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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is a Ph.D candidate at the University of South Florida, where he also works as a teaching assistant, supervising and teaching pre-service teachers. Steve holds a master's degree...
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Are We Being Fair to Students? Opening the Channels of Academic Expression

I often believe we are academically restricting students on a daily basis. In our efforts to make learning gains and boost test scores, we have narrowed our view of learning and understanding, and thus, severely restricted the ways students can demonstrate learning.

Think about it. How often our students given a paper-and-pencil test (in this highly digital age)? How many essays or written response exams do students take each school year? Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with students learning to write or occasionally demonstrating learning through these modalities. What’s wrong is when that’s all they are allowed to do.

Offering one, dominant path to express understanding of content, for instance, is robbing students of their given-abilities, talents, and uniqueness and perhaps reducing their ability to make deep connections with curriculum. Rather, a more equitable approach is providing consistent opportunities to express learning in a variety of ways, ways that align with their affinities, inclinations, and strengths. This is certainly not a new idea.

Psychologist Howard Gardner, for instance, pioneered the theory of multiple intelligences--essentially, that individuals have different modalities or types of intelligence, moving education away from merely viewing intelligence as merely verbal or non-verbal in nature. The whole movement of differentiated instruction has also addressed the need to view students as possessing unique academic needs and altering instructional strategies to better meet these needs.

Thus, two questions remain: 1) what does this concept of various modalities look like in the classroom? and 2) why are we not fully employing this approach?

To address the first question, it depends.  Providing various forms of academic expression depends on a teacher’s students, grade-level, content area being taught, classroom conditions, etc. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all, in my opinion. What I can do is provide some examples.

When teaching reading to elementary students, for instance, I often wondered what would happen if I provided different modes of expression. I thought: if I’m trying to teach a student to find the main idea and supporting details in a text, why should I restrict him or her in how this is accomplished? I experimented by allowing the student to select how he or she wanted to approach the skill and also how to demonstrate that learning. In this case, I allowed the student, who say liked to work with her hands, the option of building a model (out of clay or blocks) as she read and searched for the main idea of the article. She could also use this mode when demonstrating understanding, however, I asked her to compliment this expression

with a short-written response. Instantly, the student’s performance increased as well as her overall engagement. The student was now operating in a mode that felt comfortable, that allowed her to tap into how she best learned. I did not remove or change the learning objective-rather, I provided more pathways for the student to reach that objective.

I do not have a clear answer for why we are not allowing students to experience learning in various ways. Perhaps it was to do with fear; teachers might be afraid that test scores will drop if they move away from traditional teaching or they will experience repercussions from school administration. It could also be a lack of training as well as a lack of creativity; we might have become so accustomed to teaching a certain way, we are blinded to new ideas of teaching.

Regardless, I think we need to bring the discussion back to equity. We have to honestly ask ourselves if requiring students to learn and be assessed in narrow ways is in the best interest for everyone.