Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More on Inclusive Education: Making Children Smart

In her book, What we call smart: A new narrative for intelligence and learning, Lynda Miller discusses four principles that I believe are fundamental to creating inclusive schools and classrooms.

(1) everyone is taken to be smart and capable of learning;
(2) everyone is seen to be motivated by unique and often different things;
(3) individual variation is accepted as normal, not as a disorder;
(4) discovering each person’s individual story is the starting point for designing
meaningful and relevant instruction. (L. Miller, 1993, p. 75)

For now I’d like to address just the first principle: “everyone is taken to be smart and capable of learning.” This principle has important implications for how we think about learning success and failure. First, if we recognize that ALL the children we work with are “smart” – and there is plenty of evidence that all children are very smart indeed – then we will be suspicious of evidence to the contrary. When a child seems unable to make sense of what she’s read, instead of asking “what’s wrong with her?” we might ask, “what’s going on here?” What conditions made it possible for her to conclude that meaning was not at the core of the reading process? What conditions were in place to create this struggling reader and how do we change them?

Put differently, what conditions are necessary to enable this student to be “smart?” There is a substantial body of literature indicating that the conditions of learning are often very different for successful learners and students who fail in school. Successful learners are much more likely, for example, to engage in meaningful curricular opportunities than less successful learners. Some would argue that struggling readers, for example, need to focus on isolated – and less meaningful – skill instruction before they’re ready to engage with meaningful texts. I would argue that engaging in meaningful reading is one of the conditions that makes good readers “smart.” The same conditions are necessary to make struggling readers smart. In other words, when students struggle in school we need to examine the curriculum and how we interact with students and not just assume that school struggles indicate that something is wrong with students.


Miller, L. (1993). What we call smart: A new narrative for intelligence and learning. San Diego: Singular Publishing Group.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Creating Inclusive Schools and Classrooms

I’ve been thinking a lot about inclusion lately. One reason is that I’m getting ready to teach a course on inclusion at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto this summer. My wife, a speech and language pathologist in a Boston area school, has also made me think hard about inclusion when she shares a now daily report on a little boy in one of her schools whose behavior seems to demand exclusion. So how do we create inclusive schools and classrooms that are congenial to the diverse range of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds and life experiences and abilities students bring with them to school?

From my perspective, inclusion isn’t about special methods or getting all teachers the right sort of training although these things can help. Inclusion is about school structures, how schools and classrooms are organized. For example, large classes organized around one-size-fits all curricula will never be congenial to the needs of many students, especially students who are not the “average” students curriculum developers imagined (and this means most students).

So how do we create inclusive schools and classrooms?

Many children need small group and individualized instruction (actually all children need this but some need it more than others). How do we create structures that enable teachers to provide these kinds of instructional opportunities?

All children need to find ways to connect classroom learning to their experiences. How do we create a literacy curriculum that allows children to draw on their out-of-school experiences?

All children need to be able to draw on their linguistic resources in support of their learning. How do we enable students to draw on their own language to make sense of school learning?

All children need to feel that their language, culture, background knowledge and experience are respected. How do we counter the disrespect inherent in so many school reforms (no recess, zero tolerance, tedious focus on meaningless skills, and so on)?

All children require instruction that responds to their individual needs and abilities. How can we create assessments that focus on what children know, not what they don’t know?

Inclusive schools are welcoming places. How do create schools where all children feel safe from physical and psychological violence including racism, sexism, and homophobia?

Are there students who can’t be included? This is heresy for some inclusion educators, but I suspect we’ll never be able to accommodate the needs of all students in some classroom environments.

What about exclusion as a means of achieving broader forms of political and economic inclusion? Here I’m thinking about the move in some places to gender segregated classrooms or so-called Black-focused schools?

My guess is that we need very different kinds of classroom structures to achieve these goals. Hopefully, the questions I posed will stimulate some conversation (write a comment) and, for the next month or so I’ll keep writing about these issues.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Endangered species

The other day I stumbled upon an excellent article by David Pearson in the Journal of Literacy Education entitled, “An endangered species act for literacy education.” The basic thrust of the article is captured in the following quote:

Three principles and practices we have compromised even though we never meant to . . .
. Insistence on transfer of learning, faith in teacher prerogative, and regard for individual
differences as the hallmark of learning and assessment – have all but disappeared from the
educational landscape. (p. 145)

On the transfer of learning issue Pearson is referring to the NCLB inspired fixation on students’ performance on various reading assessments without any regard for whether reading as measured by various assessments actually predicts other kinds of reading. Does DIBELS predict how well students will read connected text, for example. (Bess Altwerger and her colleagues have provided convincing evidence that it does not.)

Loss of teacher prerogative refers to the increasing tendency toward whole-class, teacher-proof literacy curricula. Pearson refers to Dick Allington’s work which indicates that effective literacy educators are knowledgeable about literacy and in a position to exercise professional discretion in their day-to-day work with individual students. The presumption that teaching should be guided by “scientifically-based” reading research is misguided since this kind of research addresses the performance of groups of students (represented by the average), not individuals. We must rely on the professional judgments of teachers – informed by their knowledge of appropriate theory and research, their experience, and their ongoing assessments of students – to provide for the individual needs of students in their classrooms.

Loss of regard for individual differences as the hallmark of learning and assessment is related to teacher prerogative. The tendency toward whole-class instruction makes it difficult for teachers to consider the needs of individual students. Whole-class reading instruction leads many teachers to teach skills and strategies many students have already mastered or aren’t ready to learn. The notion that we should leave “no child behind” is inarguable. In practice, however, No Child Left Behind has resulted in practices and policies that have left many children behind and prevented others from getting too far ahead.


Pearson, P.D. (2007). An endangered species act for literacy education. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(2), 145-162.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Lack of Respect

I’ve read a couple of seemingly disparate stories recently that are linked by a common theme. The first was a New York Times article that described the use of electronic monitoring devices to discourage truancy in students with a history of truant behavior. Quoting from the article:

“Jaime Pacheco rolled out of bed at dawn last week to the blaring chorus of two alarms. Then Jaime, a15-year-old high school freshman, smoothed his striped comforter, dumped two scoops of kibble for the dogs out back and strapped a G.P.S. monitor to his belt.
By 7:15, Jaime was in the passenger seat of his grandmother’s sport-utility vehicle, holding the little black monitor out the window for the satellite to register. A few miles down the road, at Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas, he got out of the car, said goodbye to his grandmother and paused to press a button on the unit three times. A green light flashed, and then Jaime headed for the cafeteria with plenty of time before the morning bell.”

The article went on to conclude that electronic monitoring is seen by some educators as a promising tool for improving school attendance.

The second article is a piece from the Boston Globe that documents resistance in some affluent communities to full-day kindergarten. Here’s an illustrative quote from the article:

“A growing chorus of parents now say they want their children home more, and accuse school districts pushing full-day kindergarten of depriving them of quality time together. They say that those districts are meddling in the fundamentals of parenting, such as how much structure to build into young children's lives and how much time to leave unfettered.”

The article cited the warmer reception full-day kindergarten has received in many urban settings where longer school days for five year olds has been linked to improved academic outcomes (at least that’s the hope).

Here’s what I think these two articles have in common: a lack of respect for children and childhood as a special time of life. Electronic monitoring may improve attendance but does so by treating students as criminals. Full-day kindergarten may relieve parent concerns about daycare and provide more time for learning, but is it developmentally appropriate? Should all five years olds be spending six hours a day engaged in structured – and increasingly – academic activities?

Just because these practices “work” does not mean that they are moral, ethical, or even sensible.