in Classroom Diversity
Kathie F. Nunley
other advanced countries who focus their educational efforts
disproportionately on an elite group, the United States attempts
to educate all students. Today's teacher may find herself facing
a classroom of 30 different varieties of students all in one
room. At issue are several factors such as, variety of native
languages (students with limited English proficiency), students
from a variety of cultural backgrounds whose body language can
often be misread (Vontress, 1973), students from cultures with
a long history of distrust of institutional authority (Wilkinson,
1979), students with activity or behavioral disorders such as
hyperactivity, distractibility, perceptual-concept disorders,
and emotional instability (Levy, 1973), as well as students
whose learning styles vary from auditory to visual to tactile.
In addition, one-third of America's children live in poverty
and face associated problems such as those caused by abuse or
neglect (Dixon, 1995).
traditional classroom is rigid in style. It is geared for one
type of student, or at best, a small range of students. Educating
all the variations in culture, language, ability, and learning
style is often like trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Because the traditional, didactic classroom has not been modified
to fit the variations in students, the student who wants to
succeed has been forced to modify his or her style to fit the
template of the successful student. The community outside the
school often does not see that the components of the classroom
have changed while teaching methods have remained the same.
Their cry is frequently to increase the amount of traditional
teaching methods in order to solve the problem. This is what
Senge (1990) refers to as the "'what we need here is a
bigger hammer' syndrome...Pushing harder and harder on familiar
solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen"
(p.61). But more is not always better; Sometimes what you need
is different. Typical suggested solutions such as a longer school
day, or more school days, or more time spent reciting the 3
R's will not be effective. What is needed is a whole new approach
to teaching. Instruction needs to be differentiated within the
classroom to address various abilities and learning styles.
The problem, then, is how does a teacher effectively modify
instruction to allow for this variability in the classroom,
so that all students, regardless of ability or background, can
issue is a new one. Educating the masses in one classroom is
a problem that has been slowly evolving in the last half of
this century. Prior to this time, the emphasis was on educating
White students from middle-class backgrounds who also appeared
to be without any handicapping conditions that would prevent
them from succeeding in the mainstream public school. Regarding
students of African descent, this is especially true in the
Southern states. In the 1940's it was common for schools in
the South to spend nearly five times as much money per White
pupil as per Black pupil. (Wilkinson, 1979). At that time, according
to Wilkinson, the prevailing belief was that persons of color
had a questionable ability to learn and therefore, it was unjustifiable
to spend what few resources these states had on educating students
other than White pupils. Another factor contributing to the
discrepancies in White and nonwhite education is that early
in this century most American Blacks lived in the rural areas
of the South. By 1960, though, nearly three fourths of the Black
Americans had moved to urban areas, particularly in the Northern
and Western States. The movement was motivated by a desire to
find better jobs and less severe attitudes towards persons of
color. Schools were officially desegregated in 1954 with the
Supreme Court ruling Brown v. the Board of Education (1954),
however, many schools remained segregated after this time as
the Supreme Court made little effort toward enforcement and
deadlines. Consequently, in as late as 1962, there were no Black
American students in any traditionally White public school or
college in several southern states, including Mississippi and
Alabama. By 1964, conditions had improved slightly in that 2.3
percent of Black American students were enrolled in desegregated
schools in the South. (Wilkinson,1979).
scenario holds true with students from all racial backgrounds.
In 1974, only 10% of school-age Native American children were
attending school in urban areas. Today only one-half of all
Native American children graduate high school (Atkinson, Marten,
& Sue, 1979). In the 1970's and 1980's, the minority population
in public schools grew from slightly over 20% to nearly 33%.
Today more than one-third of students in public education come
from African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American backgrounds.
