Things I Know 267 of 365: I got some advice on designing for difference

Last week, I was working on an assignment that asked me to define difference as it related to educational design. From there, I needed to develop my principles of school design. It seemed like the perfect chance to draw on the wisdom of friends, so I sent out an e-mail to some designers I know with the question from my assignment:

What counts, or should count, as a “learning difference” in the organization of learning environments?

The paper ran long, and some of the responses came back after I’d shaped my draft, so I didn’t get to explicitly use their responses. They took the time to craft their responses, though, and I wanted to honor that by sharing them here. My text on the question is at the bottom.

I can’t help but lean towards a student (at the scale of one) having the proactive ability to discern useful resources / flexibility found within a given learning environment, rather than just to assume that clarity will be given to them. Thus, how we set up a student to seek such resources / clues (within a test, within a project, within a team, within a community, etc) may therefore suggest a way to measure (or design for) differences.

– Christian Long

We are going to have an interesting conversation on Thursday at the Goldberg Center on “alternative assignments” for students.  that is, rather than a teacher saying “term paper due on Friday,” the students can devise their own ways to demonstrate their knowledge (we will have one example on Thursday of a student who demonstrated his knowledge by choreographing and performing an interpretive ice dance of a novel he had read…)  I can recall a student once who said to me “rather than an exam, I would much prefer to give a speech to demonstrate what I know.”  I’ve often thought that would be an intriguing way for students to own their learning.

– David Staley

What if one of the first thing a learner did was to design how they would be measured and configure their learning experience to match that and then have that be a part of some sort of public “learning identity” allowing their differences to both set up the parameters for their education and encourage peers to understand each other and connect to one another because of their differences?

e.g. I see from Sally’s profile that she is so good at advanced math that she was able to test out and focus on French history – I wonder if she would consider tutoring me in math and whether we could team up on our French Revolution project?

– Andrew Sturm

Listing the learning differences for which we are accounting, we risk inadvertently neglecting or denying a possible impact of a difference. In thinking about possible differences, it is helpful to appropriate Rosabeth Kanter’s (1993) understanding of difference from “A Tale of ‘O’” in which she defines the normative culture as those who are found in large numbers and those who are different as “the people who are scarce.” Different learning tasks create shifts in populations. In a classroom where students are expected to remain at their desks, a student in a wheelchair could be considered part of the normative culture, while the hyperactive child who squirms and wiggles in his seat looking for any reason to move would appear different. This same group of students on a soccer field during a P.E. class shifts the norms of expected behavior in such a way that the former student now appears different while the latter student becomes normative. Context must be considered when considering the organization of learning.

Non-physical differences can also impact student learning. Personal perception as affected by the stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) or a fixed theory of learning (Dweck, 2000) shift student performance on learning tasks. Unlike those differences described above, these internal differences are not easily perceived, nor should they be presumed in students belonging to one group or another. All possible differences should be counted a differences affecting learning in organizing learning environments. This means subscribing to David Rose’s (2011) rejection of the notion of the standard child, and acceptance of variability as universal.

– me


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