Educational Essay- Diverse Learners

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Introduction

When we reduce an important activity to a single word—e.g. “teaching”—we risk dramatically understating the complex interaction and interactivity of a wide range of different operations.  Teaching is not a singular, isolated activity.  It is a complex process which can be viewed from many different angles.  It can be viewed from the perspective of subject matter and student learning as a way to help understand how to best communicate to diverse learners and achieve positive learning outcomes.  It can be viewed from the perspective of the learning environment and the different instructional strategies used to cultivate a positive educational atmosphere.  It can also be viewed from the perspective of proven techniques of instructional planning and assessment to help implement, measure, and modify instruction.  And of course, it can be viewed from the perspective of professional development, reflection, and collaboration with regard to the ongoing development of educational leaders.  In this paper, we will explore the complexities of each of these perspectives as well as their relationship to one another.  With each topic, there will be a discussion of the professional-academic literature germane to the topic, as well as examples of how that professional knowledge base can and should be applied to the topic.  This exercise will help outline and demonstrate these key areas of teaching and how they can be best optimized for and oriented toward learner development and success.

Subject Matter, Student Learning, Diverse Learners

Education is often thought of as "the what in teaching-what the students learn in school" (Lalor 2017, p. 2). Educational efficacy, particularly in reading, increases when teachers create learning experiences, not just curricula but integrating current events, that allow students to integrate knowledge, skills, and methods of inquiry from several subject areas with a focus on motivation, engagement, and learning environments for elementary, middle and high school readers.

Motivation to learn connects to engagement. Learners must feel some level of connection with the content, whether that connection is socio-economic, social, geographic, or academic. As Malloy, Marinak, Gambrell, and Mazzoni (2013) state: "The research literature provides strong support for the tie between reading motivation and reading achievement" (p. 273). Struggling readers frequently grow alienated from the reading content due to irrelevancy. Therefore, determining the motivations and interests of these students is critical, well before difficulty arises.  Devries (2011) explains that to increase motivation teachers can inspire student success by building their confidence and sparking interest in new topics. Also, teachers can help students connect to learning by relating the learning to real-world experiences. Teachers can create experiences that allow learners to combine knowledge, skills, and methods of questioning that appeal to student interests and motivation using an integrated curriculum.  

John Hattie (2012) also emphasizes this need for student engagement in his text, Visible Learning for Teachers. Hattie's foundational philosophy is that effective teachers do not focus on teaching strategy, but rather on the effect that those strategies, and that the teacher him or herself, is having on the student. A teacher cannot hope to engage a student's attention if they fail to regularly evaluate whether or not students are, in actuality, engaged. In this sense, effective teaching is fluid, not fixed and seeks to self-evaluate concerning student learning. Students learn best, to summarize Hattie, when objectives are clear and when teachers seek effective means to engage students with those objectives – and to change those means when they are not working. This process connects to how students construct knowledge, acquire skills, and develop disciplined thinking processes using different strategies, approaches, patterns of abilities, and learning styles. Lastly, Fountas and Pinnell (2016) remind us that students need to engage in literacy processes by reading, discussing, writing, and reflecting on their thinking to gain understanding.

Creating a learning environment that will engage learners equitably and action needs to be composed of the organization, allocation, and coordination of the resources of time, space, and the attention of the learners. Thorough lesson planning is key to this process: "Great teachers plan their lesson, often minute by minute, write their questions ahead of time, anticipate wrong answers, and plan follow-up questions" (Lemov 2010, p. 2).  A learning environment that enables students to utilize their skills along with setting learning expectations to connect equitably creates an engaging experience for learners. In Acts 27:1-44 we learn about salvation from Paul and his shipmates, and this lesson fits the role of a teacher.   Paul's behavior enabled his crew to believe him and trust Jesus. Modeling Paul's behavior alters the demeanor in the classroom creating a positive learning environment.

Application to Practice 

Learning and teaching require action to motivate struggling readers. Fisher and Frey (2013) suggest instructional strategies that promote active rather than passive experience. The authors suggest a "gradual release of responsibility instructional framework" that moves from focused instruction to guided instruction, to collaborative learning, and then to independent learning (Fisher & Frey, 2013, p. 2). This "transfer of responsibility" emphasizes process and incorporates information, demonstration, and experience.  Devries (2011) writes that learners can be motivated to read by presenting a bounty of compelling texts and discovering students’ interests. Additionally, expand student options and give choices in learning. Learners should have opportunities to collaborate by responding to a text with their classmates and teacher.

