Last night, as we were driving home from an appointment, my husband and I had a conversation about our respective days. It helps sometimes to vent about things that happen, we’ve discovered. I listened to his frustrations and interjected questions where I didn’t quite understand something. When your husband is an inner city high school math teacher and your math knowledge stops more or less after percentages and decimals, you ask stuff.
As we continued the conversation, he got away from the math stuff and more into the frustrations with how fast or how slow students were to grasp a concept and be able to use it. He wants to be able to give them enough so that they can pass their state exams and have a chance of getting into a decent local or state college. Some get it, and he can move on to the next building block. Some just need more time, which he doesn’t have.
I think it hit me about 2 turns from home. I’d read, years ago, a book about the types of learners in the world. It identified several different types. The students my husband was talking about were learners who not only needed to see the steps in a concept, but work with it for longer than they were being given to. These students needed a different classroom set up from what he was providing.
The past couple of decades have been about having inclusive classrooms. No matter where the student is in their abilities, they go into the same classrooms. Students who are at their grade level are put into classrooms with students who are below grade level. The thinking is that the students who can will help those who are struggling. And sometimes it works.
What isn’t working is that students learn in different ways, and even if a student is on grade level or above, they can need a different approach to learning a topic or concept from another student. One teacher, or even two in co-teaching classrooms – cannot easily provide a range of lessons that cater to different learning styles. They try to provide lessons that can be used by all students, but not every student is going to be able to use their own learning style with that lesson. And given today’s high-stakes testing classrooms (especially in inner cities where outcomes determine school funding or school worth) teachers don’t really have the time to work with students whose learning styles need more time to grasp and understand particular concepts.
We want to have classrooms where all students can succeed without having to ‘track’ or ‘label’ students. But I think we need to look at learning styles early on, and help students who need a bit of differentiation when it comes to how they are taught a concept or topic. If a student needs more time to work through something because they work better with having more practice time, or more time to examine something from all angles, then our educational systems should allow that. Teachers need to learn how to teach in many different ways, so that a classroom of one or two types of learners can do something one way, and another classroom of two or three more types will learn something another way. Both classrooms will grasp and be able to use the concept.
I posited this to my husband as we walked into our house. We didn’t discuss it further simply because there were other things we needed to do (like feed ourselves and feed the cats). His comment as we began to hear the yowls of our two-cat clowder was “that would be something I could see”. Students given the classroom set up where they can succeed is something we both want to see. For all students, no matter where they are being taught.