In the largest Urban districts, these populations comprise three
quarters of the pupil enrollment in schools (Matcznski &
Joseph, 1989). Although schools today have made significant
improvements in desegregation, current statistics show a significant
gap in school achievement between White students and minority
students. Between 1990 and 1992, there has been improvement
in the gap between White and Hispanic students, but no significant
improvement in the gap between White and Black student high
school graduation statistics.
educational programs for children with disabilities has changed
dramatically over the last two decades as well. In 1975 Congress
passed Public Law 94-142, known as The Education for All Handicapped
Children Act. Among other things, this law gives all students
the right to a free and appropriate education in what is termed
the "least restrictive environment". What this law
encourages is placement of exceptional children in the regular
classroom with support services that will allow the student
to succeed in a community of his peers (National Society for
Autistic Children [NSAC], 1984). The mainstreaming process for
these children can often be a difficult task, especially for
the regular education teacher who has little training in teaching
exceptional children. The specific needs of the individual student
must be considered above the pre-existing programs in a school
or classroom (Button, 1991). Although national and state lawmakers
can provide policy for mainstreaming children with handicaps,
the teacher is ultimately the determining factor in mainstreaming
success. Levy (1973) writes:
experience with the management of several hundred learning-disabled
children has convinced me that the child can be helped most
by those close to him. No program developed on a regional or
national basis is going to solve all the problems of every learning
disabled child since each one is different and needs to be treated
as an individual. A knowledgeable teacher, concerned parents,
and an interested physician comprise the real learning disability
team. Together they can try to aid each child according to his
own specific need, helping him reach his true learning potential
and keeping him in the mainstream of regular education in his
own community where he belongs. (p. 12)
to the problem of all this diversity is learning style. As Dunn
(1983) points out, our "functioning" style is different
from our "learning" style. The elements involved in
our learning environment may be more varied than those involved
in our everyday functioning with routine tasks. These elements
include: noise level, amount and type of light, temperature,
the design of the chair and desk, motivation, persistence preference,
social influences, and sensory preference (auditory, visual,
tactile). Most young people are tactile learners, whereas most
traditional teaching methods teach to the auditory and visual
learner. Designing instructional activities for the various
learning styles can be a new experience for many teachers. So
how does a teacher solve these problems associated with the
new diversity in the mainstream classroom. The answer lies in
achieve a successful classroom requires strong leadership on
the part of the teacher. It also takes great leadership on the
part of those that train and administrate teachers. Leadership
training is often aimed at the administrative level and as Sashkin
and Sashkin (1993) write, the concept of leadership as well
as the emphasis on educational leadership is changing. The traditional
administrative manager is being replaced or at least retrained
for a leadership role. Very little, however, is written on leadership
at the classroom level. One of the National Education goals
that our nation is expected to reach by the year 2000 is that
teachers will be provided with the skills they need to prepare
all students for the next century (National Education Goals
Report, 1994). This training can take place either through in-service
or pre-service teacher education. It is critical that the leaders
responsible for training new teachers adequately prepare them
for the diversified classroom.
teaching the limited English proficiency (LEP) student, Harris
(1995) encourages what she terms "sheltered instruction."
This instruction relies heavily on tactile manipulatives to
teach concepts rather than verbal instruction or textbooks.
The teacher is encouraged to allow the students to successfully
discover concepts independently using simple manipulatives,
graphs, and maps, rather than allowing a language obstacle to
promote failure. It is important to remember, as Harris notes,
"The students do not lack intelligence, just English"
(p. 25). The idea of using more manipulatives for self-discovery
is further supported by Keegan (1995). Keegan compares the student-centered
and teacher-centered classrooms in what he calls discovery versus
didactic instructional methods. He concludes that the discovery
or student-centered classroom tends to produce the best results
when dealing with pre-adult learners. The teacher-centered or
didactic instructional classroom with heavy emphasis on lecture,
textbooks, and video, although allowing the teacher to feel
in control, is not conducive to long term ability in transferring
that knowledge to other situations.