Doug Lemov (2010) also recommends using multiple teaching strategies that outline, reflect, map, and revisit concepts in order to engage all students including struggling readers on multiple levels. For example, Lemov suggests changing formats frequently in order to keep students engaged: "from mini-lessons to independent work to reviewing" (2010, p. 8). The idea is to keep concepts fresh through multiple activities and fluid student engagement. Overall, motivating young readers requires a process, both on the part of students and teachers. Students must feel engaged regarding relevancy and teachers must maintain engagement with their students' level of interest. Just as reading and learning are active processes, so must teaching be. In the classroom, student choice is the foundation of active engagement to motivate students.  A simple way to increase motivation to read is to provide chances for learners to select books that interest them, or group them according to their reading level. Another example, writing assignments in the form of a menu to allow students to choose their project or research topic. Students may select a theme for project-based learning or choice boards for a close reading assignment. Student-led discussions, free write time, creative writing projects, learning stations, and literature circles are other ways student choice can apply to middle or high school classrooms.

John Hattie (2012) explains that student engagement is the result of an instructor planning specific, proven effective strategies that foster engagement. How this looks in the classroom is preparing for participation using daily procedures such as effective pacing, showing enthusiasm, building relationship, and using useful verbal feedback. Strategies such as using physical movement, humor, friendly controversy, games and competition can be incorporated into instruction. Also, encouraging the application of knowledge, real-world applications, and connecting to students' lives and ambitions are other ways to increase student engagement and motivation. Also, using metacognitive strategies that help students understand the way they learn or as learned in education classes it is thinking about thinking.  Student of all ages and abilities must have a chance to work collaboratively with their classmates which heighten their learning and is highly motivating.

Learning Environment and Instructional Strategies

Learning does not occur in a void, nor does the teaching of a class happen in a vacuum. It is essential to unite the learning environment and instructional strategies to meet the needs of all learners.  The most effective teaching occurs when the classroom environment is designed to promote individual and social learning and intersects with quality instruction providing learners the opportunity to grow, thrive, and make connections. The learning environment and the principles and procedures of instructional strategies must promote cognitive processes that support the learner.

Professional Knowledge Base

Cognitive processes are linked to reading development and reading comprehension is an area where cognitive strategies are essential. It is vital to teach students to think and talk about reading as well as explicit instruction in thinking about reading, writing, and talking about ideas. Beers writes that thinking about cognitive processes and instructional strategies for readers to learn how to "successfully struggle" with a text rather than "struggle with the text." This method requires addressing three problems readers have, cognitive challenges, negative attitudes, and lack of stamina and enjoyment of reading. Also, metacognition and reading comprehension are wholly interlinked, and research shows “direct instruction of metacognitive strategies is a powerful way to enhance metacognitive development" (Mokhtari. 2016, p 26).  Thinking about thinking is the starting point for other reading comprehension strategies.

Hattie and Marzano provide research-based instructional strategies to drive data-based instruction. These strategies can be implemented in a student-centered classroom.  Piaget advocated constructivist theories of education in which the student-centered approach to learning helps develop independent learners and meets the differing and changing needs of the students. A student-centered classroom is "based on organized expectations orchestrated by the teacher and put into practice by the students" (Hickman, 2007, p. 6). In the classroom, student-led discussions, projects, and self-evaluations are examples of this method which enables learners to construct knowledge and understanding through new experiences and interactions.

Learning environments should support learners as they maneuver their academic and social environment to help them achieve and perform to their full potential. The atmosphere of the classroom "can either improve or impede a student's ability to learn and feel safe and comfortable as a member of the class" (Bucholz, 2009, p. 2).  Teachers that create a learning environment promote social and emotional health support the whole child. Positive learning environments support learner outcomes, and students need opportunities for practicing skills, collaborating, and receiving feedback. The classroom environment should make students feel safe, comfortable, and feel connected to their peers will be motivated and actively engaged. In the classroom is shown by students actively participating in a discussion or a Socratic Seminar activity in which students feel confident and happy to share ideas and voice their opinions.

