Diversity Out there on the margins

"I went to school so I could learn. I quickly learned that I loved learning but not the idea of school." (Craig, Year 8)

How can we as educators capture the love of learning and keep the flame burning brightly?

Education systems traditionally focus on providing what they believe children lack which will magically transform them into “whole, complete people” (Parsons, 2007), so that they capable of contributing to society or at least conforming to societal norms and values. The traditional model, born of the Industrial Revolution was a one-size-fits-all model which sought to ensure that all who attended achieved a minimum standard which would enable them to function in society. Is this still the case today?

Providing a general education, accessible to all, which can raise the bar for everyone is a noble goal, however, the model on which it is based is shaky to say the least and certainly no longer valid. The deficit or medical model which has been the foundation of education since the industrial revolution is not only outdated but views education through a negative lens. Many of our children who are currently negotiating the system find themselves sitting on the margins precisely because they don’t ‘lack’ the fundamentals, they are not broken and don't need fixing. These are students, who by virtue of their diverse learning needs, are capable and need and want to learn!

How is it then that schools often do not know what to do with them? Can one assume that the Industrial Model of education has been around for so long that we who work in the education system are hard-wired to this deficit model? Do our values and beliefs inherently align with the fix-it model? Is this all that "making a difference" means? For many of us that is why we wanted to teach. Are we merely focussed on plugging a gap, removing short circuits in hardwiring, or finding the missing pieces in the jigsaw? When do we start to focus on capabilities which will develop talent? A key issue with the deficit approach is the focus on deficit. Until we view our role as enablers who seek to empower learners we are likely to remain shackled to an archaic notion where we aim to create a sense of sameness by doing as much as we can for children to reach core standards.

Diversity can only be valued when it is seen as a strength. For us as educators to evolve in a professional sense we need to remember that we entered this profession to teach children and we need to see learners as individuals not an amorphous mass, loosely termed ‘diverse learners.’ Relationships are key. These build over time with individuals and are founded on trust, not constructs. Relationships value a student’s identity and this can be shown by listening to and acknowledging individual students, their learning needs and goals, and opening the doors to student agency.

Recent conversations with students have hammered this aspect home. Many who are frustrated with the school system feel that way because they are viewed as “just another 12-year-old” with no life experience and therefore no right to an opinion. To many students, the concept of “student-voice” is paradoxical. They complete surveys ad nauseum ostensibly to find out what they are thinking. “The problem with these (surveys) is that they are teacher or school developed questions, which have little relevance to us and don’t dig deep enough to find out what we really want. If they really want to know why not talk to us?” (Giles, Year 11).

Many students consider that they have less and less agency in their learning. “I would rather be learning new stuff at a higher level and enjoying it, than getting excellence in something which I’ve been learning about since primary school. I just want to LEARN something new!” (Chris, Year 9). They often seek only to learn and they see that the core business of school to provide an education where learning is the key focus.

These students are innovative thinkers, concerned for the present and the future. They see possibilities and learn differently. They think BIG and they may have the answers we need to provide innovative, meaningful learning and revolutionise our approach to education. Changes to the physical learning environment are secondary to their thirst for knowledge. One student recently said she was angry that she was being forced into a massive space to learn, where the noise made learning impossible and she didn't know which teacher was her mentor. "This is so close to when I finish school. I'm at a critical stage of my education. I cannot afford to be a guinea pig. No-one asked us if this is going to work for us!" (Mel, Year 12).

So how can we provide students with personal agency and acknowledge their diversity of needs and values? We need to ask and listen. Listening is key. Collaboration with students to enable them to achieve their goals is critical. We need to recognise that not all students who sit on the margins need fixing, perhaps we need to review and fix the margins instead. Perhaps real student voice garnered from in-depth conversation with these intelligent young people will truly bring about acceptance and value of diversity and purposeful learning.

The spin-off for teachers is immense, not only will we make a difference but it will be through a strengths-based focus and empowerment, student engagement and motivation. Likely to raise achievement? Possible if not probable!

In my mind, you couldn’t ask for much more.

(All student names are pseudonyms and year levels changed.)

Sue Luus (MEd (Gifted Education)), FDE (Special Education).


Created with images by new 1lluminati - "spiral tribe" • wwarby - "Flames" • Got Credit - "Education Key" • katerha - "There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle. Deepak Chopra" • ky_olsen - "Listen" • bykst - "woman mask face soul identity disorder being" • cogdogblog - "Learning is Hanging Out" • tookapic - "book open pages paper education literature textbook" • Mediamodifier - "success road to success direction business road" • avi_acl - "inspire travel adventure inspirationè walking journey freedom"

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