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Posted on Nov 1, 2010

Sorting Students or Supporting Teachers?

Sorting Students or Supporting Teachers?

by Joanne den Boer, SCSBC Director of Learning  ◊  

Forty years ago, about 97% of the school population was considered typical. Three percent of the population received special education for very serious disabilities such as deaf/blind, or physical or mental handicaps. These students were segregated into special schools or institutions. Thirty years ago, typical students comprised 90% of the population at which time special education was brought into the regular school, but not into the regular classroom. Twenty years ago, 65-70% of the population was considered typical. If this trend continues, in ten years, only a third of the classroom population will be referred to as typical learners.1

As it is, about one-third of the students in today’s classrooms have special needs in one form or another. Some of these are students identified as having special needs for whom schools can apply for supplementary funding; many of these students have no formal diagnosis of a learning disability. They are often the grey area students. Thus, in a class of twenty-four, it should be no surprise to have eight students who are atypical learners. This article refers to the grey area students.

“Our task is to provide an education for the kinds of kids we have, not the kinds of kids we used to have, want to have, or the kids that exist in our dreams.”2 Clearly, diversity is the new norm. This places considerable demands on the classroom teacher. Many teachers feel unprepared and ill-equipped to teach to this diversity. Some cite lack of time to address the needs of each struggling learner; others lack confidence. What often happens next? The classroom teacher sends the student out for learning assistance.
It certainly is appropriate to draw on the expertise and assistance of the educational support personnel. However, if this is the first step of intervention, it only serves to sort the atypical student out from her peers rather than support her in her classroom community.

As a Christian school community, we assert that we need to go beyond a community of inclusion3 to “becoming a place of belonging.”4 A premature referral to learning assistance may inadvertently reinforce the outdated notion of a normal or typical student. Separating the student from the classroom community too soon reinforces a sense of brokenness – in the learner, in the classroom. An inclusive community that fosters belonging recognizes “that each individual, including those without disabilities, also has areas of weakness and need… Each member of the community is an individual – uniquely designed, gifted, and purposed by God, in whose image they are fashioned, but also possessing areas of vulnerability and relative deficiency.”5
This creates a dilemma. The classroom teacher feels pulled in many directions to accommodate the needs of the diverse learners in the classroom. He feels inadequate in the face of this challenge. How can he best serve his students? He turns to the learning assistance teacher (LAT) for help.

How should the learning assistant teacher respond? Should she sort? Or support?
Sorting pulls the student out of the classroom. Sorting separates the student from her peers. Should she be kept in the classroom? Either way, the classroom teacher is no longer directly involved in the learning of the student. But who is responsible for the child’s learning? The classroom teacher! Others are in a supporting role.6 Sorting, then, should not be the first option.

Best practice would have the LAT take on a supporting role to the classroom teacher. Numerous research studies have resulted in various models of delivery and instruction. One such model is the three-tiered model.7 In this model, the LAT gives in-class support, not to the student first of all, but to the classroom teacher. The LAT’s first approach is not to rescue the teacher, but to come alongside. What does this look like?

It involves believing that all students can learn given the right circum-stances. This honours God’s purposeful design in the beauty of diversity of each student in the classroom. It requires the teacher to observe how the struggling student learns best and to try different strategies. If the student still struggles, the LAT can offer the teacher suggestions how to adjust for the learning style. Through dialogue and coaching from the LAT, the classroom teacher practices being flexible, creative, and innovative; in other words, he expands his pedagogical repertoire. By coming along side, the LAT guides the classroom teacher to re-examine assessment practices. With the support base aimed at the classroom level, not only will all students benefit, but it is the best use of resources – of time, personnel, and budget. The classroom teacher, then, is the client, not the student.
Adopting the well-researched assessment for learning practice serves to support all learners in the classroom, from the student with learning challenges to the student who needs to be challenged in learning. If classroom teachers are still limiting their assessment practice to “I teach, you learn, and then I provide a summative assessment”, then this will inevitably lead to sorting students. However, if assessment is used as a learning tool that provides immediate feedback to the student in relation to the learning target, then it will inform the teacher how best to support the student in relation to achieving the goal. A teacher who is well-versed in assessment for learning practices, will see the biggest learning gains in those students who struggle.8

A corollary to the practice of assessment for learning is the well-researched educational framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This framework, influenced by the research of cognitive neuroscience, recognizes that each student learns differently. It aims to foster in teachers the need to have multiple ways of presenting information, to allow for multiple ways in which the student can demonstrate what they know, and to have multiple means of engagement by which to hook students into learning. When the classroom teacher, aided by the LAT, has clear instructional goals, effective teaching methods, relevant learning materials, and appropriate assessments in the classroom, then barriers to learning are reduced.
Schools are encouraged to re-examine the process and practice for referring students to the LAT. An excellent procedure for a referral system is outlined in SCSBC’s Serving All Children Well.9 With learning assistance provided to the classroom teacher as a first recourse, the teacher is well-supported in addressing the diverse needs in the classroom. The teacher is equipped to practice inclusion. Better yet, the student experiences a community of belonging.

What does your school do? Sort students by ability? Or support students with various abilities?

1 notes from BC CASE conference, Aug 2010
2 ibid
4 Serving All Children Well, p. i
5 D.W. Anderson, cited in Serving All Children Well, p. i
6 The School Act, Section 17; School Regulation, Section 4
7 The Response-to-Intervention and Pyramid Model are variations. The idea is that 80% of students are given in-class support, 15% receive short term targeted support, and only 5% receive long term specialized support.
8 Black & Wiliam. Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. accessed Oct 8, 2010
9 Serving All Children Well, p. 7 [Programs]

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