personal journey as a second-year professor. I have benefitted from diverse perspectives and varied strengths and needs from my colleagues and my students. I have particularly enjoyed learning with the unconventional, uncommon, or different and diverse learner in order to provide intricate and creative ways of teaching international students at the doctoral level. I truly believe my experience has been richer because I needed to ensure that I was providing best practices in UDL, Differentiation, and Individualized Supports. My students and I benefitted when I stretched my mastered skills and provided a different approach. LEJ

References and Resources

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/

UCP Seguin (2018). Assistive technology. Retrieved from http://www.at4il.org/

Silberman, S. (2015). The forgotten history of autism. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/steve_silberman_the_forgotten_history_of_autism

Stolz, S. M. (2010). Disability trajectories: Disabled youths’ identity development, negotiation of experience and expectation, and sense of agency during transition. ProQuest LLC.

What is differentiation. (2018). Retrieved from http://differentiationcentral.com/what-is-differentiated-instruction/