Application to Practice 

It is vital to choose strategies to achieve different instructional purposes and to meet student needs, and Marzano explains that creating effective learning goals will improve the achievement of students. Providing students with learning goals helps the students understand what they are supposed to learn. Lemov (2010) explains that research shows that holding high expectations improves student achievement and that the expectations need to be made clear to the students.  Once learning goals and expectations are set, direct instruction needs to be provided for reading including reading strategies for comprehension.  Students need to learn tactics to help them comprehend texts, such as making predictions, connections, and inferences.  In the classroom, strategies for reading include pre-reading, during reading, and after-reading activities all of which help students be actively engaged in reading.

Learning requires interplay between the material, the students, the class, and the teacher using multiple teaching and learning strategies to engage students. Hattie explains that teachers must know the impact of their instruction and adjusting methods as needed. He also tells that learning and teaching should be visible so instructional strategies must meet this goal.  Classroom practice involves a gradual release of responsibility from the teacher to the learner which is an effective method in teaching reading instruction. The process can be applied to all lessons and builds language, literacy, and knowledge lending to student achievement and motivation. The framework of this method begins with focused instruction from the teacher by setting the purpose of learning, modeling thinking, and skills. Next students receive guided instruction as the class works together while the teacher questions, assists, and scaffolds as required to meet the needs of the learners. As student learning takes place the collaborative learning phase students work together to strengthen and apply their comprehension of the content.  Lastly, as learning continues as students work independently to apply to learn in new ways by synthesizing information, transforming ideas, and solidifying their understanding. 

Teachers must provide a positive learning atmosphere and monitor learning as educational research demonstrates that this is a crucial component in providing quality education. Hattie tells that the focus needs to be centered on how students learn and students need to be how to learn. The learning environment needs to facilitate learning and classroom instructional strategies, particularly in high school students, implemented should have the highest impact on students’ achievement. The most critical factor in a positive learning environment is the rapport between students and teachers. The classroom culture should promote a safe learning atmosphere where students feel motivated and engaged which will result in the success of the learner.

Communication, Planning Instruction, Assessment

Assessments reveal how completely students learned what the instructor aspires them to learn while instruction assures that the pupils learn it. Educators must specify the learning objectives to ascertain what they want students to know how to do at the end of the lesson or class.  Consideration of instructional strategies is imperative to prepare the varieties of activities that will augment learning objectives and prepare learners for evaluations which require instructional planning that begins with designing assessments. Assessments, learning objectives, instruction, and instructional strategies must carefully align so that they augment each other.

Professional Knowledge Base

Identifying student learning needs and developing differentiated learning experiences by using data is crucial to the learner.  John Hattie (2012) tells that it is essential to "know thy impact" (p. 6).  Educators must use diverse strategies and center on assessing the impacts they have on learners and adapt teaching methods as needed to meet the needs of all learners. Hattie states "when teaching and learning are visible – that is, when it is clear what teachers are teaching and what students are learning, student achievement increases" (Hattie, 2012, p. 6).  Questioning methods improve learning, but it is necessary for an educator to know how to ask questions and spur discussion in various ways for distinct purposes. As a teacher plans for instruction, they compose specific questions to ask students, and they anticipate student will ask. Preparing questions in advance of a lesson increases learner participation and supports active learning. Mark 10:25 (NIV) states "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This is a prime example of how Jesus taught and engaged those who followed Him.

We learn by doing and learning by doing is a proven strategy that teachers use when planning instructions to meet curriculum goals. Teachers plan for instruction based on formative and summative assessment data, prior learner knowledge, and learner interest. Constructivism is an active learning process in which students process learning and form new ideas.  Learners connect what they know with what they have been taught in a lesson. For reading instruction, learners construct meaning, they activate prior knowledge and choose the necessary strategies so they can develop into proficient readers. Other learning theories related to literacy include the zone of proximal development, the hierarchy of human needs, and the critical literacy theory. John Hattie's research measured the "effect size" to the impact of influences on students’ achievement such as class size, feedback, and learning strategies which shows if the lesson was productive. Hattie (2012) states that "and an effect size of 0.40 should be considered the hinge-point" (p. 10). This is the approximate average of instruction during a typical school year. Teachers should strive to utilize interventions of 0.40 to maximize student achievement.

