Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Aptitudes and Symbol Systems in Adaptive Classroom Teaching

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Aptitudes and Symbol Systems in Adaptive Classroom Teaching

Article excerpt

Teacher facility in and use of the multiple symbol systems relevant to a particular subject matter, at a particular time, in a particular place, and with a particular student population may be the essential feature of adaptive teaching, Mr. Snow suggests.

As teachers we strive to promote educational progress equally and fairly for all of our students. We devise courses and lesson plans to reach instructional goals for the class as a whole, and we carry these plans forward as best we can each day with evenhanded classroom management.

Sometimes these goals mean that we have to find a style of presentation or a form of participation that fits the particular character of a given class and differs from what we have done in previous years. Often they also mean recognizing student differences within the class group, looking for individual strengths to capitalize on and weaknesses to remove or avoid. We develop alternatives - different approaches to a topic or activity, different organizations of content, different explanations, different representations and examples - and we provide a variety of media and materials from which students can choose, in the hope of connecting with each student's learning strengths and interests. Sometimes we divide students into groups, varying instruction or activities to fit different kinds of student needs. Sometimes we work one-on-one with particular students on particular problems. And we always try to respect and respond to individuality - each student is in various ways and degrees unique.

However we choose to face it, the problem of individual differences among students is ever present and often overwhelming. Students differ from one another in dozens of important ways that reflect cultural as well as individual characteristics. Minute by minute and month by month, we must decide when and how to adapt to the characteristics of particular students, when and how not to do so, and which student characteristics to attend to in either case. In all our teaching, we seek to balance the need to help all students reach the common goals of instruction with the need to help individual students reach individual goals. In other words, we hope to minimize some aspects of student differences while maximizing others. When done well, it is an awesome balancing act.

The what/when/bow question of adapting to student learning differences has motivated philosophical pronouncements for many centuries and empirical research by educators and social scientists for most of this past one.(1) Critics scoff at our inability to give simple deterministic answers. But we know that answers depend on the local conditions and contexts of teachers and learners and are in any event probabilistic. We have come to respect these complex, conditional answers because each new decade of experience and research has increased our appreciation for the complex, conditional nature of the question.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, it was thought sufficient to adapt instruction only to the levels of general intelligence of students and to do so in a fixed and standard way across the curriculum. In the years around World War II, it was recognized that mental abilities were multiple and that different school subjects required different mixes. Through the 1960s and 1970s, it became clear that different patterns of personal strengths within an individual course called for different instructional methods and media. And this realization brought in the role of various symbol systems in different media as they related to student differences. In addition, personalities as well as abilities had to be taken into account somehow. It was also recognized that teachers too display characteristic personal profiles that can lead to matches and mismatches in the teaching/learning process.(2)

Furthermore, work in the 1980s and 1990s has produced a fuller appreciation that this adaptive teaching/learning process seeks a match with student learning profiles not only to reach specific achievement goals but also to strengthen, expand, and prepare the learners themselves for future learning. …

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