Kalantzis and Cope, Seven Ways to Address Learner Differences

What, then, do we do to bring in the New Learning? Here are seven ways in which we propose that an inclusive education can address lifeworld differences:

1. Know Your Learners

Be able to identify the differences amongst your learners: material, corporeal and symbolic. What are your learners’ demographics? Then, don’t trust first appearances, don’t think that knowing the obvious demographics is sufficient. What are the particularities of each learner’s lifeworld experiences? How do the different dimensions of their difference intersect? Watch out for the unpredictable. Be careful not to stereotype groups. Expect the unexpected. Then consider how you would design for equality. What would it take to meet the needs of each learner – physical infrastructure, organisational structures, curriculum and pastoral care? How do you go beyond formal recognition and affirmation to an active program of inclusion?

2. Create Open Learning Pathways

One response to diversity is to try to do everything but to succeed at nothing – the crowded curriculum or the shopping-mall curriculum. Another is the ‘anything goes’ approach, in which inequality ends up being rationalised as diversity. And still another response is to butt out – education can’t deal with issues of identity because they’ve simply become too big and too hard. It should just stick to core business, the old ‘basics’. Key questions and challenges in the development of an inclusive approach include: How do you develop a flexible approach to delivery that does not require every learner to be on the same page at the same time? How does one negotiate learning pathways that are appropriate to students’ interests and dispositions, without short-changing the disadvantaged by shunting them aside into a ‘Mickey Mouse’ curriculum?

3. Connect with Diverse Lifeworlds

Make points of contact with learners’ lifeworlds. Create avenues for learners to say who they are, and to be who they are. Value what they already know by frequently asking what that is. Ask them to connect new experiences and knowledge with what they already know, think and feel. Not to second-guess the dimensions of difference, open out the curriculum to embrace what learners bring to the learning experience, surprisingly perhaps. Open a window onto their identities and figure out what makes them ‘tick’. By honouring their lifeworlds as places of valid and useful knowledge, a teacher creates the sense of belonging that is central to inclusive education. The paradox of belonging today – to the nation, to the workplace, to the classroom – is that this belonging has to be in your difference.

4. Connect with Different ways of Seeing, Feeling, Thinking About and Knowing the World

Students need to be able to express themselves in the ways they feel most comfortable. They need to be able to create new knowledge in different kinds of ways, depending on what works best for them. Effective teaching and learning in a context of deep social diversity needs to involve multiple and varied pedagogical approaches. This entails different emphases and mixes of ‘knowledge processes’ (see Chapter 7) to suit different ‘learning orientations’.

5. Create Space for Learner Agency

All too often, our institutions and practices of schooling still reflect the frame of reference of the command society. Didactic teaching reflects the communication patterns of traditional classroom discourse, the information architectures of the transmission curriculum or the rigid expectations of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers in conventional tests. These are all oriented to uniformity, or one-size-fits-all education.

The more we take agency into account, however, the more multifarious its manifestations become – material, corporeal and symbolic – and the more complex the matrices and intersections. And to face all these agencies in one classroom! The solution of the command society was one teacher talking at the middle of the class, one textbook telling one narrative, one chapter at a time, one test reporting on student progress towards one way of knowing. The result was assimilation to the middle way, or failure.

A more inclusive approach will recruit learner agency, subjectivity and identity as an energy for learning. This means that the classroom must be very different from those to which we have become accustomed. It must allow alternative starting points for learning—what the learner perceives to be worth learning, what engages the particularities of their identity. It must allow for alternative forms of engagement—the varied experiences that need to be brought to bear on the learning, the different conceptual bents of learners, the different analytical perspectives the learner may have on the nature of cause, effect and human interest, and the different settings in which they may apply or enact their knowledge. It must allow for different learning orientations—preferences, for instance, for particular emphases in knowledge making and patterns of engagement. It must allow for different modalities in meaning-making, embracing alternative expressive potentials for different learners. And it must allow for alternative pathways and destination points in learning. If we could allow this much scope to learner agency, we would allow a thousand differences to flourish at the same time as creating a more powerful sense of inclusion and belonging. It would also mean that learners have more opportunities to jump out of the rut of narrow lifeworld destiny, opening their horizons of possibility and their potentials for self-transformation.

6. Create a Knowledge Ecology of Productive Diversity

Centring educational energies on learner agency in all its variety will also create a new ethics of knowledge creation. Inclusive education changes the direction of knowledge flows so learners and teachers are more actively involved in the construction of knowledge. Learning is a matter of engagement, moving backward and forward between the lifeworld and formally developed or scientific knowledge. When lifeworlds are so varied, diversity of perspective becomes a resource. Learning is most powerful when diverse perspectives are brought to bear. Knowledge construction and learning become all the more potent for their productive engagement with diversity. This is the basis for learning and knowledge ecologies that are very different from traditional transmission models of pedagogy and broadcast models for communicating culture and knowledge. The educational outcome is not content knowledge, or at least not that primarily. It is the development of kinds of persons who have the capacity to learn and act in particular ways. They can navigate change, negotiate deep diversity and make and lead change rather than be knocked about by it. They can engage in sometimes difficult dialogues. They can compromise and create shared understandings. And they can comfortably extend their cultural and knowledge repertoires into new areas. They are tolerant, responsible and resilient in their differences. The key questions for educators, then, are how do these new types of people learn to be themselves? How do they learn to relate with others? And how do they learn how to get things done in today’s knowledge ecologies?

7. Know What your Learners have Learnt

Learner transformation is a central mission of education. It occurs through the extension of the learner’s repertoire of knowledge and capacities. It involves boundary crossing and expanding their horizons in a world of differences. This does not mean having to leave one’s old self behind as was the case in the days of assimilation. Nor is it just a matter of recognising differences and leaving them more or less the way they are. New Learning is about the learner transforming themself and their world. How, then, do we create forms of assessment and evaluation that enable learners to meet high standards and can tell us in meaningful ways how learners have grown through their learning experiences? How do you measure progress in achieving education’s most basic promises, for individuals and the groups to which they belong? The answer is only in part in conventional terms – test results that get you into certain educational sites and that open up certain employment and life alternatives. It also means using innovative assessment and evaluation practices that provide meaningful feedback such as portfolio evaluation, peer review and the personal testimonies of learners.


Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 2009. "Learner Differences: Determining the Terms of Pedagogical Engagement." Pp. 13-30 in Beyond Pedagogies of Exclusion in Diverse Childhood Contexts, edited by S. Mitakidou, E. Tressou, B. B. Swadener, and C. A. Grant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


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