One Education does not fit all: All Students are “ Special”

Author: Mr. Jose Tapia

The Chinese version of this article was published on October 20’s Beijing Youth Daily in A8 page. Below is the english original version. 

In order to have a better understanding of where I’m coming from, let me first introduce myself. My name is Jose Tapia, and I’m a Learning Support Specialist at Beanstalk International Bilingual School. This is my 3rd year working in China as a Learning Support Specialist. Prior to this, I was an Education Specialist in the United States for over 5 years. During this time frame, I have worked with students with behavioral issues, intellectual disabilities, and students with autism/Asperger’s Syndrome. I have seen it all!

I have to say that it has been an exciting career with many ups and downs. Perhaps the most interesting has been the opportunity to compare American and Chinese pedagogies. I must admit that my educational background is purely made up from an American standard, so it might be a bit biased. Having said that, as my career continues to grow in Beijing I’m realizing that these different educational philosophies (American and Chinese) have underlying common foundations.

Placing a Value on Education: We Are on the Same Page

In both cultures, education is valued and highly regarded. Parents in both cultures fight tooth and nail for their children’s education. They want the best programs, the best teachers, and the top-notch facilities. They even invest in specialists like myself to bring forth their skills to help their children. In the past, the only teachers that would get jobs teaching abroad were the core subject teachers (English, Mathematics/Science, Arts/Music). Normally, specialists like myself were not as common in Asia. Other specialists like: Speech & Language Pathologists, School Psychologists, and Occupational Therapists were also a rare profession. However, over the years there has been a shift in the international school setting. Nowadays, more schools are investing in learning support teachers and other specialists.

Here is just one example. Two years ago, I worked in Shanghai. It was there where I joined a brilliant group of professionals that focused on speech and language, occupational therapy, testing & assessments, and other learning support specialties. We were all from different international backgrounds that dedicated ourselves to helping students achieve. I have noticed the same in Beijing. I’m proud to see how parents are coming around to the idea that all students learn differently, and not one education fits all.

Shanghai is not the only city that offers these progressive services. Here at BIBS, we share a similar vision. We “love, care, & support.” In fact the word support is in my job title. I am Learning Support. I’m here to help students learn by presenting the curriculum in ways that they can understand it. I support teachers by helping them address students with learning difficulties. I listen and care for parents when a new curriculum is presented to them, or their child is struggling, or they simple need sound advice on how to work with their student at home.

Another example of how BIBS demonstrates its progressive vision is by providing support services like our school counselor. At BIBS, our school counselor works with students, parents, and teachers on different levels. She supports the administration with scheduling and helping new and current students assimilate to student life at BIBS. She works with students using one-to-one and group dynamics to provide social/emotional support, conflict resolution, and guidance & counseling. In addition, she plays a critical role in facilitating college speakers, university fairs, and aides in the transition process from graduation to university admission within China and abroad. It’s people like her that give this notion of support staff a positive perspective.

To reiterate both cultures place a value on their educational system, and it is a positive reflection on the demand of our services. For example, here in Beijing parents call me, “wechat” me, email me, and even stop me in Solana to ask questions. I don’t mind at all. In fact it makes me happy to help, because for a long time my profession has been regarded as something negative. Parents and students in Asian cultures are beginning to realize that Learning Support is just as important and valuable as General Education and other academic subjects.

Differentiating Instruction: Focusing on Student “Needs” not “Wants”

•Shared from The Educational System Comic: weknowmemes.com. September 10, 2015.

• Shared from The Educational System Comic: weknowmemes.com. September 10, 2015.

Not everybody may be familiar with educational jargon, so I want to take a moment to describe what differentiation means. I always like to explain that differentiation is the process of tailoring the curriculum to meet the needs of the student in order for the student to access the material like the rest of his/her peers. For example, if the student is an English language learner and he has poor English skills, then the teacher may provide appropriate translation. If the student has some type of learning processing disorder, then the teacher might give the student the learning material ahead of time (frontloading). Differentiation is not giving what the student or parents want. It means giving the student what he or she needs. Differentiation means equalizing the learning field; putting the student on the same learning level of that of his/her peers.