implement such instructional methods, a teacher must assume
the role of leader in her classroom. The first step in classroom
leadership is building confidence and trust between student
and teacher and between students. Johnson and Johnson (1974)
is a necessary condition for stable cooperation and effective
communication. The higher the trust, the more stable the cooperation
and the more effective the communication. Students will more
openly express their thoughts, feelings, reactions, opinions,
information, and ideas when the trust level is high. When the
trust level is low, students will be evasive, dishonest, and
inconsiderate in their communications. Students will more honestly
and frequently declare their cooperative intentions and make
contributions to a cooperative effort when they believe they
are dealing with highly trustworthy individuals. (p. 103)
a classroom is to form united working relationships, the leader
must set the precedent for communication, organization and direction
(Bennis & Nanus, 1985). Applying these author's 5 key skills
of leadership, the teacher must show and prove acceptance of
her students, she must look at the relationships in terms of
the present, focusing on the here and now and set new direction
for each student. Focusing on present and future performance
rather than past experience is critical when working with at-risk
students. The teacher also needs to view the problem of diversity
in term of the present. The classroom has changed. The diversity
is here and it will not be going away. The situation that exists
now requires some action. The classroom leader must encourage
and build trust, even though the risk is great. Many students
have grown up in families with a rich background of distrust
of established institutions such as schools, police, and judicial
systems. During the Brown v. Board of Education hearings in
the 1960's, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell was quoted as
saying "the Negro has had, until recent years, little reason
to respect the law. The entire legal process, from the police
and sheriff to the citizens who serve on juries has too often
applied a double standard of justice" (Wilkinson, 1979,
p.163). Although Justice Powell's quote was from 1966, attitudes
have changed little in terms of trust as was seen during the
recent Rodney King trial in California. A teacher is often seen
as a part of an American institution, one that may not have
been a positive experience in some family histories. So trust
building may be difficult, but it must be in place before the
students can work on goal setting. Bennis and Nanus' fifth key
skill involves tenacity without recognition and support. This
can be especially true in some school situations or communities
where the teacher is a pioneer in differentiating instruction
within the classroom. Even trying to modify instruction for
various learning styles can often bring friction from teachers
and parents clinging to traditional methods. In the face of
controversy, credibility becomes key to a leader's success.
A credible, competent and honest leader will bring support from
the community. Ways to build that credibility include leading
by example, (in terms of ethics and control); standing up for
your beliefs, (show the community that you are not afraid to
take risks); and know your constituents, (acknowledge the differences
and be honest about those differences). Learn how to effectively
communicate the vision for a diversified classroom. Communication
can be the most important element in persuading support (Kouzes
& Posner, 1993).
key to individualizing instruction is to see the classroom as
a community. In that community, each student needs to be empowered
to make his or her own decisions as far as assignment choices
and evaluation. Bennis and Nanus (1985) discuss 4 dimensions
of empowerment that can be applied to the classroom. Their first
dimension, competency, is seen in a student's individual effort
to learn. The student can choose the level he or she needs to
be at and then work toward personal goals to reach a competency.
Goal setting can be a joint project between teacher and student
so long as the trust is there so that the student buys into
the goal. In group work or cooperative learning, Bennis and
Nanus' second dimension, significancy, can be demonstrated.
Each member of a group or team takes a role based on individual
strengths. One of the group activities may be to find individual
strengths. If the group has identified their own personal strengths,
there will again be ownership of the goals and work. By helping
each other work towards a goal, the students feel the sense
of community, Bennis and Nanus' third dimension, where there
is interaction and dependent relationships. The students in
this community build a network of support. They may have a group
goal, they may divide tasks based on individual strengths, and
give credit where credit is due (Kelley, 1993). Once a student
is given the power to choose his own goals and assignments,
he takes ownership in his work and transfers the task from "teacher-given"
to "student-chosen." This ownership allows not only
for more enjoyment but also more effort and time spent on reaching
teacher must also teach leadership skills to her students by
teaching them how to translate intention into reality by setting
personal learning goals, deciding on the best path to reach
those goals and then successfully achieving them (Bennis &
Nanus, 1985). Students are accustomed to following the teacher's
assignments, often unaware of the goals or objectives. It may
be difficult in the beginning for them to set goals. Their learned
helplessness in personal education direction may be difficult
to change. Through trust building and encouragement the teacher
can pull, rather than push students toward goal setting. This
is a sign of leadership rather than the traditional manager
of curriculum as was seen in the traditional teacher-given instruction
(Bennis & Nanus, 1985). Johnson and Johnson (1975) suggest
goal setting as a group activity. In this situation, the teacher
would facilitate the sharing of ideas within a group and encourage
division of labor so that everyone's strengths are utilized.
