Learning as a Continuum: lessons from ESL, special needs teaching

The following is a short discussion on what we can learn from ‘special needs’ teaching completed for the Pedagogy module of an independent study course designed by 6 Olin College students in the Spring 2007 Semester. The six students involved in the course were: Mel Chua, Chris Dellin, Boris Dieseldorff, Chandra Little, Marco Morales, and Andy Pethan. For additional information on other Olin Student Courses see the Wikiversity page here.

Pedagogy Module Overview

Our sixth and final module was taught by Professor Chris Morse, who has significant interest and experience in theuse of different pedagogical techniques in the classroom. We met over the last three weeks of the semester (April 9-27, 2007), and class followed a completely discussion-based format. We watched two short videos; one explored hands-on teaching and just-in-time teaching in a physics classroom, and the other examined common conceptualmisconceptions in science curricula and how hard it is to correct them. We also had several readings on grading.

During class discussions, we hit on topics such as the purpose of education and grades, teaching techniques and how they’re selected and used, where misconceptions come from and how to fix them, different models for teaching and learning, and plenty of other assorted things. Because our class discussions were so interesting to us (includingChris), we decided to use the module’s deliverable as a time during which each of us would choose a topic to “teach”the class and lead a 20-minute discussion. The topic I covered was *“Teaching ESL and Students with Disabilities” *and the material I compiled for our class discussion is below:

What we can learn from Teaching ESL and Students with Disabilities

Resources

Summary and Discussion

There are dozens of different approaches to learning, numerous types of learners (auditory, tactile, kinesthetic,visual), as well as numerous ways to best implement our knowledge of these things in the classroom. For the most part, however, all activities designed for a specific type of learner focus on only a fraction of what learning is. The entire breadth of learning can be seen most clearly in places where it does not occur, or requires special attention inorder for it to occur, such as in disabled students and ESL students.

For these students, information processing difficulties can occur at any stage of learning. The four stages in the learning process are: input, integration, storage, and output. In most students, considerations for the last two categories aren’t necessary, and teachers tend to focus their efforts on making sure students receive a good input, and by broadening their use of teaching methods they can make sure students integrate their learning to other learning and contextualize the learning for future use. Future use of any information, however, is also dependent onthe third and forth stages, the ability to store the information and output the information at a later time.

Learning disabilities can affect any of these stages of information processing, from the input difficulties that dyslexia imparts, to the storage difficulties that result from chronic memory losses, to the difficulty outputting informationthat motor and language deficiencies provide, and in these cases teachers must alter their teaching to account forthese differences. From research we have seen that learning disabilities operate on a continuum, which implies thatmany students have considerable difficulty storing and outputting information.

For example, on the scale of the sound-letter association ability, only 2-5% of students are considered dyslexic, but often no considerations are taken for the students that fall from 5%-50%, who are still “below average” on a scale which ranges from dyslexia to a supreme facility with reading comprehension. In conclusion, some considerations made for disabled students and students with English as a second language (who often have issues with storage andoutput of information) could be applied to the entire student pool. This would improve learning for many students not necessarily afflicted with learning disabilities, including the careful way with which error correction is treated in ESL students and the dozens of considerations made for students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia, amongother things.

Notes from Students

  • “The idea of ‘disabled’ students posits there is an ideal ‘abled’ student that everyone should be able to match. At the other extreme are multiple intelligences and differentiated learning where ‘everyone is special in their own way.’ I don’t know if there is an ideal balance. Also, how should teachers be informed of their students’ disabilities, and to what extent should they be trained to deal with it? I’m not sure if we should have specialists to deal with such situations, since if you make dealing with ‘special’ kids (ESL, for instance) the job of a specialist, other teachers in the school stop doing it, instead of everybody giving the kid a little bit of support.”
  • “50-70% of students have a ‘learning disability.’ The concept of disability implies a flawed property that often doesn’t exist (e.g. ESL).”
  • “I feel like we teased out a really interesting issue during this discussion, but didn’t get to the meat of it. How do you balance an individual’s right to privacy as regards their disability/disorder/etc. (which could be saving them if they can pass – remember diversity and all the unintentional prejudices that come up in areas of selection and judgment?) with their teacher’s need to know about it in order to help the student learn (teachers can’t stop doing a bad behavior for a student’s learning if they don’t know that it’s a problem)? I don’t have the answer….”
  • “We talked about what ‘disabled’ means and how our school system usually deals with it. After discussing learning types, it’s annoying that educators aren’t looking harder for new ways to educate people who ‘learn differently.’”
  • “The more I think about it, the more I think that most of the ‘disabled student’ classification grew out of students who are not particularly receptive to the traditional lecture-style classroom. This means two things – first, that it’s not a disability, but simply a propensity for learning in a different way (and therefore isn’t anything to be ashamed about!), and second, that teachers should continue to investigate ways to reach a broader cross-section of their students without relying solely on the lecture model.”
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