Educators must monitor student learning and use a variety of assessments to determine if students have mastered learning objectives and this is an essential component of high-quality education.  Determining the effect sizes of different instructional practices have identified monitoring student progress as a strong predictor of student achievement and one way of doing this is assessing students using summative and formative evaluations. Formative assessments occur during instruction, and summative assessments are used to determine student growth.  DeVries (2011) states "both kinds of assessments provide teachers with valuable information around which to plan instructions" (p. 39). Diagnostic tests ascertain students’ strengths and deficiencies in reading. Some advantages of standardized diagnostic tests include reliability, efficacy, determination of reading level, comparison of students to others, and identifying weaknesses.  Downsides are they require training to administer, are time-consuming, are frustrating to some students, and are timed. Other assessments include oral reading tests that determine a reader's speed, fluency, and comprehension. Technology can provide motivation and assistance to reluctant readers. Proverbs 12:15 (NIV) says "The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice."  This verse reminds teachers always to apply Godly council to assist students especially those that struggle.

Application to Practice 

Asking questions and inciting discussion in various ways is imperative for a teacher. Being able to ask essential questions of students stokes inquiry, conversation, and helps students reflect on their learning to attain more in-depth understanding. Essential questions can be overarching that target big ideas or they can be topical which promote examination. The aim is to target standards that allow focused and reflective learning. Teachers can ask questions that are open-ended, thought-provoking, higher-order thinking, and those that require support and justification. The article How to Make Your Questions Essential by Wiggins and Wilbur (2015) states that "high-level inquiries and questioning yield some of the greatest gains possible on conventional tests of achievement, as well as better student engagement" (p. 15). A class should be asked one question at a time, and the questions should be specific. Also, referring to Bloom's Taxonomy will help ensure questions meet the multiple cognitive methods.

Fountas and Pinnell (2016) stated "readers apply many complex and interrelated systems of strategic actions in order to comprehend written language— not as single, disparate cognitive actions but simultaneously, as thinking" (p. 2).   Whole group instruction meets the needs of diverse learners such as activities like interactive read-aloud and mini-lessons, choral reading, Readers’ Theater, and interactive vocabulary.  Small group instruction includes guided reading, close reading, and literature circles all of which meet the developmental needs of diverse learners.  Individual instruction includes reading conferences, reading records, and independent reading which helps student growth. An example of an activity would be the interactive read-aloud which connects guided talks with reflective thought and promotes focused listening, speaking, reading and writing about text. Other activity examples are book talks and reading workshop mini-lessons.

An example of an informal assessment for vocabulary knowledge would be through listening and conversing with a student.  Teachers can ask students to define words using their own words in writing or verbally.  Another example is a matching activity or a word checklist. A formal assessment would be a multiple choice test.  For reading comprehension, an informal evaluation would be a reading inventory, miscue analysis, retelling activity, or think-aloud task. Formal assessment for comprehension would include standardized tests such as an achievement test or benchmark test.  Reviewing formal and informal will aid in identifying strengths and weaknesses and monitor student growth as well as enhance learning and if necessary modifying instructional strategies.

Reflection, Professional Development, Collaboration

The teaching professional requires reflection, continuous growth, and collaboration.  Reflection is thinking about one's instruction. Continuous growth through professional development keeps teachers up to date on professional knowledge and skills. Collaboration enables teachers to implement change by moving to more efficient teaching tactics.  Each of these components is tools teachers can use to improve and change their instruction.

Professional Knowledge Base

It is critical that teachers understand how to self-evaluate and use problem- solving strategies to think about instructional methods as it correlates to how learners acquire knowledge and grow. It is necessary for teachers to reflect on lessons and actions to determine if there has been a positive impact on learning.  Hattie (2012) says, “I never allow teachers or school leaders to visit classrooms to observe teachers; I allow them to observe only students – the reactions that students have to incidents, to teaching, to peers, to the activity” (p. 138). This changes the focus from teaching toward the outcome of the instruction.  The importance of examining lessons, before, during, and after teaching, cannot be underestimated.  Educators need to look for evidence that they have had an impact on student learning and if they have met their learning goals.

Educators continue growth through continuing education and professional development.  This helps teachers keep abreast of changes in education as well as keeping their professional knowledge and skills updated. Continuous education promotes learning new techniques, in teaching and improves their classroom skills.  Continued growth includes keeping updated on laws and policies which educators must adhere to as well as following the code of ethics. The Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct (n.d.) notes the ethical conduct a teacher must have to “promote the health, safety, welfare, discipline, and morals of students and colleagues” (p. 2). The code works as a guide for instructors to support them as they move throughout their career with respect and ethics to uphold the integrity of the profession. A teacher aims to teach students by providing quality instruction and principles to uphold teaching standards including knowledge, experience, proficiency, and behavior.

