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Aiding Teacher Candidates’ Understanding of Learner Variability

Rachel Besharat Mann will share her experience in translating learning sciences into practice using the Digital Promise Learner Variability Navigator tool during the webinar co-hosted by AACTE, “Learning Sciences Research for the Classroom” on September 26, 2:00 – 3:00 p.m. Below, Mann offers a preview about her experience using the web app for whole child learning.

You can read all of the teaching books and take all of the courses but being in the classroom is a completely different experience. You are working with individual people with varied backgrounds and needs and their behaviors; strengths, and needs can change based on a variety of factors outside of a teacher’s control. There is no roadmap to tell you how students learn differently or even if they are learning at all. This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way over the years and have vowed to help my higher education students avoid the same pitfalls in K-12 classrooms that I did.

Throughout my early career in K-12 settings, I tried a variety of tactics to meet all of the learning needs of my students. While teaching, I decided to go back to school to delve more deeply into the psychology of learning to understand these processes more deeply, not realizing this work would take me out of the classroom altogether. Moving to higher education, first in a teacher prep graduate program and later to an interdisciplinary education studies undergraduate setting, I explored the processes of learning and teaching through new lenses and discovered the Learner Variability Project and the Learner Variability Navigator (LVN).

This tool helps organize the multiple factors that may affect individual learning processes along four domains: cognitive, background, social-emotional, and overarching academic skills (ex. decoding for early literacy). LVN uses empirical research in every facet of development, providing a trustworthy resource for teachers that is incredibly user friendly. You can see each individual factor and find out how this factor is connected to learning within specific age groups and content areas. Arguably, the best part of the LVN is the strategies that are connected to each factor to help support any of the cognitive, social-emotional, and skill factors, and help mitigate any of the negative effects of the environmental or background factors — supported with strong and transparent research. Many of the strategies are things that teachers are doing every day but may not have considered the far-reaching cognitive, social, and emotional impact. The Navigator can help teachers use what they already know to deliberately enhance instruction.

Although I never was able to use this resource in my own K-12 classroom, I have been able to share it with hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students interested in reaching every student. In the first weeks of class, I typically have my students write a quick reflection on what they feel were the strengths and weaknesses of their K-12 experiences, and every semester, I see the frustration of a one-size-fits all approach in schools. As a new professor, I taught the educational psychology 101 course, and introduced the Navigator to support a variety of cognitive and developmental factors, including attention and multiple aspects of memory. Teaching via Zoom during the pandemic, it was astonishing to see the engagement of my graduate students as I walked them through this resource. My students, who were alreadyl incredible teachers in their own right, were lighting up with ideas on how to implement some of the strategies and supports in their own classrooms. Discussions ensued over the course of the semester, much to my delight, as Zoom doesn’t always facilitate the best student engagement.

When I moved to teaching undergraduates, who were not necessarily embarking on a teacher preparation program, but interested in education and teaching, the LVN became even more helpful. Developing my own courses, I was able to embed the tenets of the navigator in a new way. I developed a course entitled Learner Differences: Creating Inclusive Classrooms Using Research that was inspired by the LVN. Throughout the course, we explored each of the domains, beginning with the cognitive contributions to learning then veering into background and social-emotional factors.

Skill based factors, such as how students learn to write or learn phonics, were interwoven throughout the semester. The course met twice a week, so the first session served as an overview of a particular factor, and the second a discussion of applicable strategies related to that factor. For example, I would lecture on attention processes in learning and the second session would serve to explore multiple strategies and generate discussions on how to support attention in the classroom. For certain factors, including attention, we spanned more sessions to address specific learning disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia. I specifically introduced students to the navigator to show them supportive resources for the course and for their final projects, a synthesis project focusing on a factor of their choice.

Students used the LVN to help them with their case studies, finding the best research to support their specific claims. One student explored English language learners with dyslexia and how American schools can adapt to help meet the challenges associated with learning English, particularly within the context of literacy development. Utilizing the Primary Language factor for grades 4-6 and 7-12, this student, put together a beautiful project in which she explored evidence-based strategies and their specific connection to the compounded challenges of learning English and having dyslexia. She looked to the Phonological Processing and Reading Fluency factors to help her illuminate how dyslexia affected typical literacy processes. Outside of the final projects and in-class discussion, many students were volunteers for literacy or math tutoring programs for the local schools. Students met with me regularly for help planning their tutoring sessions and felt the LVN was incredibly helpful with successful tutoring.

Teacher preparation programs have become a focus for many educational leaders and researchers from a variety of perspectives to understand what teachers need to know to reach the students in their classrooms. From my own perspective, now years removed from a fulfilling K-12 career experience, I can say that teacher candidates could benefit from a more in-depth exploration into the science of learning from multiple perspectives. There is no divine mystery to teaching, no hoping everything just clicks for at least one learner in the room. The trick is understanding students on an individual level while at the same time understanding the needs of the collective. Understanding the individual variances in learners can make a tremendous difference in academic outcomes, but also can effect changes in the classroom day to day, creating a space for each learner to bring their whole selves to the table in a supportive and understanding environment. 

Do you want to learn more? Register today for the Translating Learning Sciences Research for the Classroom, September 26, 2:00 – 3:00 p.m.

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