Students could evolve to individual goal setting without regard
to the individual accomplishments of other students. Once the
students experience some success in their own personal goal
setting, they will be more willing followers, even demonstrating
more responsibility for their own learning. It is this shift
in responsibility that shows the classroom moving from teacher-centered
to student-centered. As Max DePree (1993) writes, "Performance
of the group is the only real proof of leadership" (p.
addition to teaching personal goal setting, teachers are responsible
for leading a set of ethics that govern the followers. A teacher
must establish good conduct through role-modeling. This is particularly
important when working with students whose backgrounds may not
have included good role-models (Bennis, 1986). The teacher may
be the only person in a student's sphere of reference who is
capable of modeling appropriate behavior. Sashkin and Sashkin
can clarify, interpret, draw attention to, and reinforce values
and thus help build and strengthen cultures. But directly observable
action--preferably involving interaction with others--is more
effective than speech for instilling values that guide subsequent
actions....Only repeated action ensures that others will clearly
see the values one models. (p. 204)
aspect of leadership in teachers is the use of wholistic thinking
when working with students. Their family, their peers, their
environment, their mental ability are all related components
to their situation in the classroom. The student cannot be considered
isolated from the other components once inside the classroom,
because all of those other factors influence outcomes as well
as the instruction within the classroom (Senge, 1990). These
factors often become part of the limiting factors to learning.
If learning is not taking place it may not be the instructional
method but rather one of these outside factors, as Senge writes,
that operate within the student. As educators, we must consider
these factors, yet still maintain our current level of expectation.
What is tempting, yet should never be allowed, is to simply
lower the standards, let goals erode in order to make the problems
of diversity go away. The tension created by this diversity
should be used to generate energy to make the necessary changes
necessary changes should be in terms of positive goal setting.
The traditional teacher-centered classroom often focuses on
"negative vision" (Senge, 1990) or behaviors which
we don't want rather than what we do want. The basic difference
is referred to as punishment and reinforcement. Punishments
are action taken to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring
again. Reinforcements are actions taken to increase the likelihood
of a behavior occurring again. Punishments tend to teach people
to be more creative in their behavior so that they don't get
caught. Reinforcement teaches pride, effort and responsibility.
Punishment often leads to confusion and anger, whereas reinforcement
usually leads to cooperation. Whether something is perceived
as a punishment or reinforcer can often be based on minor semantics.
It is important in the classroom to allow the students to perceive
as much control as possible. The goal is to let the students
see themselves as a partner in their education. This perception
encourages responsibility (Lee, 1993). Senge writes, "It
is abundantly clear that rigid authoritarian hierarchies thwart
learning, failing both to harness the spirit, enthusiasm, and
knowledge..." (p. 289). The difficulty in giving students
control is that teachers have to give up some of the control
they have traditionally maintained. To change the behavior of
others, we often have to change the behavior of ourselves.
good teacher/leader in the classroom is an innovator of instructional
ideas. She asks why and what questions such as "Why has
this objective always been taught this way?" or "Why
do we need textbooks to teach these skills?", or "What
would happen if I had no textbook and no chalkboard?".
These questions challenge tradition and begin a focus on alternate
ways to teach using student-directed activities. An innovator
is a risk taker and risk taking can often lead to mistakes or
failures. Leadership is an on the job skill. Failure is not
something to be feared as long as the failure is a learning
experience. In his chapter Moving through Chaos, Bennis (1989)
writes "Everywhere you trip is where the treasure lies"
(p.149). He discusses the valuable leadership lessons that can
be learned through setbacks and failures. This is especially
true in trying new teaching methods. Be prepared for failures
and learn from them. Even the bad ideas teach you something
if only it is to know what won't work. The important thing is
to keep taking the risk. Teaching to different abilities in
the same classroom should be an exercise in personal mastery,
a practice that never ends.
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F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher
and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the
Layered Curriculum® method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has
authored several books and articles on teaching in mixed-ability
classrooms and other problems facing today's teachers. Full
references and additional teaching and parental tips are available
at: http://Help4Teachers.com Email her:
Kathie (at) brains.org