I’ve included the above comic to illustrate my point. It’s an excellent description of how our students come to us with different abilities and skill levels. We may ask our students to turn in or complete the same assignment, but we have to consider that not all students are the same. Each student is different with different skill sets and varying ability levels. Some students are more adept to accessing the curriculum that is taught in class. Other students will need more support from the teacher, parent, or learning support specialist. Working together we can help students achieve, become successful, and well-balanced individuals!

As I write this article, I’m listening to the differentiation that is taking place in my classroom. At BIBS, we provide Learning Assistants to help students access the same curriculum. Some of these students need additional assistance and require foundational English support. As I monitor the learning that is taking place, I’m proud to notice that differentiation is taking action. Our students are receiving their education using different learning modalities. For example, some of the material is being translated (most of it is in English of course), “total physical response” is incorporated, technology is being introduced, and the material is taught, rehearsed, and repeated. This is a great example of how we provide a high valued education with a splash of differentiation!

Similarly in the United States, we have Special Education legislation, which mandates public schools to provide students with learning difficulties an appropriate education based on what they need. This means that every student who is identified, as having some type of learning interference, is eligible to receive services to help him/her achieve educational success. The process is facilitated by a team of individuals composed of parent(s), administrator(s), and a learning support specialist. Sometimes, other specialist are involved depending of the nature of the challenges the student may have. A team decision is made on what type of services, and how the student will receive support. As a result the schools in California and across the nation ensure that students are receiving an education that is wholesome and appropriate.

Learning Styles: Celebrating Differences

In the United States, part of our teacher’s education focuses on the theory that students learn in different ways. Some educational scholars have even concluded that students have multiple intelligences (Garner, 2015). For instance, some students are more inclined to be receptive when information is presented in a linguistic (verbal) approach while others are more spatial (visual). Most students have a combination of learning styles (Gardner, 2015). A good educator will keep this in mind while making lesson plans or introducing a new theme/concept or even rehearsing what has already been taught. You can read up more on multiple intelligences by looking up the following link: http://www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/guide/learning/howard_gardner_theory_multiple_intelligences.pdf.

I was a Special Education teacher in California for over 5 years, and a lot of my work involved teaching students with autism/Asperger’s Syndrome. I have to admit that sometimes I learned more from my students than they learned from me. For example, one thing that my students taught me was how to base my teaching style depending on what each student needed. Most students with autism have difficulties with communication/social skills, so we use a visual way of communication. This is one visual representation of how some students with communication difficulties express their wants and/or needs.

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I’ve used similar communication systems here in Beijing and Shanghai. As a Learning Support specialist, I offer my services to various school sites. I had one particular case in which a kindergarten teacher was having difficulties with one of her students. This student had limited English abilities, and couldn’t communicate his wants/needs appropriately. As a result, he would have tantrums and disruptive behaviors throughout the day. I was called in to offer some assistance.

One of the first things I asked was what are some of the student’s favorite items or toys. The teacher mentioned that he prefers highly visual books, cars, toy animals, and crackers. Luckily that day I brought with me some icons that represented “toys” and “snacks.” During our session together the student learned how to say “crackers” and “toy”, and his negative behaviors decreased as well. This was one particular story in which the student used a picture representation of something he liked, and was able to associate the word with the object. Sometimes students need more concrete ways of communicating especially when expressing their wants and needs.

As an international specialist, I’m overwhelmed with joy on how progressive cities like Beijing and Shanghai are developing their international education. They are welcoming more specialists like Learning Support, Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, and School Psychologists/Counselors to work with students on a whole other level. We provide a level of support that helps close the achievement gap and lend a helping hand not only students but to the entire learning community as well. I hope this trend continues as we move education to the next step.

References

  • Shared from The Educational System Comic: weknowmemes.com. September 10, 2015.

Jose Tapia 北青报一文