By Dimitris Kouniakis
It is without a doubt that two of the most daunting thoughts and responsibilities that weigh upon 21st-century teachers are those of lesson planning and delivering the goals and expectations of the curriculum design.
It is more often than not that many sacrifices are made in the process of successfully completing the assigned curriculum design. But the underlying question is at what cost? The late sir Ken Robinson in one of his famous TED talks “How to escape education’s death valley?” (Robinson, 2013) mentioned how much teaching went on in the classroom environment but questioned whether learning took place at the same time.
What he was referring to at the time was the fact that students have different talents that are not catered for, especially the arts that have for years been underestimated in terms of educational value or simply frowned upon as non-essential knowledge and skill.
In this same regard, TEFL / TESOL learning environments often sacrifice the learning process for the “greater good” of completing a course book or course level in order to follow suit with the school policy without catering for the needs of all the students. But why is this happening and what are these needs?
It is no hidden secret that today teachers are encountering more students with a wide spectrum of learning difficulties than ever before.
Much research has been conducted and new sciences have come to assist us and give us insight into this field, not only to point us in the right direction of helping teachers recognise how learning difficulties manifest within a classroom environment but also to equip the teachers with the necessary tools, knowledge and pedagogical framework to assist these students to progress and learn.
It is not upon this text to dwell on the reasons why this is happening or why it is receiving so much well-deserved attention and publicity but to look at what is being done in terms of actually helping these students learn.
As Ignacio Estrada once quoted “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
It is in the power of his quote that one can also find the great strides 21st-century education has made in creating flexible and inclusive classroom environments.
The introduction of the Universal Design in Learning aka UDL Guidelines (CAST, 2014) is a widely recognized framework that aims to proactively anticipate and identify students with learning difficulties through specifically designed learning activities and experiences that address the whole class. Its first version came out in 2008 and has since been evolving and enriching its guidelines and principles with the aid of brain science and evidence-based educational practices. Hence, equality.
The Universal Design in Learning brought out its 2nd version (Version 2.2.) in 2018 and took one step further in leveraging the significance and importance of digital technology in fostering inclusive learning environments, in other words, how to integrate multiple options for learner engagement and participation via the use and implementation of multiple means of representation.(CAST,nd)
However optimistic and hopeful this may sound, when dealing with students with learning difficulties this is only the first step in the correct direction.
The diversity and the spectrum of learning difficulties encountered in the modern-day classroom required more. This is where the Multi-Tiered System comes into play.
The Multi-Tiered System Support (MTSS) is a framework organised in a three-tiered structure service delivery, promoting high-quality, evidence-based teaching interventions (Horner et al., 2010). The framework relies on strong core instruction and layered tiers of support with a focus on equity and cultural responsiveness as a means of ensuring student success (Gozali-Lee et al., 2021). MTSS addresses learner achievement gaps in language and behavioural-related areas (Zambrano et al., 2012). There are five essential components of a successful support system; (1) student screening, (2) student monitoring, (3) differentiated instruction in Tier 1, (4) small group interventions in Tier 2, and (5) intensive, individualised interventions in Tier 3 (Jones et al., 2012).
Tier 1 employs Universal Design for Learning as a proactive approach to designing the learning environment and instructional content, as well as Differentiated Instruction for adapting content, process, and product according to learner needs (Tomlison, 2017). Tier 2 is a pull-out programme where students are grouped to receive specialised teaching and practice in demonstrated weaknesses such as phonological processing, phonemic awareness, spelling, and writing. Tier 3 includes completely customised interventions to address persistent student deficits. Learners who do not respond positively to Tier 1 are moved to Tier 2, whereas those whose performance level is not increased in Tier 2 are placed in Tier 3 (Svensson et al., 2018). When conducted with fidelity, the MTSS allows students to return to grade-level expectations (Arden et al., 2017).
This is the depiction of most 21st-century classrooms and their challenges.
Students with learning difficulties have increased in number due to a wide range of reasons or the recent evidence that has come to light has simply made us more aware.
Whatever the case, there are two determining factors that can lead to successful learning taking place in any classroom environment.
The first factor is to create a safe and flexible learning environment which will not only be inclusive in terms of knowledge-based criteria but also inclusive and respective towards cultural diversion, religion and personalities.
The second factor relies on the cornerstone of the learning process, the teacher.
The teaching profession is undergoing a huge transmission itself where the gatekeeper of knowledge, the very epicentre of the classroom, the teacher must now denounce their title and transform themselves.
The 21st-century teacher must invest in their own professional development, comprehend and master the new knowledge and skills and tools in order to become an educator, the one who facilitates the learning process with only one thing in mind. To apply the best practices with the aim of achieving optimum learning outcomes for their learners. They should also be knowledgeable enough to know when they should ask for professional assistance from a special educator.
Only when the shift from teacher-centred classrooms to student-centred classrooms has been achieved and the teachers have evolved into educators will both equity and equality be integrated into the modern-day classroom for the sake of our students’ needs to learn and access education.
The challenges are real and the stakes are high.
The time for action is now!
Arden, S. V., Gandhi, A. G., Edmonds, R. Z., & Danielson, L. (2017). Toward more effective tiered systems: Lessons from national implementation efforts. Exceptional Children, 83(3), 269–280. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402917693565
CAST, (nd). UDL: The UDL Guidelines.
CAST, (2014). Universal Design for Learning: Theory & Practice.
Gozali-Lee, E., Petersen, A., Lee, D., & Hall, T. (2021). Funding for Multi-Tiered System of Supports implementation: Summary of interview findings with Minnesota schools. Wilder Research. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED616753.pdf
Horner, R. H., Sugai, G., & Anderson, C. M. (2010). Examining the evidence base for school-wide positive behavior support. Focus on Exceptional Children, 42, 1-14.
Jones, R. E., Yssel, N., & Grant, C. (2012). Reading instruction in tier 1: Bridging the gaps by nesting evidence-based interventions within differentiated instruction. Psychology in the Schools, 49(3), 210-218. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21591
Robinson, K. (2013). How to escape education’s Death Valley.
Svensson, I., Fälth, L., Tjus, T., Heimann, M., & Gustafson, S. (2018). Two-step tier three interventions for children in grade three with low reading fluency. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-3802.12419
Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Zambrano, E., Castro-Villarreal, F., & Sullivan, J. (2012). School counselors and school psychologists: Partners in collaboration for student success within RTI and CDCGP frameworks. Journal of School Counseling, 10(14). http://jsc.montana.edu/articles/v10n24.pdf
Dimitris has been a TEFL educator and school owner for over 20 years. He has introduced, implemented and promoted many innovative approaches, methodologies and interventions in the Greek ELT market. In 2015, he published “No Homework Framework”, a visionary programme emphasizing classroom learning over excessive home workload. Dimitris has also delivered teacher training on language school management and gamification across the country. He has also been a core team member of TEDxPatras since 2015.