We often get sidetracked in education with discussions about what is fair. Is it fair if one student has more time than another to write a test? Is it fair if one child gets to submit an assignment late and still gets full marks? Is it fair that one child who can afford a tutor gets the extra assistance at home? We are faced with many questions about fairness and our responses often lie in our own personal circumstances, what we perceive to be advantages and disadvantages, and the pressures of obtaining opportunities in a competitive future.
In the world of Student Services, we know that there are students who come to school with needs that make learning more challenging. Whether these needs revolve around a child’s sensory system (ie. difficulty hearing or seeing), attentional system (ie. difficulty focusing and filtering distractions), emotional system (ie. difficulty dealing with trauma or socio-emotional issues), learning system (ie. difficulty processing information, using working memory), or movement system (ie. difficulty taking action with fine or gross motor skills), we know that each child comes to school with circumstances that will affect their ability to succeed in school. In this system where we are trying to determine what is fair, we tend to have inherent bias towards the kinds of “abilities” we believe warrant special attention. For example, there are few people who would argue that a child with Downes Syndrome should not receive supports that would assist him or her with accessing curriculum and enhancing learning. Visibly, when looking at this child, there is something on the surface that tells us that we must take that extra time to understand him or her. However, we tend not to recognize the challenges for those children who have needs that are invisible. For example, children who struggle with written output or memory difficulties, or the students with high functioning autism, look like typical children on the outside. As a result, we are inclined to treat them like other “typical” children in the way we teach, assess, and support them.
Would we prevent a child who has difficulty seeing, the option of wearing glasses? Would we allow children the use of a wheelchair if they were not able to use their legs? Is it reasonable that all children, regardless of their needs, must learn at the same rate, in the same way, and be assessed with the same tools? How much might we expect from a child with diverse needs? How much can we push a child to succeed? When a child is not engaging in school, how do we know if this is the result of the child’s challenging circumstances versus their attitude or physiology?
We are now seeing more opportunities in education for all children to learn in ways that are more supportive and unique to their needs. We have locally developed courses in which students will receive differentiated assignments (responsive teaching to the unique needs of students) that are appropriate to their abilities. Further, in any given class, teachers tend to offer adaptations (supports) for students, such as additional time on tests or assignments, alternate settings for those with anxiety, technology for communication, and learning strategies to address memory or output. When assessing students, I’m seeing more teachers move away from the traditional tests and quizzes to assessing orally, through presentations (public speaking, debates, screen casts, blogs, wikis), using rubrics (charts to indicate levels of understanding), and performance tasks (hands-on skills, lab work). When using tests and quizzes, some teachers are now embedding video and sound clips that make the tests more engaging and relevant. Quizzes are typically used formatively, meaning they are there to provide feedback on what students still need to work on and what a teacher still needs to teach. Quiz scores are often no longer counted in the overall marks of a student because our final evaluation should reflect what a child understands by the end of a course or unit, not what they were learning during the course or unit. In other words, everything that a child is learning during a unit is part of the practice. The final assessment or the key assessments in a unit are the game and it is the game that gets reported on.
A week ago, I joined five of our teachers on a workshop about assessment. We talked about finding ways to make learning resemble the real world. We heard about interesting analogies that question the validity of 50% or percents at all. Is it acceptable to “pass” a course such as automotive with 50%? Would we accept a mechanic who completed a brake job at 50% or a doctor who peformed heart surgery at 50%? When is 50% really not a “pass” and how do we engage students to strive for much more than 50%? What kind of feedback is meaningful to parents and students? How is this feedback reflective of all learners?
While I have yet to find the perfect educational system, I believe we are at a time when teachers are trying to push the envelope of not, what is fair, but what is right for each child. We know that what works for one child, may not work for another, just as what is motivating for one student, may be discouraging for another. We struggle with how to do what is right for each child within the context of multiple children (a class)? The solutions are not always simple, nor are they always realistic. However, what is exciting is that our staff continue to make teaching and learning their number one priority. We continually experiment with finding ways to improve student engagement, achievement, and overall success for ALL students.