Teachers must actively participate in lesson planning with the instructional team as well as review and interpret student work with the team. Teachers need to collaborate on writing common assessments, and analyze data, and make decisions regarding student education. Murray (2014) states that collaboration "provides teachers with the opportunity to examine, critique, and support one another's in a safe and supportive environment" (p. 23). Collaboration allows teachers to focus on student learning needs which promote student achievement.

Teachers must actively engage with their instructional team to improve professional learning and student learning outcomes. In the Reid test (2014), it states that collaboration among teachers is "a primary unit for improving education" (p. 3).  Vertical teams are an example of teacher collaboration in which instructors work together to support students in the attainment of skills needed for scholastic success. Collaboration allows teachers to concentrate on the learning needs of students while fostering student success. Teachers develop trusting connections through professional teams in which they can support each other, and as an outcome, they can strongly support their students.

Application to Practice 

Teaching strategies can always be improved even if the lesson was excellent. It is vital to review lessons to ensure that there was a positive impact on students. Hattie (2012) discusses the need to determine evidence of an optimal learning climate, effective learning intentions and success criteria, and evidence of learning. Teachers can calculate effect size to determine the impact on learning. Hattie (2012) states that teachers need to "be continually aware of the impact they have on students – and from the evidence of this impact, they need to make decisions about changing their approach” (p. 151). In order to improve instruction and student progress, teachers must know the effect they are having on their learners.

Teachers continue learning through continuing education and professional development and this can be accomplished through professional learning communities.  Reid (2014) states that “evidence continues to mount that educators' engaging in collaborative communities improves student outcomes" (p. 3). Professional development is most effective when teachers interact and have opportunities to lead which promotes improved school culture and learner achievement. Matthew 20:27 (KJV) says "and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant".  Jesus explains that greatness is being a servant.  Teachers are called to serve our students.  We can meet the challenges of helping our students by working in professional learning communities.

Conclusion 

In 2 Timothy we read “do you best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15 NIV).  This short instruction from the Apostle Paul applies to the whole range of teaching activities.  In this paper, we have explored important pedagogical implications at the individual, environmental, curricular, and instructional level.  Teachers must strive to integrate each of these areas in order to provide a superior learning environment which delivers effective learning experiences through carefully planned instruction for the benefit of their learners considered both individually and collectively.  Teachers must have a high degree of self-awareness and self-reflection, playing an active role not just in the administration of their students’ learning but also in the continuation of their own development.  By approaching these topics with care and devotion, teachers “do not need to be ashamed.”  They will be able to take pride and solace in their activity, not just because they tried their proverbial best, but because through their intervention, they were able to transform their students.  In this, they can present themselves to God as “one approved” and be satisfied in their work.

References

Bucholz, J. L., & Sherer, J. L. (2009). Creating a Warm and Inclusive Classroom Environment: Planning for All Children to Feel Welcome. Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education, 2(4).

Devries, B. (2011). Literacy Assessment and intervention for the elementary school classroom (3rd ed.). Scottsdale: AZ: Holcomb Hathaway Publishers.

Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2016). Teaching for comprehending and fluency: Thinking, talking, and writing about reading, K-8 Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013). Engaging the adolescent reader. International Reading Association. doi:10.1598/e-ssentials.8037

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.

Lalor, A. D. (2017). Ensuring high-quality curriculum: How to design, revise, or adopt curriculum aligned to student success. Alexandria, AV: ASCD.

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Malloy, J.A., Marinak, B.A., Gambrell, L.B., & Mazzoni, S.A. (2013). Assessing motivation to read. The Reading Teacher, 67(4), 273–282. DOI:10.1002/TRTR.1215

Mokhtari, K. (2016). Improving Reading Comprehension through Metacognitive Reading Strategies Instruction. Tyler, TX: Rowman & Littlefield.

Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://sos.ms.gov/ACProposed/00017528b.pdf

Murray, & Eileen. (2014, November 30). Improving Teaching through Collaborative Reflective Teaching Cycles. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?q=teacher collaboration through the use of technology&id=EJ1057515

Reid, D. (2014). Dilemmas in educational leadership: The facilitator’s book of cases. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.

West, L., & Boston, M. (2017). Reflective and collaborative processes to improve mathematics teaching. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Wiggins, G., Wilbur, D. (2015, September). How to make your questions essential. Educational  Leadership, 73(1), 10-15.