Differences

SMUS-Views-Bob

Earlier this week I heard a group of our teachers reflect upon the completion of their stint in our Learning Institute, organized by Director of Learning, Heather Clayton. Quite a few parents have attended evening sessions presented by Heather, each evening addressing some aspect of how our approach to learning (i.e., teaching) has been transformed by the brain research of the last thirty years, and by the ramifications of that research on teaching practice. The essential change is that in a learner-centred environment – which SMUS is – learning happens much more effectively when we recognize that all students learn differently. After listening to our teachers speak on Wednesday night, I made the observation that in the old days – when I was in school – one adapted to the teacher, or if that wasn’t possible one sat through an unenjoyable class because that was the reality; now, however, the shoe is to a great extent on the other foot: our teachers work to adapt to different learners. They provide a variety of activities to learn in different ways; they make sure the learning is active rather than passive; they choose a variety of paths to get to the learning goals.

Some learners learn more differently than others. One of our most thought-provoking and salutary experiences with this fact occurred a number of years ago when a student was discovered in Grade 6 with Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s is complex, and is often described as “high-functioning autistic”. I encourage anyone who would like more information to start on Wikipedia , and then follow whatever links catch the eye in order to find out more. Our response at that time – which was quite a number of years ago – was to work with the boy, and see how the experience changed us – we were going to avoid going down the path of “adjusting” him to fit us. After all, our Mission states that “our school seeks the excellence in all of us.”

Six years later, the boy graduated with an average over 90%, was a debater on the debating team, a lead in the School musical, among other achievements. He went on to University of Victoria. His journey continues, and we have helped him along the way.

The list of learning differences and disabilities is as long as the number of learners. As I said above, some learners have more identifiable differences or disabilities, and require more marked adjustments by teachers. Other learners simply find it useful to know that they tend to be listeners, or talkers, or doers. Some are more musical, more mathematical, more verbal. Some have a very hard time writing their thoughts; dyslexics fall into this category. The more we learn about the brain, the more sophisticated is our understanding of learning.

The uninformed apprehension in going down this path is that the School might be altering its standards. That is not the case. We believe in the “excellence of all of us”, and in fact are fulfilling that purpose better than ever. For those who still worry about the “standards” question, I answer with the recognition by the College Board that SMUS is ranked first in Canada for performance on Advanced Placement exams (out of 600 schools) and in the top 60 in the world (out of 18,000). Not only that: we want our students to be lifelong learners, and while they are under our wing, we are going to learn along with them.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden is Head of School at St. Michaels University School.

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